Stepfamilies and Christmas
About the Guest
It's the most wonderful time of the year!" But if you're in a stepfamily, the holidays can get complicated pretty fast. Ron Deal offers some perspective, and gives counsel for how to navigate Christmas in a stepfamily.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” But if you’re in a stepfamily, the holidays can get complicated pretty fast. Ron Deal offers some perspective, and gives counsel for how to navigate Christmas in a stepfamily.
Stepfamilies and Christmas
Michelle: It’s Christmas time, and we’re decking the halls! But that could pose a problem for some families—like maybe, blended families?—because there could be multiple halls, multiple trees, and multiple sets of traditions. Here’s Ron Deal.
Ron: Traditions [sigh] are about belonging, like, “My family does this…”
Ron: That says something about who we are/who I am. What if your tradition is not my tradition? And you’re so excited about how we’re gonna do Christmas gifts; and I’m like, “That’s wrong.” And so, not only is that wrong, it’s: “I don’t fit; I don’t belong here.”
Michelle: We’re gonna talk about Christmas, blended style, on this edition of FamilyLife This Week.
Okay, so the wreath is hanging on the door. The Christmas tree is up—and it is decorated; the lights are twinkling—and we’re talking about Christmas time. And, oh wait! In less than three weeks, we are going to celebrate Christmas.
Ron: Can’t wait.
Michelle: Isn’t that going to be so exciting?
Ron: Yes, it’s just the magic of Christmas; I mean, it never gets old.
Michelle: Yes; okay, that voice that you’re hearing is Ron Deal. And Ron is joining me today because we’re gonna talk about stepfamilies and Christmas.
But first, Ron, I want to find out from you: “What’s magical about this time of year for you?”
Ron: Well, of course, it all means the Savior has come; right? So when you get passed kind of all the bling, and you get down to what it means, there’s just no better message for my life, or the world, than that. That means everything: it means there’s hope; it means there’s salvation; it means there’s a future—and that—I hold onto very tightly.
And then my flesh says, “And I get presents.” [Laughter] And that’s fun, and you know, I’m kind of an old kid. But you know, it’s just fun getting gifts for one another, and opening, and spending time. I’m old enough now, my kids are kinda out of the house; and so they’re coming back, and we’re going to get to be—
Michelle: —so there’s that fun excitement once again.
Ron: Oh, yes; absolutely. And energy in the home once again. And then we look forward to them going away, and it getting quiet again, but—[Laughter]—you know, it’s/it’s all good. You know, it’s that ebb and flow of—
Ron: —time with family. Yes, it’s/it’s the beauty of Christmas.
Michelle: Well, we’re going to take some time and talk about the ebb and flow and the beauty of family. But you, as the director of FamilyLife Blended®, know, intimately, that the complexities of stepfamilies at Christmas time is difficult.
Michelle: And I’m just curious if your inbox email is just exploding; because people are like: “Help us through this situation; what can I expect?” “ What/what’s going on?”
Ron: Yes—Twitter® and Facebook®—people write in all the time about that in particular. We do have a number of articles, I should mention at FamilyLife.com, that are specifically about blended families and the holidays. We would recommend that people just go and search, and read those.
“What’s going on?” is: “Wow!—where do we start?” There’s five or six big pieces to this pie when it comes to blended families. [It] depends on where they are in their journey.
First of all, let’s just acknowledge that Christmas can be amazing for blended families and is, often, a time of celebration for the: the joy/the work that they have done to become a family and merge relationships; and work through some of the oddities and some of the stressors of becoming a family. And you know, after a few years, it’s a wonderful time that blended families look forward to.
Now, some families have deep complexity in the sense that they have four houses and eight grandparents that they gotta try to work with. And you know—
Michelle: Right; that’s a lot of parties; that’s/that’s—
Michelle: —and for maybe an introvert, that would be a real difficult thing!
Ron: That would kill an introvert, right there; yes.
And of course, grandma is just so/loves that she gets to see those grandkids for two hours before they have to go to the other home—because of the schedule that’s got to be made to give everybody their equal time—so she’s disappointed the time comes and goes so fast. You know, it’s generational in terms of who it touches; because so many people are invested.
It’s about grief; it’s about tradition; it’s about meaning; it’s about belonging—like, “You know, let’s just camp out there for a second,”—you know, traditions [sigh] are about belonging; like: “My family does this…”
Michelle: Right; “…right, from the beginning.”
