I remember my first Christmas as a stepfamily. My son and I moved from Ottawa to the suburbs of Montreal over the summer to start our stepfamily journey with Bernard and his two daughters. We had talked extensively about what our lives would look like as a new family – from managing our work schedules, overseeing the household chores and duties, driving the kids around, and any other day-to-day stuff families have.
One thing we hadn’t anticipated was how hard the holidays were going to be. Up until then, I had spent every Christmas with my parents and sisters. Bernard had never missed being with his parents and his brothers. Our kids had experienced mostly fun and excitement at what would be under the tree.
In our preparation for our move together, we hadn’t addressed what the holidays meant to us, what it would look like, who would go where, and when. We also neglected to talk about money issues:
- do we give to our parents, siblings
- how much to spend on the kids
- what about the other parent
But most importantly, we never talked about scheduling over the holidays.
Little did we know that we’d be dealing with last-minute schedule changes, demands on my time to be everywhere, cater to everyone’s needs and wants, and still have a cheerful holiday smile. The women in our family didn’t hold jobs outside of caring for the family. They didn’t understand that while I did many of the same things, I worked 10 to 12 hours a day in a bustling hair salon. The holidays meant that I was exhausted all the time. I wasn’t eating enough. I was super caffeinated – as many hairdressers were at the time. I was a walking zombie from October till January 2nd.
I was far from my family – which meant I had very little support. The few friends I had, didn’t have kids of their own, and I felt I couldn’t ask them for help. I couldn’t ask my in-laws either because I thought my son wasn’t their responsibility. I felt judged for the way that I wanted to celebrate the holidays as ‘that’s not the way we do it here.” I felt dismissed and invisible. I felt that what I wanted didn’t matter. I felt truly alone. I didn’t have anyone to talk with.
Bernard didn’t get that I felt out of place. He was on his home turf – close to his parents, daughters, brothers, and friends. Bernard couldn’t understand why I felt so nostalgic about Christmas, the need to recreate something that felt ‘normal’ to me, to create something familiar and safe. And he was still dealing with feelings of guilt around not being with his daughters and his family as much as he used to.
Destined To Fail
The holidays often trigger mixed emotions for stepfamilies: happiness and sadness, love and resentment, hope and fear, not to mention stressful when balancing work, family, shopping, and schedules. Trying to recreate that ‘perfect’ holiday time is often an illusion we create in our heads.
Because this was going to be our first Christmas, I wanted to create a holiday from my childhood and include my new family. I wanted to show Bernard how I could be a good cook, shopper, organizer – a Canadian version of Martha Stewart. I just needed to prove to my mother-in-law that I could fit in and show the girls’ moms that I deserved to be a part of this family. I other words, I was setting myself up for failure. I was tried to recreate something that could never be our reality except for in our heads.
Set Realistic Expectations
Before you start your holiday extravaganza, begin by asking yourself what your expectations are around the holidays. Focus on ONE thing that would make your holidays memorable, treasured, noteworthy. Make it something under your control, rather than dependent on what others say, do, feel. In other words, keep it realistic. Give yourself permission to try different versions of what your holidays might look like. And don’t be afraid to revisit, restructure, reorganize your holidays to fit your ever-growing and changing family.
It took us several years of trying different approaches to find our grove. And even after 31 years, we’re still tweaking how we spend our holidays. Anything is better than our first Christmas together. For sure. But as our family grew and we added sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law, we had to adjust to other people’s views and understand what the holidays mean to them and who they saw as family.