From Horridays to Holidays — Tips for Step"families"

Published by Wednesday Martin

It's holiday time. And when we think holidays, we think family. Of course today, "family" is increasingly likely to refer to stepfamilies, the fastest growing domestic arrangement in the US and Great Britain.

It helps, at holiday time, to remember what everyone else seems so unaware of....step"families" are not first families. Using a first family map for stepfamily life, one expert told me, is like using a map of Boston to get around New York — you'll get turned around and lost!

Here are just a few reasons you should not expect your step"family" to act, feel or be "just like a 'real' family" this holidays season:

  1. Stepfamilies span two and even more households and transitions between the households are potentially upsetting for kids and grown ups alike
  2. There is a deceased or ex spouse in the picture which can lead to loyalty binds for kids of any age, and subsequent acting out
  3. First families bond as a group, so all-together activities are great for them, while stepfamilies bond dyadically, or one-on-one. Big all-together activities on the other hand can activate stepfamily members' anxiety about who is an insider and who is an outsider
  4. In stepfamilies, the age gap between stepsiblings or half siblings can be very great, almost a generation's difference
  5. With steps, unrelated people often live in the same household, or are expected to conduct themselves and feel "just like family." Relationships grow and change and deepen over time, but a first family standard is unrealistic!

None of these facts make step"families" second best! They just make them different. Steps often outpace first families on key measures of success such as flexible and respectful behaviors and independence. Given the differences, here are some tips to help you enjoy your holidays with your husband or partner and stepkids — whatever your "family" system looks, feels and acts like.....

  1. Lose the "blended family" expectation. In fact, if it helps, drop the "family" expectation. Unrealistic and inaccurate, and sets you up for feelings of failure. Instead, enjoy the gathering for what it is and accept that the relationships are what they are. Maybe you feel very close to his kids, but maybe you have more of a polite friendship. Even if his kids are stand-offish, with your partnership strong, a whole range of possible relationship with his kids are fine.
  2. Don't try to make a "blended" holiday. I love the story about the steps with two different Xmas trees under the same roof. No one was forcing these kids — whose ages spanned babyhood to early twenties — to blend like egg nog. They got to share one another's family traditions, teach each other about each other's family histories, and be together in a non-threatening way.
  3. Allow steps to bond their way. Rather than forcing big gatherings of everyone, take one on one time. Your husband or partner can spend some time alone with his son while you and his daughter play cards or run an errand. Your daughter and his daughter can cook or bake together while you and your partner go for a walk. And so on.
  4. Do shoulder-to-shoulder activities, not eye-to-eye ones. Puzzles, stringing popcorn, even setting the table together can bond steps in small, non-threatening ways, forging a connection naturally in a way that an eye-to-eye conversation never could. It's easier...try it!
  5. Get everyone to help out. So many women with stepkids tell me that at holiday time, they feel like maids, hosting and cooking and getting no thanks. Stop creating the opportunity to feel like a maid. Take away the chance that you'll feel resentful! Your husband can cook for or with his own kids. You can order in. Adult stepkids can bring food for a potluck and help with cleanup. Little kids can set the table, make place cards, etc. In this way you are less depleted and your step kids feel like family, not "special guests" in your home.
  6. Bulwark. Stepparents especially often report feeling like "outsiders" at holiday time. For the holiday gathering with his kids, surround yourself with YOUR supportive friends and family as well. If you know your best girlfriend will be at the holiday dinner, you will look forward to it. And your stepkids will likely enjoy some extra guests around — it makes things livelier and more interesting, and takes the pressure off steps to be 'relating' every second. Plus there's a better chance, with your friends and family around, that everyone will behave! And did I mention that you will feel supported rather than on the outside?
  7. Take time for yourself and your marriage or partnership. Meditate, go for a walk, get a manicure. Anything that feels indulgent and pampering and reviving will help you ward off stepfamily tsuris and stress. And even if you and your husband just get out to run an errand together, it's together time you deserve and need, and will help you both deal with step situations and step complications (let's face it, they're normal!) better.