Ron: —“from the beginning; that’s the way it’s always been,” “This is the kind of foods that we eat,” “This is the kind of games that we play,” “This is how we open gifts on Christmas Day,” “The fact that it’s Christmas Day; at my household, growing up, we open one on Christmas Eve and all the rest on Christmas morning. That’s our tradition.” That’s says something about who we are/who I am. It’s about belonging; this is an identity matter for each individual and for the family as a unit.
Well, what if your tradition is not my tradition; right? Let’s say we’re stepsiblings. And you’re so excited about how we’re going to do Christmas gifts; and I’m like, “That’s wrong!”—you know? [Laughter]
Michelle: “You don’t do it that way.”
Ron: Right—and so, not only is that wrong—it’s: “I don’t fit; I don’t belong here,”—like: “Your people are not my people”; that’s an identity question. And so, sometimes, the holidays remind people in blended families that they have different origins and that they have a different measure of belonging, if that makes any sense,—
Michelle: It does.
Ron: —like: “I’m part of this family, but I’m not part of this family.” It’s a little bit like it being a son-in-law or a daughter-in-law or a brother- or sister-in-law—like you’re now family, but not really;—
Michelle: —but not really.
Ron: —you know?
There’s this both sides of that that is confusing for kids. Part of the stress that comes up at the holidays for blended families is mom and dad want so badly for everybody to feel like they belong/want so badly for their family to be completely merged—so it’s not “Your tradition vs. my tradition,”—it’s: “Hey, we’re one family.” And so you have this agenda from the parents, trying to get everybody to be happy and comfortable in the same way. That’s a good agenda; but sometimes, it becomes stressful when they put pressure on people.
Michelle: Well, and it sounds like expectations: “ Wait; how come it didn’t play out the way I saw it play out?”
Ron: Yes; and then you begin to wonder: “Is it me?” or “Is it you?” or “Is it us?” Again, those questions of belonging and identity come to the surface.
For the people that are listening right now, the reason this is important is because:
- if you’re grandma, and the kids are coming, and that family is going to be at your home; or you’re going to be at their home;
- if you’re living in a blended family;
- or maybe you’re the brother or the sister, and somebody else in your family has a blended family,
recognize that there can be some awkwardness to the holidays for whoever is involved. Have a sensitivity to that; you know? Pull them aside and say: “Hey, what can we do to be helpful?” “Can we flex on our tradition?” “I know we’ve always done it this way, but would it be helpful to you and your kids if we did it a little bit differently?” If we loosened up the rigidity of how we do things to accommodate somebody’s need.
That is an amazing question that, all of a sudden, people: “Oh boy! It would be so helpful,” “Could we do this two days before Christmas instead of Christmas Eve? Because our kids are going to have to leave, and they’re going to miss out if they’re not a part of that,” “Boy, that would be so great, if you could just meet us in the middle, in that way.”
Michelle: And it’s addressing the elephant in the room—
Michelle: —before we hit it.
Ron: Right; you know, I have this rule of thumb: “Rigidity in stepfamilies, often, really creates chaos and just heartache for people;”—
“No! This is the way it’s gotta be.” Now, it’s yours against mine; and it’s you against me. That just divides people.
—“but flexibility is a gift from God.”
Ron: It is an act of grace to say: “Yes, you know, I really like it this way; but I’m willing to adjust a little bit to accommodate your family, your need, your schedule,” and “We’ll figure it out, and we’ll find a new path.”
You know, really at the heart of this, Michelle, for a lot of blended families, is finding a new path—that becoming a family/merging together—it’s year two; it’s year six; it’s
year ten—we do have to continue to find new paths into how we do things as a family unit. And when others get on board, and when grandma is okay with that, all of a sudden, it’s a little bit easier for everyone.
Michelle: Yes; well, and that new path—I wanted to talk a little bit about that new path—because I have a friend, who recently went through a divorce, has three young children. I had asked her/I said, “Well, what/what is it going to look like at Christmas time?” “Well, he’ll get the kids on Christmas Eve and then, because we live closer together, we’ll hand the kids off on Christmas Day.”
But you don’t have that same—of the kids sitting/laying underneath the tree, or sleeping underneath the tree for Christmas Eve—you don’t have that same thing happening. And my friend/she’s going to be alone on Christmas Eve; her kids aren’t going to be with her!
Ron: Ahh, boy, Christmas Eve/that can be a really lonely time. You know, I would encourage her to make a plan: try to find somebody she can be with or something she can do. You know, oftentimes, go and serve in some ministry that’s alive and well on Christmas Eve—and helping the underprivileged, for example—at least, you’re not sitting at home, feeling sorry for yourself; right?
