Articles

Dreaming of a Peaceful Christmas in Your Stepfamily?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

...or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa? The only way to trim holiday angst is to make new traditions and keep some old.

By Elizabeth Einstein

(This article is re-printed from reMarriage magazine, Fall 08.)

Shortly after the long-needled spruce went up in the family room, the trouble began. The holiday tree was anchored in its stand, but stood bare for several days. Opinions on decorating styles, it seemed, were anchored as well, along traditional family lines. As the arguments swirled over tree decorations, they spilled over into what was the perfect time to open gifts: Christmas Eve or Christmas morning?

What a start to this stepfamily’s first Christmas together! Robert and Liz had married in late fall, and now, just weeks after settling into a new house, the holidays were upon them. He was widowed with four children under 12; she was divorced with two teenage daughters. Although everyone seemed excited about the new family they were building, the stress created from so many changes was mounting.

Now they were staring straight at their differences, about how holidays were to be celebrated—and especially how a decorated tree was supposed to look. In a Solomon-like moment, the family decided to divide the tree into two sections, with each group doing their “traditional” things.

That first stepfamily holiday decision became a family legend that still elicits laughter every time they tell it. Over the years, as they began to feel more like a family, all the members made a commitment to compromise. Rather than a his and hers concoction, this stepfamily created their first ours tree—complete with all the sentimental items and new acquisitions.

Because Robert’s older two children remained tied to stringing popcorn and cranberries and his younger ones insisted on making colorful paper chains as they always had, those old-fashioned decorations festooned their side, Liz and her daughters wouldn’t hear of not using the beautiful ornaments they had collected from their travels. Each shiny globe evoked happy memories for them. And a new tradition emerged: selecting that one special ornament during a family vacation. Because the children had to negotiate which one to buy, their compromises reflected forward steps on their stepfamily journey.

Skirting Holiday Landmines

Memories and traditions are important to all families, but when holidays arrive, remarried families start with several strikes against them. Roots are fragile. Happy memories are fading. Stepfamily members share no common history. Individual traditions may differ vastly and people cling to them for what they represent; giving them up feels like yet another loss. The most important thing is to meet them head on. Acknowledge up front that things are going to be different.

Robert and Liz’s tale is repeated in remarried families everywhere; only the scenarios differ. Add a multi-ethnic remarriage and the learning curve grows. Aunt Nina always expects to have the first night of Hanukkah. Are the stockings hung or laid on the hearth? Where will the Kwanzaa celebration happen? Will Mom let us borrow the unity up (Kikombe cha Umoja) or should we get a new one? Whether adopting a new appreciation for the traditional African celebration of values or celebrating a totally new holiday, each scenario asks the question: What will our new stepfamily values be?

  • The holiday itself. Christmas or Hanukkah? Kwanzaa or Christmas? Both?

  • The Christmas tree. Live or artificial? Cut down, buy one to plant after the holiday, or return to a favorite corner stand?

  • Decorations. New modern menorah or family heirloom? Handmade tablecloth from your grandmom or mine?

  • Dress. Dressy or casual?

  • Food. “What do you mean we’re having turkey? My mom always makes ham decorated with cherries!”

  • Gift and gift-giving. One special expensive item or many smaller gifts? Give to each other or to charity? When do presents get opened? Robert’s younger children always awoke to presents in the morning after Santa’s delivery; Liz’s daughters liked a Christmas Eve ritual so they could sleep in late. Their compromise was opening packages that the mail carrier had delivered in the evening, with Santa’s and the rest on Christmas morning.

Solutions and compromises are there, but working out differences takes advance planning and time. Waiting to open boxes of “his” and “hers” ornaments until it’s time to trim the tree is courting trouble.

Long before the holidays arrive, begin talking about how things were done in former families—and why. “We always used that menorah because it once belonged to our great grandmother in Germany.” Perhaps the decision to get the dreaded artificial tree makes sense when the other side understands it as a green statement—“to save real trees.” Discussions about the emotions behind a tradition can start family members thinking about creative compromises. Sharing traditions, including the ones that still hold warm memories, motivates family members to become more sensitive to each others’ ways and needs. There is no “right” or “wrong,” just raw emotions and long-held beliefs. When it comes to traditions, judging the other way as “wrong” only hurts feelings and hinders stepfamily bonding.

It’s surprising to realize that traditions sometimes are repeated when, in reality, they lost their significance long ago. It might not be so bad to start some new ones.

Visitation Revisited

Pressures are never higher than when discussing who gets the kids during the key holiday moments, whether it’s the annual seder or the Easter Egg hunt. And nowhere does communication become more critical than when clarifying visitation schedules during these supposedly “happy” times.

