When you think of holidays, you probably think of family.
And that's what makes holidays so tough for stepfamilies. At this time of year, couples in a remarriage with children might be feeling...imperfect. For example, they might be polarized - he misses his kids, while she hopes they won't treat her like the maid when they show up. She wants to buy her 25-year-old's plane ticket to come for a holiday visit - he thinks she spoils her kids and young adults should pay their own way.
Even if they're on the same page about their step/kids, both members of the couple likely find themselves facing plenty of misunderstanding from friends and family as visions of sugarplums dance in our collective heads: "His kids won't be here for the holidays? How come?!" "I can't believe they're going to spend only Christmas Eve with you." "You're not doing holidays with his ex? How come? Isn't that the best thing for the kids?"
In the face of all the pressure and misunderstanding, take heart. Here are 10 simple tips for stepfamily sanity this holiday season.
1. Give up on "blending." Stepfamilies come together in their own ways, and in their own time - experts say four to 12 years! Particularly at holiday time, stepkids of any age may feel their loyalty binds more acutely ("Dad's remarried but mom's not, so I should spend the whole holiday with her"). And sometimes in spite of a stepparent's best efforts, a stepchild may keep his or her distance, taking a "stand" at holiday time. Don't expect your stepfamily to resemble an eggnog smoothie during the holidays and you'll spare yourself and your marriage a lot of aggravation.
2. Let your stepfamily be what it is. One family I interviewed put up two trees every year, because it mattered that much to them all to honor their own traditions. Respecting those differences can help everyone come together in their own way.
3. Know that you and your spouse will probably argue. From deciding how much to spend on gifts for her kids, to reopening old wounds about how the stepkids behaved during holidays past, couples in a remarriage with children are under extraordinary pressure this season. Arguments aren't signs of failure - they're opportunities to communicate. Find communication formulas and tips that work for you in Stepmonster and other books for couples with stepchildren.
4. Keep it normal. Whether they're five or 50, what kids want after divorce and remarriage is a sense of belonging. So skip the red carpet welcome and think "inclusive" and "normal." Give mom or dad some time alone with his or her kids, and then do the things you do every day and every holiday, inviting the kids to join. Let older and adult stepkids help with holiday meal planning and prep, serving, and clean-up. Little ones can make place cards or holiday art for guests. This helps them feel like family, not guests. And when they're pitching in and happy, stepmom/stepdad won't feel as depleted or de-centered by their visit.
5. Choose side by side activities. Puzzles, stringing popcorn, baking, and watching a holiday movie all let you spend time together without interacting "head on," which experts like Patricia Papernow tell us can be more stressful for "steps."
6. 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.
7. Strategize ahead of time. Stepfamilies aren't first families. There may be tensions, and that's normal. Spouses might have to plan out activities and time alone ahead of time. "I think I'm going to need a break tomorrow. How about a long walk together first thing in the morning?" This is not a failure - just a constructive way of adapting.
8. 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 outsider. Give parent and stepparent plenty of one-on-one time with kids and stepkids - and with each other. And don't forget about yourselves as a couple. You need one-on-one time, too.
9. Get out of the house. For stepmothers especially, there can be extraordinary pressure to create that Norman Rockwell aura over the holidays. Before the pressure gets to be too much, get out to see friends and your own family. Take time to pamper, whether it's a spa visit or a coffee with pals who understand and don't judge. Getting out of your own home, away from your stepkids and even your spouse, isn't a sign of failure. It's a necessity, rejuvenating you and helping prevent stepparental burnout.
10. Let go of the guilt. Remember that even first families struggle with unrealistic expectations during the holidays. If things don't go perfectly - if there are squabbles or hurt feelings - have faith that this is normal and won't damage the kids or your marriage irreparably. Stepfamily members are bound to have differences and even blow-ups. By showing your stepkids that people can argue and then move on, you are modeling the kind of resilience that will serve them well for a lifetime. That might be the ultimate holiday gift.
Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., is a social researcher and the author of Stepmonster: a New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do (2009). She is a regular contributor to Psychology Today (www.psychologytoday.com) and blogs for the Huffington Post and on her own Web site (www.wednesdaymartin.com). She has appeared as a stepparenting expert on NPR, the BBC Newshour, Fox News, and NBC Weekend Today, and was a regular contributor to the New York Post's parenting page. Stepmonster is a finalist in the parenting category of this year's "Books for a Better Life" award.
A stepmother for nearly a decade, Wednesday lives in New York City with her husband and two sons. Her stepdaughters are young adults.