Ron: And it helps you through that season.
By the way, here’s why that’s important. If mom finds her way through, that helps her attitude/that helps her to not be depressed and miserable; because when her kids see [her] depressed and miserable, now they feel what?—guilty, worried, anxious. And now, how do they feel when they’re at dad’s house, knowing mom’s depressed and miserable? It makes it harder for them to enjoy dad.
Ron: What if there’s a stepmom there?—“Boy, I really don’t want to enjoy her; because I feel guilty that my mom is depressed and miserable.” See, it all ripples into everybody else’s lives and attitudes too. So when mom does a little selfcare, that’s actually good for her children as well.
Michelle: You recently wrote a book—it was published —the Daily Encouragement for the Smart Stepfamily. In there, I found this quote: “…to give the kids permission to like, love, and enjoy the other household at Christmas time.”
Michelle: How do you/that’s hard to do, Ron. I mean, that’s really hard to do; because if I were to step into that kind of thing, I’d be like, “No, I want them to enjoy my household more.” I mean we’re all selfish people. So how/help us to understand how that can play out, because I don’t want to go there.
Ron: Yes; well, it’s a great question. And I appreciate your honesty, because you’re right on. I’m that way, too; I mean, we all want what we want.
Let me give you two perspectives about this. If you’re the biological dad, and married to a woman, and you’re giving permission to the kids to enjoy mom/biological mom’s house—first and foremost—this is a gift to your kids. You want to talk about Christmas and gifts?—this is a great gift—permission for them to like and love the other people.
What you’re saying to them is: “You do not have to be loyal to me and take care of me; that’s backwards.” Anytime children are taking care of adults, that’s backwards; right? But that is what you are saying to your child if you say [in a grumbling voice], “Huh, I don’t know why you’re going to your mom’s house”; the message is: “Don’t get along with her,” “Don’t have any fun,” “Don’t enjoy your time over there, because that makes me sad; so you need to take care of me/help me out of my sadness by being a pain to them.” That’s backwards, and upside down, and wrong on every level. And it hurts your child, emotionally, psychologically; I could go on and on about that.
It’s a gift to say: “Enjoy them,” “Have a good time.” Now, the child is free of any obligation or guilt about you. You are taking care of you; they don’t have to take care of you. They are now free—that’s what children ought to be—free to like and love the people in their other home.
So first and foremost, this is a gift to your child; but I would also suggest this is a gift to yourself, because when your child is free to like and love the other people, they have a good time. The people in the—the adults in the other house/ the co-parents in the
other house—have a better attitude about you, which means they’re nicer, and kinder, and more flexible, more cooperative on an ongoing basis toward you. That’s got to ripple back some goodness into your own home.
Ron: And when your children have a better attitude over at the other home, they have a better attitude when they come back into your home; everybody wins!
Michelle: It’s almost like it starts with you;—
Michelle: —that ripple effect starts with you.
Michelle: And all of a sudden, everybody is enjoying Christmas.
Ron: That’s it.
Michelle: Ron, we need to take a break, but I want to continue on this conversation. So will you stick around for a couple of minutes?
Ron: I’d be glad to.
Michelle: Okay; thank you.
We’ll be back in just a couple of minutes with FamilyLife This Week and Ron Deal.
Welcome back to FamilyLife This Week. I'm Michelle Hill. I have Ron Deal in the studio today, and we are talking Christmas/Christmas bells. What/what’s your favorite hymn at Christmas time?
Ron: Oh, my goodness; all of them? [Laughter] Silent Night, of course, is a classic.
Michelle: It is; it is good.
Okay, before the break, we were talking about the complexity of families at Christmas time, especially when we’re dealing with a blended family and all that comes with that. And it’s/it’s difficult. And we talked about some identity issues and just the belonging; because at Christmas time, we all want to belong.
Ron: Yes; let me ask you something. You asked me a question; I’m going to stump you—[Laughter]
Michelle: Oh, great! [Laughter]
Ron: —maybe not. So in your family—growing up, or now, or whenever—what do you put on the top of the Christmas tree? Is there a thing that goes up there?—a star?—an angel?—a—
Michelle: I think, one year, we had a star; and then mom got my grandmother’s angel.
Ron: Ahhh—okay, grandmother’s angel—that carries weight; doesn’t it? [Laughter]
Ron: “We got to—
Michelle: Yes, it does.
