Mothering and Stepmothering During the Holidays
New Holiday Rituals for Untraditional Families
by I.R. Shapiro
"Joy to the world," the carolers will chorus all during the winter months . . . on street corners, in supermarkets, under your windows. Surely, the stranger in our midst will muse, this must be the happiest of all countries, its residents rich in love and largesse. Holidays seem to overlap holidays. Tables that groaned under plump turkeys on Thanksgiving will reprise the menu at Christmas and Hanukah, even adding luscious roasts and rich fruit-studded desserts.
This is the image of America that will smile at us through perfect white, ortho-dentured teeth throughout the holiday season, on hundreds of TV commercials, thousands of posters, magazine and newspaper ads, on frolicking mannequins in store windows.
This is the image of the American family. BUT THIS IMAGE IS A MYTH!
Let's peek through the window at one family seated 'round the festive table. Grandma (not white-haired and aproned . . . she's probably sporting a chic short haircut and a pretty blouse) . . . has placed a picture-perfect sweet potato and marshmallow casserole on the table. Dad puts some on a six-year old's plate. After awhile, Dad says: "You're not eating your dinner, have some of that yummy sweet potato," and youngster announces, "I don't want it. Mommy says marshmallows are tacky and bad for you."
Dad is upset. Grandma is hurt; new stepmother doesn't know where to look. Disapproval frosts the table. Youngster runs to bathroom, crying, slamming the door.
There is a Very Important Person missing from this scenario. . . the child's absent parent. That's the way it will be this holiday season for almost half the families in the United States. That is the reality! Single-parent families; divorced, non-custodial parents; stepfamilies. For millions of them, the fact is that there will be an absent parent who will take much of the joy out of the feast, and who may not be enjoying the one he/she attends, either.
As the divorce rate hovers near the 50% mark, a most meaningful statistic is that about 80% of divorced people remarry, and all of the children born into the original marriages will either have single or stepparents or both. There are more than 20 million stepparents in the United States, of whom 3l.6% have stepchildren living in the household, while 68.4% have stepchildren living elsewhere.
For these kids, who said it's a happy holiday season? They often wish they could be split in two!
When they're sent to visit the parent with whom they do not live, to celebrate a holiday with people who may be, to them, virtual strangers, did anyone ask them if that's where they wanted to go? Away from friends and neighborhood? If they're older, living on their own, which parent do they choose to be with (and the corollary, which do they choose NOT to be with)? If they and their single parent are invited to friends' homes, there are often multiple conflicted feelings . . . of jealousy (of the "traditional" family hosts); anger at the parents who caused this in the first place; guilt for feeling angry; guilt for feeling disloyal to the parent who isn't there; sadness and frustration.
What to do?
Communicate. Plan ahead. involve the children, and give them choices.
l. Assuming the parents live relatively near each other, they should communicate and talk about options to offer their children. Perhaps children can spend Thanksgiving with one parent in alternating years and Christmas or Hanukah with the other, even if this conflicts with custody arrangements. If parents live really near each other, they could split Thanksgiving into "turkey day" with one parent, and a weekend outing with the other. So be creative! Think Christmas Day as one holiday, and the rest of the week as another. Most communities have ice skating rinks, holiday entertainment in malls, special holiday dinners with music and festive decorations in local inns, tree-lighting ceremonies, brand new movies. Also, giving a youngster a chance to each bring a friend to a celebration will make it more fun and mitigate his aloneness. And if the marriage is an intermarriage, agreement by the parents before the holidays about religious participation, would not only be civilized, but will make life much less stressful for the entire family.
2. Ask the children what they would like to do, but be prepared with other options. Involve them in the planning. GIVE THEM CHOICE.
Consider school activities
If a child's school plans a holiday play, musicale or important game, both parents and stepparents can decide if they want to attend. If you feel uncomfortable, you don't have to sit together. Just don't come in at the same time!
Having parents and stepparents attend an important school function which almost all parents attend, creates an atmosphere of trust for kids. Some experts say that it scares youngsters to see parents reject each other completely. Could they, too, be rejected some day?
If they're traveling a distance for visitation . . .
1. Remember that this may not have been their choice. Realize that the first few times a youngster travels alone, he's apprehensive and scared. Make something important of this trip. Don't make it seem like nothing. That devalues the child's fears.
