The Key to Celebrating Holidays with Multiple Family Loyalties
“You hear a lot of dialogue on the death of the American family. Families aren’t dying. They’re merging into big conglomerates.”
~ Erma Bombeck
They are called stepfamilies, blended families, reconstituted or reconfigured. The modern family often includes multiple people from multiple relationships. More than any other time of year, holidays highlight the departure from what has been seen as the “traditional” family.
As with most things, this can be an affirmation of successful reconfiguration of one’s family or a reminder of all the things that were, and perhaps still are, wrong. For most, it’s a complicated mix of regrets, relief, anger, sorrow and joy.
For most, it’s how the adults manage the situation that determines the health and safety of the heart part of the new configuration of the family.
However committed, enthusiastic, and in love new partners may be, the children who share heredity with only one member of the couple have a different experience and therefore different feelings about the season than the adults. It’s important to remember that in the vast majority of cases, the children of divorce didn’t want it. They often worry that they’re at fault. They have competing loyalties to both parents. They often wish there were a way to get their original family back to whatever they experienced as “normal.”
However wonderful mom’s or dad’s new partner may be, they are prepared not to like him or her. They often grieve their former family quietly — or not so quietly — for years. As a result, they are often even more ambivalent and conflicted about holiday traditions than the adults. While the adults are enthusiastically trying to make the holidays bright and joyful, the children may find it a painful time of revisited loss of the actual family that was or the myth of how the family might have been if only…
The key to transitioning to a different sense of “family-ness” is flexibility on the part of adults. Adults, being the adults, need to respect their children’s reluctance and understand where it’s coming from. By tuning in and being flexible about how holidays are celebrated, the adults can help create new traditions that nurture the heart of the new “conglomerate” called their family in all its complexity.
Be Flexible about Dates
For some, it’s a radical idea: Dates aren’t important. Feelings are. When children are caught in the debate of who “gets” Christmas morning or Hanukkah first night, the time with whoever “wins” is shadowed by the knowledge that they have left the “loser” alone. When both parents insist on having the kids be part of Christmas Day or when kids are expected to eat a huge meal at two Thanksgiving dinners, the kids often end up overwhelmed and emotionally and physically exhausted.
Lighten up. Holidays are only 24 hours long. But the season lasts a couple of months. Everyone can have a holi-DAY. Alternate years for the actual holiday if you must, but don’t make the day with the other parent seem like a second-rate event. It’s not. It’s that parent’s special day with the children.
Be Flexible about Traditions
The adults may want to start new traditions for the new family. But kids are stubborn little creatures who thrive on predictability and sameness. Consider which traditions can be transferred to the stepfamily scene. If there are kids from both former marriages, help the children from each side introduce one or two special traditions to the mix. Then add a new tradition or two that isn’t tied to a particular family or a particular day.
A visit to Santa or a ride to view neighborhood lights can happen any time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Making candles for the menorah can happen any time before Hanukkah. Making and sending greeting cards can be a family event that happens well before the holiday week. Creating new traditions like these doesn’t compete with the children’s enjoyment of their other parent’s celebration and are part of defining the new family’s sense of “us.”
Be Flexible about Who is Defined as Family
Those who divorce well separate without hatred or rancor. They agree that they couldn’t keep the marriage going but feel no need to revisit the conflicts and pain that caused them to part. They keep their children out of the middle and appreciate what the other parent has to offer. Yes, it does happen.
For such families, it’s not a stretch to create some moments in the holiday season where everyone can be in the same place at the same time. Mom, her new partner, his kids, her kids, her kids’ father and new partner and her kids, can get together to do something low-stress like attending an event together or volunteering to help at a charity. Such activities bring the people together but don’t require one group to host the other.
When the adults can manage this, the children are reassured that they won’t lose anyone from their sense of family. They are given “permission” to add people to their list of people who love them. They can love and be loyal to each parent without fearing the loss of the other.
Be Flexible – Even if You Don’t Want to Be
Unless your former partner has abused the children, they can and should have a healthy, loving relationship with each other. No matter how hurt and angry you may be with your former spouse, no matter how much you hate him or her for what was done that made staying married impossible, no matter if child support isn’t coming as regularly as it should or if your former partner is irresponsible about finances, no matter how threatened your current partner is by the kids’ relationship to their other parent — those are the adults’ problems, not your children’s.
Separate flexibility around honoring the holidays from unfinished emotional, psychological, or financial matters that were part of your divorce. If you refrain from making negative comments about their other parent and support the children in having a positive relationship with him or her, they will eventually figure out on their own just why the divorce was necessary. They will love you for not making them into unwilling allies in your fight and for giving them support in staying solidly connected to their other parent too.
The holidays only underline the issues that go on all year. Children of their parents’ divorce, separations, and re-partnering are going along for a ride that most would not choose. It’s up to the grownups to be grown up. Making the holidays bright for children means doing whatever it takes to keep the focus on their needs. Not surprisingly, doing that also warms the family heart.
There’s many more like it in
Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker’s amazing holiday coping e-book
from Psych Central Press:
Tending the Family Heart
Through the Holidays
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Hartwell-Walker, M. (2012). The Key to Celebrating Holidays with Multiple Family Loyalties. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 3, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/11/25/step-blended-reconfigured-making-holidays-bright-for-kids-with-multiple-family-loyalties/