Because fifty percent of all first marriages in our country end in divorce or separation (over sixty percent for second marriages), the holidays create unique challenges for step-grandparents. More than one-third of Boomer grandparents will become step-grandparents during their lifetime. Notably, the statistics do not include those families with adult children who never marry their partner or parent of a grandchild. These tricky family arrangements can create landmines when trying to navigate celebratory seasons.
Before offering concrete suggestions on how to ease through this time of year in a blended family, a word about the role of the ‘steps’. Let’s be honest, ‘step’-anything always gets a raw deal thanks to Cinderella. Cinderella and her wicked stepmother have been part of our cultural fabric for centuries. Based on a seventeenth century folk tale about the Cinder Girl, the story describes Cinderella’s deceased, natural mother as a kind and gentle woman (personified by the Fairy Godmother).
In contrast, the story is quite clear the stepmother was mean, haughty and stuck-up. Matters were complicated when she brought her daughters, two insufferable stepsisters, to the marriage. Cinderella’s father has brief mention in the folktale, but he is almost nonexistent in the retelling of contemporary versions of the story.
Of course, we all know how it ends. The Fairy Godmother (substitute mother) intervenes to help Cinderella. Facilitated by the fitting of a magical class slipper, love conquers all. Cinderella marries the prince and escapes the stepmother, her stepsisters and the home where she has been so miserable.
Children in our culture are introduced to this story at a very young age, and any stepparent or step-grandparent trying to overcome this indelible, ugly impression of a family member, not related by blood, fights an uphill battle. Competing with biological grandparents, especially those who are still part of the family configuration, often causes the step-grandparent to feel like the odd person out.
Family celebration scenarios complicate the role of the step-grandparent. As the 2016 holiday season approaches, taking a close look at the role of a step-grandma or step-grandpa is important. Here are concrete suggestions which might help Boomer grandparents or Seniors, challenged by the complexities of stepfamilies, ease through the seasons ahead.
Be Flexible: Fighting with family members over past holiday traditions is a waste of energy. Making the case of that’s the way we always did it has no application in a newly blended family. Why not make your focus the planning of new, creative holiday traditions with the (step)grandchildren at the center? By planning activities during times you control, you will feel less victimized by the circumstances.
Spend Less Money: The holidays are a time when parents and grandparents overspend to compensate for changes in the family. Step-grandparents who want to feel accepted by new family members may too easily rely on material goods to make life better for the children in their lives. Plus, step-grandparents who have experienced a divorce or separation may be reminded of their own unhappy divorces. Those feelings may trigger un-affordable spending and overindulgence. Spending fueled by emotions can raise your stress level. The post-holiday financial hangover will really give you the blues when the bills come in. Plan a manageable holiday budget and stick to it.
Make Time For The Children: Give your youngsters (of any age) plenty of time and attention. Think about your own childhood. Can you remember many gifts you were given growing up? Contrast those memories with those you have of experiences shared with a beloved adult. Because our TIME is the most valuable resource we offer to children, consider free or inexpensive holiday activities in which you can participate or observe.
You can offer to watch younger children while the parents go to a holiday party or need the time to shop. You can take all the grandchildren to a dollar retailer and shop for all their family members. Then conclude the day with a gift-wrapping party.
Laugh: Even though family reorganization may feel disorienting, there is always something to laugh about. Children laugh naturally but the frequency with which humans laugh reduces as we get older. Find your inner child and laugh at something together. Rent an old silent movie, make some popcorn, and spend a couple of hours laughing together until your sides ache.
Family Pictures: If you are taking holiday pictures or videos of your grandchildren, include the step-siblings in the pictures. This includes postings on social media (with parent permission of course). Your goal is to demonstrate little or no favoritism.
Be Happy For Your Grandchildren: As tough as it may be, if they have a good time during a holiday celebration with other family members, tell them you are glad they had fun. Remember your grandchildren always want and need your approval and you want them to be able to share their experiences with you. As long as you are nonjudgmental and not critical they will continue to talk with you about the experiences at their other homes.
Listen To Music: If the incessant holiday music lowers your mood, listen to something else. The fact music influences our disposition is not an accident. There is a reason why more hospitals, dentists and cancer treatment centers are increasing patients’ exposure to music. Music touches the most primitive parts of our brains and changes our disposition. Put on vibrant upbeat music reflective of how you would like to feel.
Happy Holidays everyone.
This blog is an excerpt from I’m Still Your Grandma I’m Still Your Grandpa, a resource for Boomer grandparents when families come apart.