With the holidays approaching quicker than we can believe, it’s time to start planning the family gatherings! For some, the thoughts of togetherness fills them with joy. For others, it brings a sense of obligation, overwhelm, and sometimes even dread.
It can be a lot to line up everyone’s schedules, dietary needs, and personalities in a traditional family. With a blended family, it adds another layer of complexity.
Despite what we saw in “The Brady Bunch” growing up, blending families is not easy. Some families go from two kids to many, almost overnight. Depending on the ages and personalities of the kids, how long they had lived with just one parent or siblings, how much time they have spent together, and how quickly the blending is carried out, there can be many hiccups and hurt feelings along the way. Holidays can exacerbate any current issues and create a whole slew of issues you might not have considered.
If this is your first blended family holiday, or if it hasn’t gone well in the past, here are some things to consider to create more peace and ease during the holiday season:
Kids can often feel like an outsider or feel they are being treated differently even if this is not the case (think Jan Brady). It is very important to make sure children are comfortable and feel welcome by all.
For example, if you are celebrating Christmas with your new spouse’s family, it may not feel aligned or natural for them to buy presents for your children. Ask your spouse to help navigate this ahead of time so there are no hurt feelings. You could ask that at least one or two family gifts are given instead of individual gifts, or ask that group items are given for the kids like a game or block set that they can all enjoy. Depending on the situation and the age of your kiddos, you could also explain to them that although you are attending, you’re just helping to celebrate with them and not to exchange gifts, reminding them that they will be exchanging gifts with their Grandma tomorrow (or whatever the case may be).
Or, if you are going to your large extended family get together for Thanksgiving and you have not spent a great deal of time together, your new spouse or their kiddos could feel lost or left out, especially if your family was close to your former spouse. It can help to prep both sides ahead of time and ask for one or two people to be “includers” to make sure they keep an eye out for your newbies, especially the kiddos. You could also explain to your kids how their step-brother or sister might feel left out with a herd of cousins that they don’t really know, and ask them to be a special helper to make sure they are included and shown around.
Sadly, sometimes new children or spouses are actually (and sometimes intentionally) left out. The dynamics of adding more grandchildren into the family or adding a new spouse when the former spouse was incredibly loved by them can be very painful. Most of the time, this is not intentional and it just takes awareness and clear communication to help bridge the gap. For example, “Mom, I see that you invited my kids to bake cookies with you. Could you also invite the other kids?”
If the exclusion is intentional, immediate boundaries need to be set with the family member to make sure they understand this is not OK.
As a general rule, if it’s your family gathering, look for balance and go above and beyond to make sure your new spouse and their kiddos are being included, and they can do the same for you.
When to Divide
As with traditional families, not everything has to be done together, especially in the first year when everyone is getting settled and there is already so much newness.
If you have a sensitive kiddo who gets overwhelmed with large groups of people they don’t know, you could arrange for smaller settings to introduce everyone, or just stop by the new family gathering to say hello. Or, if there has been a lot of change in a short period of time, the kids may need a familiar tradition to help them settle in. Perhaps this is the tiny Thanksgiving they’ve had for the past few years, or a trip to visit Grandma for Christmas instead of attending your spouse’s family Christmas.
And if there is intentional (or even unintentional but still harmful) excluding, this is definitely a pass to do your own thing.
Even without issues, sometimes there are just too many moving pieces to get everyone together with both sides of new families, and that’s OK. Don’t get on board with the usual holiday obligation and guilt. Do what you need to do for yourself and your family, just make sure you do it with clear, up front communication about what people need and try to find creative solutions where you can. Prepare for hurt feelings on the other side, but remember, it’s not your responsibility to manage anyone else’s feelings or reactions to what you need.