Ron: —“We got to keep using grandmother’s angel.”
Yes, we put an angel—
Ron: —on top of ours. And every year—I’m the tallest guy—[Laughter]—so I have to be the one, who falls into the tree and gets it up there. [Laughter] You know, those things matter because—again, like we talked earlier—it represents a tradition that has meaning. It’s rich—like yours is tied into grandma, so she stays alive and with us—
Ron: —all the good things that we remember about her.
I’m thinking about a woman, Diane Fromme, who has spoken for me at the Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. She wrote a book called Stepparenting the Grieving Child. She married a man with two children, whose mother had died; right? He was a widower, and then he married Diane. Christmas—ongoing battle—
Michelle: Oh, I bet.
Ron: —the first few years. And it revolved around: “What we put on top of the Christmas tree?” Her stepdaughter kept putting a particular—and just fought, and fought, and fought for—“This is what goes on top of the tree.”
But Diane had her own tradition—she has her own children, by the way—and so they had a tradition that they were rooted in. And so, boy; there was just this ongoing battle about what goes on top of the tree.
Michelle: And that would be hard; because: “Do you give in?” “Do you not?”
Michelle: “Do you stand your ground?”
Michelle: “What/how do you do that?”
Ron: Exactly; so a few years into this battle, Diane has an epiphany: “Oh, my goodness; this is not about hers versus mine. Hers is about her mother, because that item that she wants to put on top of the tree was her mom’s. And so I’m asking her to replace her mom with me.”
And all of a sudden,—
Ron: —the whole debate in her heart changed.
Michelle: And that’s huge symbolism—
Ron: Yes, absolutely.
Michelle: —thinking about all it was, was this figure on top of the tree;—
Ron: —but it’s what it represents.
Michelle: —but it was in the child’s heart. It was like, “You can’t—
Michelle: —“take over mom’s spot.”
Ron: Now, Diane will tell you that one of the best things a stepparent can do, in a situation like that, is to keep the deceased parent alive in the traditions of/for the children.
Again, and this is true, whether they happen to be, you know, six, or sixteen, or thirty-six, which happens more and more with families, where mom and dad had a 30-year marriage and then somebody passes away. And then, a few years later, the living parent marries, again, later in life. We have a bunch of adult children, who are now coming home for Christmas; and they desperately want mom’s ornament—
Ron: —on top of the tree, because it—we remember, we appreciate, and we value her—it is a grief issue; it is a memory matter. It/it’s all of that wrapped up into that one ornament. That’s a sacrifice worth making in order to help that child but, also, help your family move into the future.
Ron: Now, some people would say: “Yes, but there’s a flip side to that. It’s my tree; it’s my house. It’s/you know, it’s—wait a minute; this is our family—why are we making space for a deceased mother?”
Well, you can try to fight that battle and win on your terms. I think you will implode your family. You know, I think you will undercut—
Ron: —your own home. It’s a small gesture/an act of grace; but it goes a long way towards actually making you more respectable and approachable, from the child’s point of view.
Michelle: Yes. I want to move into adult children, who have lost their parent; and the other parent remarries.
Michelle: Going home for Christmas is not—
Michelle: —quite the same. Or even [the adult children] taking their children to their home, that they were raised in, for Christmas. And all of a sudden, their children don’t know grandpa—
Michelle: —quite as well as they used to,—
Michelle: —because he’s busy with this other new family. I’m just thinking of the complexity issues.
Ron: Oh, my goodness; it’s an identity issue. It doesn’t feel like going home: “When I go back to the house I grew up in, but dad’s new wife is there. And dad’s new wife’s three adult children, with their five grandchildren, are also there, and I’m sitting at a table with ten people—
Michelle: —people you don’t know. [Laughter]
Ron: —“people I don’t know—like I/you know, three times a year, we have interaction with—and other than that, I really don’t know who they are; I don’t know what they’re about; I’m just getting to know them.”
You know, when you’re moving into that space, the thing I would encourage people with, you know, this Christmas: “Just have an openness; try to be friendly.
Ron: “Sometimes, people don’t want to be friends with you; and you can still be friendly”; right? I mean, we all have people in our world—our neighbors, our people, coworkers, or what have you—that we’re never really going to have a friendship with, but we can be friendly when around them. That’s the place to start. It may be where you end up; but at least, it’s a beginning. In some cases, it’s going to lead to, over time—and it may be years of time—that you deepen that relationship: you do get to know them; gain a respect, them for you, and so on. You have to start somewhere; open yourself up to the possibilities.
