Jennifer and Ben had been married for just under four months. Ben entered the marriage with his four teenage boys and their active social lives and sporting commitments. Ben always believed it was important to support the boys in their activities by attending as many events as possible. Sometimes he even volunteered to help coach their teams. Jennifer had one eight year old daughter who was used to being the center of her mother’s attention. Jennifer had often joked that they were more friends than mother and daughter. As Ben and Jennifer entered into their new commitment, they knew that adjustments would be needed for everyone in the family, but were unsure of how to help everyone feel supported.
The kids were now a few weeks into school and the parents had started to look ahead to plans for the holidays. They worried about how to balance each other’s past traditions with their new family identity. Jennifer was struggling between spending less time with her daughter to make room for time with Ben. She could see her daughter’s concern about some of the changes and was feeling pulled to be everything to everyone.
It is natural for stepcouples to want to set up rituals and traditions that will communicate their love and desire for connection to their families. Blending “old” and “new” family traditions may be difficult for new stepfamilies. Family members often attach a great deal of significance to daily rituals and traditions they are used to. Stepcouples cannot and should not erase memories or downplay the importance of their children’s past. However, there are ways in which old traditions can be honored, while allowing new interactions, memories, and connections to be built, helping to create the new family identity. The follow are just a few suggestions for integrating and building new family rituals and traditions.
Flexibility and Compassion
As much as stepcouples may want to, it is impossible to make everyone happy. Being flexible means we are willing to try our best to incorporate both new and old traditions, and modify where needed. Family members may need to be reminded that their favorite, irreplaceable old tradition may be seen as new (and therefore optional) to new family members. Combining traditions may take some creating planning, but if stepcouples remember people are more important than picturesque holiday images they can learn to honor their children’s pasts while creating new traditions.
Talking with family members about their favorite traditions, either in a formal or informal setting, allows children the chance to share what they love and the history behind those experiences. In the case of Jennifer and Ben, Jennifer’s daughter may be missing Girls Night with her mom, where the two of them shared events and happenings with each other and laughed together. Jennifer can show compassion by setting up a regularly scheduled time to continue this tradition. Having individual time with children honors relationships. It is not a snub to the stepparent. In fact, stepparents who encourage these times relieve stress on the family and actually strengthen the marital relationship.
Use Creative Planning
Planning is vital to all families, but especially to stepfamilies. Creative planning means stepcouples need to know their own preferences and where they are willing to sacrifice before they even begin discussions with other households. It also means taking into account the wishes of their children while making plans. Children cannot always have their wishes met, but they should always feel heard. The more households that are involved, the more important it is to begin planning for holidays and vacations early. Once plans are set, stepparents should remain flexible. Changes do happen, but when parents dig in their heels, it is the children who lose.
Be A Full Time Family (365 Days a year)
When my son was 11 years old, we had a family planning meeting where my husband asked our children if there were any areas they thought we could improve. My son looked calmly at my husband and said, “I think we could use a family holiday. A day to celebrate being us.” We were surprised by his suggestion, but enlisted his help as we planned our first “Christiansen Day.” We have been holding Christiansen Day on the third Saturday of June for the past eight years. We have had barbeques, movies in the yard, relay races, pizza making contests, street art competitions, rock band playoffs, and more. The kids help us plan the event and we all enjoy an excuse to have some fun every year.
There may be times when stepfamilies cannot spend the usual holidays together. Birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and other holidays often have to be divided up between parents. Even though they may not be together for as many holidays as they wish, stepparents should remember that they are parents every day; it is not just the holidays that count. Stepfamilies should make memories, laugh and create together. They can even create their own family holiday, but should keep the focus on the relationships and not on the events.
When their children are away with the other parent, parents should give them the gift of support for having a good time. Words such as, “I hope you have a wonderful time with your dad” or “I can’t wait to hear about your trip” tell children they are safe to love and be loved by all family members.
Do what you can and accept what will not change
One of the hardest parts of co-parenting with someone in a different household can be a lack of control over the decisions of others. Parents should do their best to be respectful, to work on sharing information all year long and continue to apply creative planning with flexibility. Even with all of this effort, stepcouples should realize that there will be issues beyond their control. When this happens, stepcouples should try not to focus on the frustration and hurtfulness of the situation. Instead, they can practice saying to themselves, “For my children, I choose peace.”
Accepting what they cannot change is also a lesson for children to learn, as there will likely be times when they are required to comply when they do not want to. Helping them to release what they cannot change will allow family members to have a greater feeling of peace.
Image credit: http://kerncountylibrary.org/event/game-on-family-fun-8/