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The Post-Holiday Blues In Stepfamilies

In stepfamilies, big holiday expectations can lead to big disappointment--and post-holiday blues, says Susan Wisdom, a licensed professional counselor and co-author of "Stepcoupling."

As a stepmom, I know about expectations. Every year, just before the holidays, I start thinking about how to recreate Christmas Eve at my grandmother's house. In her big two-story home, my family and I crowded into her dining room and kitchen with about two dozen relatives. We munched on turkey, cranberries and dressing, then topped off the meal with my grandma's home-made cookies. With my 14 siblings and cousins, I played board games while my dad and uncles stomped around on the roof, yelling "Santa's coming!" much to our delight.

With these memories, it's easy to begin the holidays with huge expectations about what I want for my stepfamily. And it's easy to end the holidays with some sadness over how difficult it was to re-create the magic of my childhood.

"There are so many expectations and the hype is so big," says Wisdom. "It can be a real setup. In reality, Christmas is not perfect in traditional families. There's a lot of stress."

If your family is like ours, you may spend a lot of time negotiating with ex-spouses over who gets which kids--and when-- during the holidays. And if you family is like ours, you may be disappointed when kids announce they've already decorated two Christmas trees at their step-relatives' and refuse to do one more. Or they may arrive at your house exhausted from their "first" Christmas at the "other" house and may prefer napping to opening gifts.

In addition, a stepchild may reject a stepparent, Wisdom says. Adults may drink too much and behave in ways they later regret. A child's biological parent may complain that a stepparent has more money to spend on gifts, creating tension between a child's two homes.

As Shauna Haley, a stepmom in Portland, Oregon, says, "The holidays this year were such a painful reminder of our stepfamily situation-and how little influence I have on my stepdaughter's life." Her stepdaughter lives in another state, and only visited for a few days after Christmas this year. Haley had big dreams over how she would spend those few days with her stepdaughter, then was crushed when her dreams weren't realized and her stepdaughter was homesick.

To help stepfamilies cope with such disappointment, Wisdom recommends that parents begin by doing some "patch up work" after the holiday season. Talk to your spouse, ex-spouse and children about the issues that came up during the holidays.

"Reach out to your own children and each other's children. Understand what they were dealing with. Forgive them for fights or bad attitudes or moments of sibling rivalry that happen during the holidays under stress," Wisdom says. "Stepcouples need to be available to each other and to the children more than ever. This can be a hard time. Make amends, make apologies."

If parents find it difficult to talk with ex-spouses, this may be a good time to go to counseling with ex-spouses about the many issues that come up during the holidays, she says.

After trying to discuss the holidays with everyone involved, parents in stepfamilies should examine their expectations and consider toning them down next year. Wisdom recommends:

  • Keep it simple. Don't stress out. Perfectionism is not the goal. Peace and serenity are more important!
  • Don't over-commit. Your kids need you--not the 25 gifts you don't have time to wrap. Don't overload on activities, food and drink.
  • Plan ahead. Talk with your spouse about how you want to celebrate next year. Talk with your children's other biological parents about how to share holidays with your children.
  • Coordinate with ex-spouses over gift giving.
  • Keep old traditions and establish new ones.
  • Be flexible and cultivate a sense of humor. Laugh about the time your dog lapped up the spilled pudding!

In an effort to follow the above advice, I try to joke about the fact that my 16-year-old prefers his stepmom's cooking during the holidays. "She bakes pies and lets me eat milk products," he likes to tell me, with a smile in his eyes. Rather than donning an apron and gorging my son with sweets and allergy-producing foods, I remind him of the time my holiday squash cannon-balled out of the oven! That memory always makes us laugh, which is indeed a great antidote to the post-holiday blues.

Writer Lisa Cohn is co-author of "One Family, Two Family, New Family: Stories and Advice For Stepfamilies," which is a 2004 Gold National Parenting Publications Award winner. For more information, visit her at http://www.stepfamilyadvice.com.

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