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The Happiest Season of All?

After my mother remarried, my siblings and I began to celebrate Christmas Eve with my stepfather’s family. Frank came from a huge, close-knit Italian family; he had 6 siblings, nearly 30 cousins, and probably over 100 nieces and nephews. The night before Christmas they would all gather at his mother’s tiny little bungalow for a homemade Italian buffet.

The house was so packed, so smoky, and so loud, that I used to go out and stand in the driveway in the freezing cold Cleveland air to get my senses back. Fortunately, when Frank’s family members started leaving for church or home at around 11 pm, we’d go home and open our presents so we could sleep in the next day before heading to our dad and stepmom’s house to spend time with our grandparents, have Christmas dinner, and watch cheesy holiday movies all evening.

My siblings and I come from a smallish pack of pretty reserved people, so our new stepfamily situation required a lot of sacrifice, adjustment, and social flexibility on our part to pull off successful holidays with our mom and her very outgoing new husband. As young adults I’m sure we weren’t always the most pleasant people at stepfamily events. So I’m sympathetic to the struggles stepfamilies with young adult children are up against at this time of year.

One of the Big Challenges of Divorced Holidays

At this time of year, we get a lot of questions here at Dear Evil Stepmom about how to handle stepfamily holidays. And one of the most frequently asked questions is whether divorced and remarried parents should celebrate the holidays together, “for the sake of the children.” So I thought this might be a good time to take a look at the question of divorced people coming together for the holidays.

Why Try?

What makes former partners who had children together feel compelled to keep playing out their family holiday scenario? If two people couldn’t stay married to each other for the kids, why would they want to resurrect their unsuccessful efforts by pretending to be merry and bright with each other at the holiday dinner table—while sitting next to their new spouses?

Former couples end up celebrating holidays together for lots of reasons: emotional attachment, familiarity, the fear of having to create new traditions of their own (whether they’re remarried or not), competition for children’s/grandchildren’s attention and affection, to name a few. But trying to reconstitute the former family on command for a special occasion is not easy to do, and well-meaning divorced parents usually fail at it in one way or another.

The High Cost of Sacrifice “For the Kids”

My own parents, both long remarried by the time grandchildren arrived, did Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas-morning-with-the-grandkids at my sister’s home for years. I could tell from the way my stepmother shrank as soon as she arrived that she did not like being hosted by my mother in my sister’s house. My stepmother would go completely silent, sit separate from wherever my mom was, and leave as soon as it was polite to go.

One time when my dad and stepmother were visiting me in Seattle, I asked my stepmother—in front of my dad—if she’d really rather not celebrate holidays with my mother and stepfather. She sheepishly admitted that she would prefer to be with her son or with my dad’s brother and his wife on special occasions. My dad heard for the first time what it was costing his wife to watch our former family interact, and to watch her husband and his former wife grandparent together.

You Can Wish Others Well Without Spending the Day with Them

I’m in the separate families=separate celebrations camp. Here’s why: There are very few people who can comfortably pull off the whole exes-and-their-new-spouses-celebrating-holidays-together thing—unless it’s a wedding, bar mitzvah, or similar big event with lots of other people present and a prescribed schedule of activities.

It’s easy for some former couples to polish up a few of their happier memories from their time together, fondly recall old feelings of togetherness, and, before they know it, slip into old family patterns. One stepmom shared her isolating experience of watching her husband and his former wife go into “entertaining mode” at one of his adult children’s holiday parties. While the young couple was busy with food preparation, Mom welcomed guests and hung their coats while Dad offered guests their first drink and introduced them around the room. This stepmother said, “It was like watching a happily married couple host a party of their own together… they were really good at it!”

It takes a big person to watch their spouse and his or her former mate come together as a unit—a unit that did not include YOU. And it takes an even bigger person to watch it if there’s still any warmth left in the formerly married couple’s relationship.

Given the enormous composure, self-assurance, and goodwill required to truly celebrate under such stressful conditions, and given that all of the adults involved have to able to handle it for it to work—in most cases it’s probably healthier for families who’ve gone through divorce and remarriage to create their own traditions independent of the way the former family did things.

