The Holidays: How Stepfamilies Can Be Happier

Stepfamilies often experience extraordinary stress as the holidays--with their pressure cooker of "family" expectations--get underway. So, let go of the Three Big Myths of Stepfamily life.
11/03/2010 11:08am ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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Stepfamilies often experience extraordinary stress as the holidays--with their pressure cooker of "family" expectations--get underway. While they now outnumber first families in the U.S., many stepfamily members report feeling second-best or somehow deficient when our thoughts turn to turkey, yultide, and latkahs. This is due in large part to so many of us unrealistically expecting stepfamilies to be just like first families--super close, ultra-cohesive, and happy, happy, happy.

Sure, plenty of stepfamilies are doing just fine. But knowing that even first family life isn't one Hallmark moment after another can take some of the pressure off, and allow stepfamilies to enjoy their holiday time together more. So can letting go of the Three Big Myths of Stepfamily Life that I explode in my book Stepmonster:

Myth #1: Stepfamilies should look, feel and act just like first families.

Wrong! Stepfamilies are comprised of two linked households, usually have an ex in the picture, and bond best one-on-one versus as a large group. They also bring together different family traditions and histories. One family I interviewed put up two Christmas trees every year, because the kids from each previous marriage wanted to hew to their own ways. And that's okay. Respecting those differences can help everyone enjoy their relationships for what they are, and come together in their own way down the line. That can take plenty of time. So don't even listen to those who don't get it and say things like, "Why aren't his kids coming for the holidays?!"

Myth #2: If you're not blended, you've blown it.

Let this one go--stat--to save your holiday spirit and your sanity. Stepfamilies come together in their own ways, and in their own time--stepfamily expert Patricia Papernow says it can take four to 12 years! Particularly at holiday time, stepkids of any age may feel their loyalty binds more acutely ("If I'm nice to stepdad, daddy will feel upset," or "Dad's remarried but mom's not so I should spend the whole holiday with just her"). And sometimes in spite of a stepparent's best efforts, a stepchild may keep his or her distance, particularly taking a "stand" at holiday time. If you don't expect your stepfamily to resemble an eggnog smoothie during the holidays, you'll spare yourself and your marriage a lot of aggravation.

Myth #3: Visiting kids should be treated like royalty when they show up. Make the holiday all about them.

Skip the prince or princess routine with stepchildren of any age, experts and stepkids alike told me. Whether they're five or 50, what kids want post divorce and remarriage is a sense of belonging. And they don't get that if you turn your life upside down to accommodate and entertain them, as if your living room is Disney World or you are the owner of a five-star restaurant. Give the parents some time alone with their kids, and then do the things you do every day and every holiday, inviting the kids to join in. Let older and adult stepkids help out with holiday meal preparation, serving and clean-up (little ones can make placecards or holiday art for guests). Doing something constructive helps kids of any age feel useful, not awkward or like guests. And the stepparent won't feel as depleted or de-centered by their visit, either. If you need a little alone time--as a stepparent, or as a couple--let the guilt go, and have faith that this won't damage them forever. Far from it. It will actually rejuvenate both members of the couple for more family time, and give the kids a little respite from all the pressures of relating, too--something we could all use during the holidays!

Holiday tips for stepfamilies:

  • Choose side by side activities. Puzzles, stringing popcorn, baking, and watching a holiday movie all let you spend time together without relating "head on."

  • Know your limits. Don't do or give in a way that will increase your resentment. If your stepkids habitually forget to bring anything for you, or have a history of not writing thank you notes, don't go overboard with extravagant gifts and efforts. Let them be your guide to avoid martyr syndrome ("I do and I do for them!") during and after the holidays.
  • Strategize ahead of time. Stepfamilies aren't first families. There may be tensions, and they're normal. That means spouses might have to plan out activities and time alone ahead of time. This is not a failure--just a constructive way of adapting.
  • Remember stepfamily members bond best one-on-one. All-together-now activities can activate stepkids' anxieties about who's an insider and who's an insider. Give parent and stepparent plenty of one-on-one time with kids and stepkids--and with each other.