Laura Petherbridge is an international author and speaker on the subject of stepfamilies, co-parenting and divorce recovery. Author of “The Smart Stepmom” and her most recent work, “101 Tips for the Smart Stepmom,” her practical and biblical approach to navigating blended family dynamics has been a real lifeline for me and hopefully for you. As we enter the busy holiday season, I know first-hand how it can kick up additional stress for stepfamilies. So I solicited Laura’s advice on how to reach out for help and hope during this time.
1. The holiday season is a joyous one for many families but for blended families it seems to invite dread. What are the top stress triggers for stepmoms during the holiday season?
The schedule in stepfamilies between the two homes is one of the key triggers for holiday stress. Getting everyone to communicate and agree on when the kids will be each home and visiting relatives is a huge issue. When you factor in that stepfamilies normally have twice as many grandparents, in-laws, former in laws, etc. it just adds more potential commotion. Another potential stressor is the various traditions, foods, expectations for each family. Christmas comes with a family dream, a “Norman Rockwell moment” and that picture doesn’t include your kids being caught in the middle, being shunned or wounded by a parent, or the confusion the biological kids experience when the step siblings are bouncing from house to house.
2. How can stepmoms help themselves and their spouse minimize the stress that kicks up during this time of year?
Discuss and plan the schedule as early as possible. if the other home refuses, do you best to lay down your plan. If the former spouse has previously attempted to sabotage your Christmas , assume he/she will try again. LOWER your expectations and you will be more prepared for what might occur. Accept the things you can control (what goes on in your home, how your family treats stepkids) and LET GO of the things you cannot control (the other parent and home).
3. A lot of stepmoms feel uncomfortable around their in-laws during family gatherings because they express pity for their stepchildren for having to split time between two homes. Or they feel like an interloper who “replaced” the ex-wife who they had a relationship with. How can a stepmom best handle tricky situations like these with their in-laws?
The person who controls this is the husband, the stepmom can not change the actions of her in-laws. It’s also important for the stepmom to remember that divorce is a family affair, the grandparents are grieving the death of the family they dreamed for their grandkids. So its natural to want to remove that pain for them. If their grief turns into showing favoritism or hurting other family members, stepmom, step grandkids or the couples child together (ours babay) then DAD, not stepmom, must step in and speak with his parents. This might require setting some boundaries if the issue is severe. Ackowleding their grief and helping them grieve is also a good way for a stepmom to reveal she understands the in-laws pain. I included two chapters in my divorce recovery book, “When I Do Becomes I Don’t” which are designed for family members. It reveals how to grieve the death of a family members marriage. It provides the dos and don’ts regarding their child and grandchildren when an adult child divorces.
4. How should a stepmom handle gift-giving? If she has biological kids from a previous marriage, should she and her husband spend an equal amount of money on every kid? Or should they spend less if the kids get an abundance of gifts at their biological mom’s house?
This is a popular question. The gifts should be equal regardless what the kids receive at the other home. Unfortunately, one of the consequences of divorce and remarriage is that things will not always be fair between the two homes. But giving the stepkids less because they also get gifts at mom’s house is not wise. To the child it communicates shunning, or I’m not equally loved or wanted as the ours baby. This is something the ours baby must learn, and it’s important to remember when considering adding an ours baby to the mix. In the stepfamily the stepsiblings get things at many homes, they visit many homes, they have more family members than I do, they take vacations I may not get, etc.
5. Are there any benefits to being in a blended family during the holiday season? We tend to dwell on the negative
but please tell me there’s a plus to this as well!
The greatest blessing that can come from stepfamily Christmas is the child observing unity, peace, family structure and creating new traditions. After 29 years as a stepmom I believe the best thing I gave my stepkids was offering an example of how a marriage can survive and thrive. This includes how to handle Christmas stress with a godly attitude. The stepmom may be the only person in this child’s life who is shining the light of Jesus into their life. Stepfamilies have the unique opportunity to reveal how to respond in a loving manner even when hurt abounds.
Also, in today’s society there are many full time stepmoms. This special role allows the stepmom to share traditions, family
memories, family recipes, etc. with a child that might not have that without her. A stepmom also has the opportunity to teach a stepchild the true meaning of the holiday. If she keeps Jesus as the reason for the season, that will be obvious to others. We must remember that in stepfamilies as well as bio families more is “caught than taught.” The kids are watching how we handle the everyday challenges of life.
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