New Families Mean New Realities

The problem with spending a day, or even a meal, together is that people put a lot of weight on a single big event. And if anyone in the family has unrealistic expectations—e.g., “it’s going to be sparkling and special like it was when the kids were young/like it was when I was 6 years old!”— the reality will almost always fail to satisfy, and may even foil well-intentioned efforts for a temporary reconstitution of the former family. Add to that a general lack of appreciation for how much skill is required to pull off a shared holiday with a divorced partner, and it’s a set-up for failure.

It’s not just divorced moms and dads who think celebrating together would be good for “the kids.” I think young people like for things to be comfortable, convenient, and easy—especially when it come to their family. And what could be easier than telling your mom and dad that you just want things the way they used to be? But the reality is that my siblings and I will never again roll out of bed on Christmas morning and come down the stairs to my dad filming our expressions of excitement and wonder at the lights, the tree, and the presents piled around the living room.

No One Gets Out of THIS Family

Often one former spouse is driving the effort to celebrate holidays and days of special meaning together in order to meet his/her own emotional needs. It may look like the residue of love, but it’s really plain old attachment to the way we were. And an ex spouse who can’t let go of their former mate and the family the way it used to be will often put pressure on the whole system—kids, former spouse, current spouse—to bring every one together. Even if that means pulling up a couple of extra chairs for stepmom and stepdad.

Stress Comes Out Sideways

I don’t care what your husband says about being fine with New Years’ brunch at you ex husband’s house. It takes an enormous consolidation of self to watch your wife’s former husband put his hand on her back while telling her a story. And no woman relishes the idea of watching her husband’s ex-wife fix him a dinner plate “just the way he likes it.”

Nothing lights up our sense of being left out like watching our mate’s former family come together. And while I might insist that “I’m just fine” with the 15th story about the time you two moved across the country with $26.00 in your wallet and a baby on the way, that 3rd glass of wine I just chugged might tell you different.

These are lots of reasons why my policy is to celebrate separately, and preferably on different days (e.g., so one of you isn’t getting a bunch of over-fed, tired, sofa-bound young adults for their second dinner). But if you insist, here are some questions to ask yourself first.

Do you and your mate and the young adults in the family have established traditions of your own?

Are you and your current spouse REALLY okay with it?

Are your ex and his/her spouse REALLY okay with it?

Are the children involved okay with it? A resister doesn’t mean you shouldn't try, but it should be a red flag.

(If anyone’s not sure, make it a one-time trial. Just say, “We’re not committing to doing this every year, but Jane and I are willing to give it a try this year.”)

There are some families who have made a conscious commitment to share a holiday or day of special meaning with their adult children sometimes. For many of them, it’s great. But if it doesn’t work out, there can be negative sentiments and feelings of failure to contend with, and that can be harder on everyone—especially the kids—than the previous separateness. The impact on the kids is what family leaders pay attention to.

The Alternative? Create New Traditions

Former couples that celebrate the holidays together can unintentionally get in the way new stepfamilies developing their own holiday traditions. Even if all 4 parents and stepparents could handle the “one big happy family” plan, they will find themselves without any stable rituals for themselves, for their current marriages, or for the young adult children in the family over time.

New traditions matter because young people will eventually marry—or partner—and will likely have kids of their own, and it will be helpful to them and their spouses if the divorced parties have established ways of celebrating that work for post-divorce family units. Yes, celebrating all together can be more convenient from the standpoint of time management, but in terms of everybody feeling free to be themselves, deepen family relationships, and enjoy each other, it’s suboptimal at best—and miserable at its worst.

They Call it “Divorce” for a Reason

It turns out that some of my favorite holiday memories from young adulthood are of Christmas Eve with my mom and stepdad. When we got home from Frank’s mom’s house, we would keep our holiday outfits on, get out cookies and eggnog, and sit around the big tree in the living room opening gifts and talking for hours. When we were done—usually some time around 3 in the morning—my stepfather would turn up the lights and chide the rest of us to pick up all the wrapping paper and bows while he vacuumed the living room crooning, "Turn out the lights, the party's over...they say that all good things must end"...as well as Willie ever did.

After 25 years of holidays as a stepfamily, Frank died last year. I’m sorry my mother and father couldn’t figure out how to stay married decades ago, and I’m sorry that they didn’t get along better after their divorce. But I’m glad that they each went on to marry good people with whom they made their own families and started their own traditions. I’m thankful to have been a part of my mom’s new marriage and celebrations, and to have been part of the traditions my dad and his wife established over the years. They were, in hindsight, very happy holidays after all.

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