The already complex family situation is multiplied with remarriage, with stepdads and ex-wives and multiple grandparents all wanting a piece of the action. Imagine this difficult scenario for young children. After sharing Christmas Eve with their mother, Fred awakens his children early because he’s booked them into five 2-hour visits: breakfast at Grandma Helen’s, snack and gifts at Aunt Betty’s, Christmas dinner at Grandma and Grandpa Ellstrom’s house, late afternoon with Fred’s mom before going to supper at Aunt Sarah’s. Is it any surprise that the children are cranky and tired before they even get to the last grandma’s house? By that point, they don’t even care about more presents and have no idea who gave them what loot. They whine and want to go home. All that chaos and they haven’t even had their own stepfamily celebration yet!

Because holidays are emotionally charged, too often what is meant to be a joyful time becomes more terrible than terrific. A better stress-reducing solution would be to plan several celebrations so everyone can truly enjoy each special time. Because December 25 is merely a calendar date, stretching out the festivities can make them more meaningful to everyone.

Although children of divorce deal with many challenges, they aren’t unhappy about all the extra holiday dinners, presents, and attention they get from their new extended family, say researchers. According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Professor Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr., who studied the effects of the extended family on the stepfamily, the key is how well adults handle the situation. Resolving differences with their former spouses and refusing to use the children to settle differences mirror what’s possible in stepfamily living.

Sure, you might have to cook an additional turkey or take another day off, but keeping schedules simple is the secret to a successful holiday.

Looking for Enriching Times

As youngsters travel great distances to be with their other parent, holiday success rests with the adults in both households.

At one end, the children need to be prepared. Acknowledge their feelings and let them know you feel good that they can be with their other parent. Keep any sadness you feel to yourself.

The receiving parent needs to help the children feel comfortable with the transition during this sensitive time. Remember that some children—especially teenagers—would rather be with familiar friends and surroundings. Get them involved in the new experience; avoid treating the kids who don’t live with you year-round as guests. “Hey, Alex, your dad tells me you make great popcorn balls. Would you do that for us while you’re here?” Giving them small responsibilities can make them feel a part of creating the holiday, too—and more a part of your household.

Holidays can be an enriching time for children of remarriage. As youths move between two families, and many travel to new places, stepchildren may meet new people and gain new experiences. Teenager Jenifer says she likes going to her dad’s place in St. John’s the day after Christmas with her dad and stepmother. “It’s cool because one day I am out cross-country skiing with my brothers in New York and the next afternoon I’m out sailing with my dad in the Virgin Islands.” Like Jenifer, who adapted to not being with her mother the entire Christmas week, children can learn to become more adaptable and flexible.

More role models from a greater extended family offer new beliefs, attitudes, and skills. Jenifer’s father recalls how his own creative father loved to paint but couldn’t nail a bird house together. His stepfather’s hobby involved sailing and woodworking. “Learning all that from him led me to become a carpenter and to living on a sailboat. It’s great to have a spare dad,” he says.

For most of us, the holidays are a time of expectations. Unmet ones account for much of the disappointment, sadness, and postholiday depression that people in all families experience. An emphasis on planning ahead and creating realistic holiday expectations will prepare remarried families to receive the gifts the holidays offer. When hopes and dreams are balanced with reality, a joyful exchange of sharing old traditions while making new ones can provide a festive foundation for the stepfamily’s future. And it just might skirt some of those holiday landmines.

Elizabeth Einstein, LMFT, is a nationally known marriage and family therapist. An award-winning author and coauthor of a new teach-out-of the box program, Active Parenting for Stepfamilies, she trains professionals to work more effectively with stepfamilies. She lives in Ithaca, New York.


New Stepdads and their Role in the Blended Family

Friday, August 10, 2012

New Stepdads and their Role in the Blended Family

A Candid Look at Expectations, Growth Pains and Success

By Craig Gaspard 

I’ll have to admit that when I became a stepfather, the day I married my wife Terry – in May of 1997 – I really had no idea what I was getting into. I was a stepfather (briefly) for three years in my first marriage. But, I was never a father before, and at the ripe “young” age of 42, I was thinking that I was somehow going to “get by” and become accepted, primarily because I had married their mother. I was in for an awakening, not “rude” mind you but eye-opening nonetheless.

In my mind, “get[ting] by” was being nice, not making waves or expecting too much of Sean, who had just turned 13, and Tracy who was soon going to be 11. But as the weeks turned into months, the challenges of the role became more apparent. Comments like “you’re not my father” served as challenges to any authority I tried to impose, even as innocently as “could you please put this [or that] away.”

For about three years, our newly formed family went through some growing pains that included having our own child Catherine, who, in the beginning, was seen as a threat to take away their mother’s attention.  Holidays, vacations and birthdays seemed to be about one-upmanship. But, even before those three years were up, some helpful changes occurred that helped.

