For many families, Christmas time requires a lot of planning as people try to get everywhere they need to go. When you add in a stepparent and stepchildren, the complications can reach a whole new level.
“The holidays can be hard enough,” said Joan Painter, who leads DivorceCare at Shawnee Alliance Church with her husband Allen Painter. “It just gets tougher when you have to deal with the loneliness and sharing.”
Joan and Allen Painter are both divorced with adult children and grandchildren, so they know that the holidays can get a little tricky and sometimes, divisive.
“There are often four or more households competing for time with kids, stepkids and grandchildren,” said William Scherger who along with his wife Lori Scherger, leads Smart Steps, a seven-week course for couples who are looking to create healthy stepfamilies at Lima Community Church. “The competition factor can weigh heavily on all involved.”
However, there are some things that couples can do to make the holidays easier for everyone involved.
Plan and communicate
Planning ahead for the holidays and communicating that plan before the holidays even begin heads off misunderstandings and hurt feelings for everyone involved.
“You really have to plan in advance,” said Allen Painter. “That way, it doesn’t hit them like a ton of bricks. You want to sit down and talk to your families before the holidays, not in the middle of them.”
It is important to realize that new traditions may also have to be put into place.
“When you are trying to blend two families together,” said Joan Painter, “anything you’ve done in the past — you may as well throw that out. If this is your first year as a new stepfamily make sure you don’t overspend, don’t compete with the ex-spouses, expect the unexpected, and plan ahead.”
There is also the reality that a divorced parent may spend a holiday without his or her children. It’s important to be prepared for that, too.
“Prayer is one way to deal — keep yourself busy,” said Scherger. “Try to focus on the time you do have together, and understand this is your reality. When all else fails — spike the eggnog. I’m just kidding.”
Communicating your plans to all the parties involved is also very important.
“You have to be firm and communicate what you can and can’t do,” Joan Painter said. “We try to prioritize the grandchildren and be fair. Not everyone gets what they want all the time.”
Acknowledge past traditions
While it is important to build new traditions, it is also important to look at traditions that are very important to each family.
“You have to be sensitive to what they are used to,” explained Joan Painter. “Al’s family celebrates Easter and it is a big deal. For me, Thanksgiving and Christmas are what I save all my vacation days for. It’s one of those things I will die for, but Al doesn’t understand that because that’s not the way his family does it.”
“Everyone tends to think their prior traditions are the norm,” added Allen Painter.
Scherger suggested trying to maintain some traditions, but be open to new ways of doing things too. “Honor the traditions of your household without criticizing the traditions in the other household,” he said. “Maintain what you can and be willing to introduce new things.”
Let go of unrealistic expectations
No matter how much parents want the holidays to go smoothly for their children, the reality is that things probably won’t be perfect.
Allen Painter noted that expecting the unexpected is important. Scherger added that being flexible and letting go of unrealistic expectations can take a lot of pressure off everyone.
“You really need to start with a lot of give and take, a lot of flexibility,” said Scherger. “It takes time — years really. Your normal may not ever look like a traditional normal. It’s okay to grieve that loss. Realize holidays don’t look like the holidays of a traditional family, so don’t expect them to look the same.”
Be the adult
Although the ideal is that everyone will be cooperative about planning the holidays, the reality is that sometimes communication between ex-spouses can be difficult and even hostile.
“The important thing is that you keep the kids out of it,” said Joan Painter. “You have to expect the ugliness and realize that the underlying problem — unforgiveness, resentment, addictions — that is still there.”
Added Scherger, “You must think of others, not solely on what you want.”
That can be hard to do when a person is used to Christmas looking a certain way, but sometimes, one person has to choose to be the flexible one, even if it is hard.
“If relationships with your ex are not friendly, negotiating time can be very difficult,” said Scherger. “Always put the best interests of your children first. Holidays are an especially good time to ask, ‘Do you hate your ex more than you love your kids?’”
When: Today, 1 to 3 p.m. — special session on surviving the holidays after divorce; 6:30 to 8 p.m. Jan. 9 — new 13-week session starts
Where: Shawnee Alliance Church, 4455 Shawnee Road, Lima
Details: www.divorcecare.org or www.shawneealliance.com
What: Smart Steps
When: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. April 2 to May 14
Where: Lima Community Church, 2945 N. Cole St.
For details call 419-234-2451 or email firstname.lastname@example.org