What About Me? Step/mums and Family Holiday Traditions

Stressed Stepmum at Christmas

It’s amping up to ‘that’ time of year.

Holiday stress is a thing. It’s more often a thing for women. It’s often a very different kind of thing for step/mums.

Traditionally women are the keepers of family traditions, the holiday planners, they are the ones to whom the responsibility for creating a celebration that brings joy to the family falls. Doing all of that in a step-family dynamic adds a whole other realm of stress. Bringing different family traditions and expectations into a day that works for everyone, even when there are different custody schedules going on is exhausting.

I’m not going to go into a whole diatribe about how gendered this is and how unreasonable these expectations are…because they absolutely are, or encouraging a whole wave of feminist rejection of traditional social norms. That’s not because I don’t believe that’s exactly what should happen, it’s because as women we are too damn tired to stage a revolt this close to the silly season. Let’s start that in January or February to make sure there is a fairer division of tasks and responsibilities next year!

So in the meantime, how do we deal with the layers and layers of stress this can bring?

Here are 5 tips I find useful:

Lower expectations

Lower…lower…lower…and still lower

Am I being a Debbie Downer? No, I’m being Samantha Survivor!

So much of our hurt in this season comes from the disconnect between our hopes and expectations and the reality that comes to pass.

Is the ex who is a grinch all year suddenly going to be overcome with festive cheer and become super generous about access and time over the holidays? Unlikely! They have shown you who they are during the rest of the year – believe them!!

Are family members who struggle with each other going to put all their differences aside and sit around holding hands singing carols? Also unlikely! They have shown you how they feel about each other during the rest of the year – believe them!!

Is a partner who is an expert ducker and weaver when it comes to dodging household management going to stage a miraculous conversion to Martha Stewart or even Martha Stewart’s assistant come the holiday season? Nope, not likely. They have shown you their engagement in household management during the rest of the year – believe them!!

Finally – if you are not a Martha Stewart clone from January to October, are you going to suddenly become someone who decorates like an Insta story and cooks like a Pinterest board? Trust me, this is also unlikely.

This is a nice segue into tip #2

Set yourself up for success

I can’t tell you how many times I have had grand plans (my family might say delusions of grandeur) about the kind of Christmas I was going to create. I can tell you those plans didn’t come off exactly that number of times.

Life gets super busy at the end of the year. The days of me thinking I can bake cute cookies, make homemade bath bombs, and create an elaborate menu are a dim, distant memory. I know I will be tired. I know getting drunk on Christmas Eve makes for a challenging Christmas Day. I know inviting 23 people for Christmas Dinner and getting over-exuberant with the Christmas Eve celebrating/stress drinking is even worse.

  • Make realistic menu plans
  • Ask for help
  • Leave something in the tank for the big days
  • Up your self-care

Here comes tip #3

Be selfish rather than selfless

Sure, it’s the season of goodwill and going out of our way for others, but a stressed out step/mama is not able to be the font of goodwill. She’s likely to be the fountain of stress and ill will.

Take some time out to plan. Take some time out to reconnect with yourself. Have a list of go tos that you know help soothe you. Mine are lying on my shakti mat listening to binaural beats, having a good supply of herbal teas, and a secret stash of my favourite chocolate bars. I pop in some moments of focused breathing and nice candles too. More importantly, I know when to say no and when to ask for help which is tip #4

You don’t need to carry this load alone. Even though tip#1 was all about not looking for help in the wrong place, we still need help. Asking what people are willing to do is a game changer.

I find rather than telling my darling what I want him to do – laying out the list of things that need doing and then asking him what he can take on is really effective. Sometimes he has no idea of what’s required, let alone how to do the things that are required. Sometimes he will then proactively engage our kids to step up and help. Him just doing that takes a massive load off me. I don’t have to deal with the arguments and excuses, and since he asks them to help out far less than I do…he gets a more positive response.

The final tip is to be clear about what you need.

Whether it is the gift you would like, the response to your efforts, or how the day is going to play out. Speak out and speak up. So often we aren’t clear in our expectations and end up feeling disappointed in how the day unfolds. People only let us down if they didn’t follow through on what they said they would, often it’s us letting ourselves down because we didn’t make clear what we needed.


Anita InglisAnita specialises in helping individuals and couples dealing with childhood trauma develop healthy couple and family relationships. She also works with families dealing with Parental Alienation/Pathogenic Parenting. You can contact her at anita@step-familydynamics.com for more information.

She is the Lifestyle Editor at Stepparent Magazine, a Master Coach in the Stepmomz App, and a step/mum to 7, ranging from tweens to adults. She lives in New Zealand but works with clients in the US and Australasia. Her passion is mentoring divorced and step-mums to step into their power and couples to navigate the challenging waters of step-family life. She is a certified step-family coach, with graduate and post-graduate qualifications in psychology.

What About Me? Step/mums and Family Holiday Traditions