I’ve fixed the holidays for you. You’re welcome. Read on. Perhaps fixed is a touch overstating things, but the plan below will make you feel better – I promise. It involves half-assing and wine.
Step One: Figure out the schedule early
“What?” you say. “We have a schedule. It’s already defined in our agreement.” Of course, it is, Lovebug. And maintaining your high-school weight is as simple as diet and exercise. In my experience, both are a little more nuanced. What’s defined in the agreement just starts the fun. Billy and I have a good relationship, and both wholeheartedly support what’s in our custody agreement, and we almost always shift the schedule. There’s family visiting from the other coast, a must-see Nutcracker performance, a long-awaited ski trip in play. Life happens and the schedule shifts. To save your sanity, get this year’s schedule nailed down with your parenting team early.
Not part of a blended or a step-family? Same applies to you. It might be even harder, given you love everyone involved and don’t have the formality of a legal agreement in your secret weapons arsenal. Figure out where you’re going to be when and with whom. Now.
Step Two: Define absolute must do’s
I am a sucker for holiday happenings. I’m out with the crowds at Turkey Trots and Pancakes with Santa and craft fairs. I fill our family calendar with our own traditions – the Sibling Tree and extended family sing-alongs and Christmas movie marathons. It’s exciting in anticipation and exhausting in execution. Running from one magical activity to the next turns me into a Scrooge. Over the years, I’ve learned to put one big activity on the calendar a weekend during the holiday season and to block time to just be at home together.
I also follow a strict Just One Celebration rule for my children. We celebrate Thanksgiving once at my house. We invite anyone and everyone and it is a huge, one-time-only festivus. I know they also celebrate at their Dad’s house and fully support that. What’s not okay with me is Thanksgiving at Mom’s, Thanksgiving at Dad’s, Thanksgiving at Gramma’s and Thanksgiving at StepAunt’s. That fills our days with tryptophan, extended family cheek pinching, and company manners, leaving no time for day-after leftovers and lounging. It’s not easy, but defining what you will and won’t do is worth it.
Step Three: Tell Your Family (and duck)
Warning: This is where it gets dicey. Your family, extended or blended, may not love the boundaries you’ve set in Step One and Step Two of this handy holiday guide. My mother-in-law is a wonderful, loving woman and wants nothing more than to have her step-grandchildren in her home for Christmas dinner. I understand that and appreciate her kindness. That just doesn’t work for us. The kids aren’t comfortable with that huge extended family yet and want to be home with their new toys, not on the road in itchy clothes. So we decline, gracefully and politely and hold our ground.
Sometimes our holiday plans frustrate the children. When we shifted away from our traditional brunch with Santa to incorporate a new family Tacky Lights Run last year, Caden was deeply disappointed. I assured him we’d try the run and consider returning to the brunch this year. Guess who’s already planning his Tacky Lights Run outfit, complete with elf face paint and running shoe covers?
Hold your ground – your mental health will thank you. Boundaries for the win.
Step Four: Be flexible
Yup, that’s right. Set the schedule and rules and tell everyone and feel their wrath and then Step Four is be flexible. Seems contrary, but that’s how families, especially blended ones, roll. Here’s the deal: once you’ve established the guidelines, you can take a deep breath and relax. Your people know what’s happening (or not) and what to anticipate. The broad-brush plan is in place. Good job, General. But, this isn’t a scripted sitcom (if it was, Alice would be unloading my groceries). This is real life – things change. Last minute tickets to holiday shows and friends driving through and unexpected sledding opportunities sometimes provide the real magic of the holidays. The key is to read your people. Do they want to do this new thing? Will it overtire anyone (especially you)? Does it require prep, or can it be half-assed and still thoroughly enjoyed? If you think it can add to the fun without adding to the work or complexity, Carpe Donder!
Flexibility works the other way, too. Ditch the planned activities if the tribe isn’t up for it, and while you’re at it, ditch the guilt. So what if you paid for tickets to Elf Jr. at the community theater if, when the time, comes no one wants to go? At that point, your choices are go with a bunch of recalcitrant South Pole elves or stay home with wine. You’ve already spent that money; it’s gone. Do what feels right in the moment. Crack open that bottle and turn the carols up.
Step Five: Extend grace
Holidays are hard. The days are filled with people you don’t see often (sometimes by choice) and stretched schedules and wallets. Family drama takes center stage. All the blended and step stigma (real or perceived) comes out to play reminding you, by the kids’ schedule and your memories of holidays past and your patchwork quilt of a family tree, that your current situation doesn’t match the Rockwell cards you’re receiving in the mail. The kids are full of sugarplums and out of school and up way too late.
Be kind to yourself. Be kind to your spouse. Dig deep if you have to and be kind to your ex and his new wife. Bite your tongue when the plans change and focus on what the kids see. The magic of your family, even if it is patched together and strictly scheduled and filled with ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, still sparkles.
Kate is a wife to Gabe, mom to Simon, Caden and Lottie, and stepmom to Sara, Amy and Jack. She blogs about her blended family experience over at her website called This Life in Progress. For more information visit www.thislifeinprogress.com.