2. Consider age-appropriate behavior and be prepared. Every child goes through developmental stages and not necessarily by the book. Consider that a 3-4 year old cannot sit through a long dinner, no matter how celebratory. So avoid the consequent fidgeting by arranging a break for him (TV, another child, someone to read to him). Older youngsters also may find the conversation uninteresting, but can be advised to sit through dinner courteously. But beware that another may dominate adult conversation. Either way, criticism for being "tongue-tied" or rude may be interpreted as an implicit criticism of the absent custodial parent. I recall a l7-year old, taken out for dinner by her father, saying: "I was perfect. I made sure to sit up straight, use the right silverware and napkin and eat slowly, so he could see how beautifully my mother raised me."
What about the new step-spouse?
The new couple should talk about the visit in advance and set rules for behavior, for themselves as well as the visiting child (and any of their own additional children). Kids have finely developed antennae to pick up tensions! If a new spouse had never had children, there might be jealousy (and guilt for feeling that way . . .) perceiving that the biological parent is "dancing" to the kids' wishes. Usually, the biological parent DOES want to spend as much time as possible with the visiting child. However, every minute doesn't have to be organized. ACT AS A COUPLE. The key is to normalize behavior as much as possible.
All children should be expected to do for themselves, such as make beds, help with dishes, collect their laundry, pick up after themselves. If they are treated as "guests", they will translate the message as "you're really not part of this family." (It also relieves a stepparent from feeling enslaved. After all, this is supposed to be everyone's holiday!)
That trouble maker, RULES, always injects its ogre-like head into the holiday pleasure. If there are other children in the household, perhaps from a new spouse's previous marriage, all the children in each age group should be expected to observe the same rules.
If the visiting children say that they don't do these things at home, or that they watch TV longer, or whatever, they can simply be told firmly that these are the rules here. Without implying that one set of rules is better than another. (No matter how they react, it is actually comforting to kids to know that they are part of the family system.)
Design new rituals. . . Make new family memories
1. Make changes in the style of the holiday from the way it was before yours became an untraditional family. Some people open gifts Christmas Eve. Others open them Christmas morning. In some homes, everyone decorates the tree. Others do it after kids go to bed. Try a switch from the way the kids remember Christmas when their parents were together. If Hanukah is your holiday, and your children can't be with you for the entire 8 days, be creative. Change the format. Give little gifts throughout one or two days, during or after Hanukah, Make them surprises, and make it fun! There are new tapes and CDs with jolly Hanukah songs. Bring music into the house and see how much more fun everyone will have!
Remember. . . make changes. If the holiday used to be a big family affair and now you are part of a tiny family, everyone could make one dish or one part of the holiday meal. Or go out to a special place to eat. (And remember to let a single youngster invite a friend). Change something -- dinner time from evening to early afternoon, or vice versa. Do your homework to find something special for older teens -- a relevant museum show, a local play or ice show, a popular TV game, or just old-fashioned horsing around together.
2. Make a brand-new ritual, especially if the kids spend "the" day with the other parent. Make a turkey or a roast anyway, and on the weekend, on New Year's Day, invite friends in for an informal buffet and a scrumptious Sweet Holiday dessert table. Kids would love 3 or 4 kinds of ice cream and many choices of toppings for do-it-yourselves sundaes. And surprise! Grownups will love it too.
3. Start new memories! Buy a new photo album. Get Polaroid film, in your own camera or splurge on disposable ones. Everyone gets to take pictures. There will be lots of laughs over the candids that will turn out. Before the holiday is over, the youngsters are given time to place pictures into the album (with written comments?) Or make a videotape of holiday doings. Or use the newest technology to shoot and get them right on your computer. Just don't be too serious about it. Give the kids a chance to mug and talk to the camera.
This year's holiday may be difficult, but it will prove to be a great investment for the future. Reviewed in a photo album or in a videotape next year, it will give the new "untraditional" family new shared memories and new traditions.
Irene Shapiro directs Family-Therapy-Center.com. She's a psychotherapist practicing in New York, and specializes in relationship issues of all kinds.
This article first appeared on her site, and is reproduced with edits by the author's permission.