A Holiday Survival Guide for Stepmothers

By Brenda Snyder, LCSW Originally published in the Nov. 2012 issue of StepMom Magazine.

The holiday season is upon us! It’s “the most wonderful time of the year!” But sometimes, for stepmoms, the very times that are supposed to make us the happiest can have the opposite effect.

As a childless stepmother, I couldn’t wait to share my mother’s awesome Christmas Eve tradition of having Santa Claus visit from the North Pole.

He always brought a gift for every child as well as every adult. I imagined my stepchildren sitting on Santa’s lap and enjoying the arrogance I experienced as a kid about shopping mall Santas because the real one came to our house every year and had endless time for conversation, eggnog and Christmas carols. No quick sit and “say cheese” for us. Santa knew me personally.

The reality of coordinating our holiday celebrations according to visitation schedules and divorce court documents burst yet another bubble in my vision of stepfamily life because that first holiday season we would be together wasn’t our year to have them. And my stepkids preferred going to their own grandparents’ house to my mom’s anyway. Ouch!

As with many memories of my first years as a stepmother, I can now smile at my naiveté and share some of the lessons learned in the hopes of sparing some other stepmother unnecessary disappointment.

The actual days or times you will have your stepkids is probably spelled out. Get those details squared away so you know what you have to work with. Then prioritize your time appropriately. If there is negotiating with the ex to be done, ask your partner to do it as soon as possible so everyone knows what to expect. If you’re not following the court documents to the letter, get your actual agreements in writing (an email or text will probably suffice) to avoid confusion and miscommunication once plans are in place.

I used to spend all day cooking an enormous turkey dinner, which fit with my vision of the perfect holiday. Sweating alone in the kitchen all day, my stepkids would then grumble that they didn’t like (my mother’s famous recipe) sweet potatoes, and I would end up frustrated, disappointed and resentful. Several years ago, we changed our Christmas Day tradition to hanging out in our pajamas all day, then going to a movie and having dinner at a Chinese buffet (not much else is open). This nontraditional tradition is now unique to our stepfamily and it’s one that we all embrace.

The idea is not to create a better holiday at your house. Do what feels right. If appropriate, include your stepchildren in planning your time together. And enjoy! Set a gift budget with your partner and stick to it. If conversations happen between your partner and his ex to avoid duplicating gifts, that’s great. If not, hang on to receipts and plan shopping trips to go exchange stuff during the post-holiday sales. If your stepkids carry on a tradition with their mom that used to include their dad, replicate it at your house only if it is important to him. Doing something just for the privilege of tradition ownership is confusing and tiring to children, invites unneeded comparison and takes valuable time away from creating new family memories.

Traditions often develop when you’re not looking. It’s fine to thoughtfully create new stepfamily traditions, but pay attention to what your stepchildren recognize and look forward to from year to year. What started out as the chore of baking all the Christmas cookies and desserts at my mom’s house a couple weeks prior to the holiday has turned into a day that my adult stepchildren arrange their days off around so they can participate. Watch for questions for hints about what is important to your stepkids. “Are you going to make those awesome rolls for breakfast again?” Or, “Remember last year when dad carried us all through the house looking for the New Year’s baby at midnight?”

It took me a while to realize it, but it doesn’t negate the meaning or fun to do something on Dec. 19 instead of Dec. 25. The family time you spend together is memorable regardless of what the calendar reads. Being flexible on the date will also enable you to honor old family traditions in addition to the new ones you are creating, instead of having to choose what to leave out because of time constraints. Modifying the day you spend with your stepfamily, for example, is much better than giving it up and will lead to less bitterness and resentment.

Speak this directive aloud for maximum appreciation. Enjoy what is, versus what you or anybody else thinks ought to be. Do what you can. Live in the moment without distracting yourself with judgment or resentment. Love. Accept. Be happy.

As my stepfamily enters the stage where the kids are forming their own families, I am noticing that my husband and I are way ahead of the game in accommodating various family constellations and creating memories and events with the times that our kids have available in their busy work/school/family schedules. We have an easier time giving up our vision of having everyone present in order to call it a family event, and our flexibility allows us the ability to enjoy every minute we have instead of mourning our ideas of what should be. My stepkids don’t feel pressured to spend time with us and so look forward to the various happenings, going out of their way to make arrangements for us all to be together.

We have also been able to more deeply explore what the holidays mean to us on a spiritual level, enjoying the closeness of family and friends and what for us is the true meaning of the season. Keeping our marital relationship as the primary one for all these years enables us to enjoy each other when our kids can’t join us because of their own responsibilities and continue to look forward to times when we are all together.

By living in the moment and concentrating on all that is right in your life, you can avoid focusing on ideas—your own or anyone else’s— of what is missing and appreciate everything that is present.

Want more?
Get the guide:
Stepmom Holiday Guide


5 thoughts on “A Holiday Survival Guide for Stepmothers”

  1. I wish I would have found this two days ago. My Christmas was a nightmare because of all of the running around and trying to fit everyone in and scheduling picking up my stepdaughter (different moms,different towns)around Christmas dinner and festivities. It stOle all of the fun from the day.

  2. This was so nice to read. I am a step mother and my fiancees ex showed up and caused a huge scene in front of her son, it was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. I’m not used to That craziness and don’t know how to react. It was truly heartbreaking. The boy is 5 abd I’ve known him since he was a year. I don’t know why hia mom still acts so crazy.

  3. My step children enjoyed three Christmases this year – one with my family, one with their Mum and one with my partners family. My motto this year is that Santa is a very flexible chap who understands that different families have different needs. So we had Santa stockings on 21st December with my family.

    My Mum died about 6 weeks before Christmas so it was important to me to be at our family Christmas. The children’s mum rearranged her family Christmas arrangements to accommodate this. Something I really appreciated and told her so! It meant that the focus was on the kids and their needs.

  4. dear Stepmother of 1,

    I would like to talk to you if possible. We are exactly in the same difficult situation. How can I contact you?

    Thank you.
    distressed fiance

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