Different from a biological parent, a major thrust of being a stepparent I’ve learned is to be a friend on some level. Not like a school friend, but an adult friend more akin to being a guidance counselor. Inviting my stepson not only to go on summer vacations, but to also share my love of fishing with him helped in the friendship process. It was more challenging to be a friend to my stepdaughter, a naturally shy person. But to attend some of her basketball games and supporting her need for one-on-one time with Terry helped with this. This takes time, years really.

Presenting a united front with Terry supporting my suggestions or requests (if reasonable) was helpful. This did require respect, caring and perhaps love. These latter two are “earned” from the point of view of the stepchild.  Caring and respect are especially important, cannot be rushed, and are granted over time. I think it must take time because as in most relations between unrelated people, trust has to be built. Even though Terry ‘s and my relationship and eventual marriage happened nearly three years after her divorce was finalized, that still is very soon in the eyes of children. Too soon to not be seen as a “competitor” with their father on some level.

Let me end by identifying some key points:

  • Stepparents had best proceed slowly.
  • Just because things went well when you were dating the biological parent, does not ensure things will go smoothly once you’re a committed couple.  A marriage effectively ends any hope of their mother and father reunifying and can reignite those feelings of loss for the children.
  • Take your time in getting to know a stepchild. Rushing it may satisfy your own unmet needs to be liked. Sharing common interests, from sports and arts, can do nothing but help.
  • As much as possible, stay out of interactions between biological parents working out holiday or vacation schedules. And especially, try to be courteous and respectful of the “other parent”, keeping in mind that (likely) neither parent would have chosen having their children live with them part-time.
  • Cooperate with the biological parent living with you, and talk, talk, talk.

 

This article is a reprint of an article posted on Terry Gaspard’s blog on http://movingpastdivorce.com. The author, Craig Gaspard, LICSW, MPA, is a clinical social worker with over 20 years of experience, primarily in the substance abuse treatment and prevention fields. He has also worked in the affordable housing and homeless services and administered a family mediation program. He is beginning anew as a family and divorce mediator in Rhode Island. 


Spotlight on Stepdads

Friday, June 15, 2012

Spotlight on Stepdads:

An Interview with a former Stepchild, current Stepdad and StepGrandad…

In honor of Father’s Day here in the month of June, let’s give a round of applause for one of the most unsung heroes out there: stepdads.

I recently interviewed a stepdad who grew up as a stepchild and is now a stepgrandad. He’s a successful licensed family therapist specializing in stepfamily relations, and is RemarriageWorks’ very own advice columnist: Chuck Semich.

Today, I’d like to offer you some highlights from that interview, particularly Chuck’s top 3 pieces of advice for stepdads. These are some nuggets of wisdom that can help stepdads gain some insight into their own expectations that they may be bringing to their blended family and their experiences as a stepdad, as well as help their wives see what it’s like to be in a stepdad’s shoes.

Paula:

What are your top 3 pieces of advice for stepdads, such as new stepdads—newly  remarrieds, in particular?

Chuck:

I have some very strong opinions on that, from hard experience and learning—I hope—from my own mistakes!

I would say my top 3 pieces of advice are as follows:

1-    Let their mother do the parenting. Don’t try to change the rules or impose your own standards and values. If you don’t agree on how she’s handling things, make suggestions, not demands—and do it privately. Say something like, “You might want to try this…” or “Maybe this will work…” If she decides not to follow your advice, be graceful about it.

2-    This is extremely important: never force your wife to choose between you and the kids. That should always be a non-issue. She is a wife and a mother, and she should be free to function in both areas, in both roles, and never forced to make a choice.

3-    Work on your relationship with each of your wife’s children: spend time with them, take an interest in what they’re doing, ask them if there’s anything or any way you can be of help to them. Be a consultant, not a disciplinarian. Good relationships aren’t built overnight; they take a long time, even years.

Paula:

What if a family has kids that are a little older and they don’t want to have anything to do with the stepparent? What if the kids say no? Let time roll by and hope for the best, or are there things you can do in the background?

Chuck:

It’s a real challenge. I think at some point, the stepfather might want to make a statement to the kids and say something like, “I know we haven’t really hit it off, but I hope over time we can have a good relationship, and I’m here if you need anything.”

Also, be a very good husband to their mother. I notice that my stepchildren were really impressed with our relationship, they told me that many times. And I know that they felt good about the fact that someone really loved and took care of their mother. I think that’s important.

And of course, maybe you’ll never be real close or friends; it’s something you don’t really have a lot of control over. You can take the high ground and you don’t need to take it personally, even though it does hurt sometimes.

To hear the interview in its entirety, go to: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/thestepmomstoolbox/2012/06/05/remarriageworks-top-secrets-of-stepfathers

 



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