It’s really hard when people kind of hold back—sometimes, it’s resentment; sometimes it’s guilt; sometimes, it’s just sadness over whoever’s not there and why they’re not there/what the backstory is. You know, if that’s holding you up, pray about it. You know, nobody’s judging you for that; but at the same time, you need to recognize that you’re blocking any ability for you to move forward. You’re making it hard/awkward for other members of your family to enjoy you and enjoy one another. Find some grace for that moment,—
Ron: —because it makes a difference.
Michelle: I just want to throw out a scenario: you live 12 hours away from your parents. Your mother has just passed away; your father remarried. I go home to this—what used to be my home;—
Michelle: —but yet, I’ve got this new mom.
Michelle: Is it okay to be open and honest with—with, you know, the new stepmom—as an adult, to say, “You know, I really appreciate the angel on top of the tree; that was Mom’s.” Or is it something that you back away from, and you ask if you can have the angel on top of the tree for your own tree? How do you handle that?
Ron: You know, one of the first things you’re going to do, is define the relationship; right? It’s kind of: “Come to some understanding about: ‘How are we going to do business together?’”
Let’s just say you are that person; right?—you married my dad, later in life—and so here we are. I’m having this—you know, first, we’re getting to know each other kind of opportunity. I’m going to say, “Look, Michelle, I"—by the way, I used your first name; I didn’t call you Mom; I didn’t call you—
Ron: —“Michelle, I appreciate all that’s going on with you and Dad and that relationship. One of the things I want us to kind of figure out is how we do life together. So for example, we’re here this weekend; we’ve invaded your home. I know that’s kind of hard and difficult, but I just want you to know I do want to get to know you. I do want us to figure out our relationship on our own terms.”
See, what we’re doing here is, you know, we are talking about how we’re going to talk.
Ron: We are figuring out how we’re going to move forward in this relationship. I think that is one of the most important things that anybody can do, because it helps get through the awkwardness.
Now, you and I both come out of that little five-minute conversation, going, “Okay, I kind of feel like we know how to move forward.” And then we’ll probably have another define-the-relationship conversation at some point in the future. And we’ll probably have to do it, you know, a number of times as we move forward. But at least, now, you know where I’m coming from; I know where you’re coming from; and we can take a few steps together.
Michelle: Well, and it’s taking those healthy steps; because if we don’t take those healthy steps, you’ve got disappointment, and then you have resentment that grows,—
Ron: Right; right.
Michelle: —and then/and then everybody’s like, “Well, I think this is what’s going on…” When, if we can just take those healthy steps at the beginning.
Ron: Yes; and so be proactive. That/here’s the take-away: “Be proactive;”—whatever your circumstances are this Christmas—“get it out there. Define the relationship; talk with them, one on one. Figure out how you can move forward together. And just have an openness/a basic respect; be friendly.” See if that doesn’t take root and move you forward.
Michelle: Excellent; thank you so much. Our time is up; I’m sad to say. But Ron, thank you for joining me today, and just helping unpack what Christmas expectations are and how we can just help have a cohesive and enjoyable Christmas this year.
Ron: Yes; thanks for having me.
Michelle: And Ron’s book, Daily Encouragement for the Stepfamily would be a great stocking stuffer for a stepfamily in your life. We have a link to his book and some other resources, like important articles about Christmas time and loss, and just dealing with blended families at Christmas. Go to FamilyLifeThisWeek.com; that’s FamilyLifeThisWeek.com.
Hey, Christmas is in just a few weeks; and I’ve started receiving Christmas cards. So much fun! I love checking the mailbox and ripping open the envelopes. If you haven’t sent your Christmas card in yet, would you please send me the card by, I don’t know, December 20? We’re going to have an unveiling before the Christmas holidays, and I want to have more cards in here than Bob [Lepine] does. So please send your card to [100 Lake Hart Drive, Orlando, FL; zip code is 32832.] And make it to attention: Michelle Hill [Audio Group], not Bob Lepine.
Hey, coming up next week, I’m going to talk with [Randall Goodgame about a Slugs & Bugs Christmas.] It’s going to be a great discussion. I hope you can join us for that.
Hey, thanks for listening! I want to thank the president of FamilyLife®, David Robbins, and our co-founder, Dennis Rainey, along with our station partners around the country. A big “Thank you!” to our engineer today, Keith Lynch. Thanks to our producers, Marques Holt and Bruce Goff. Justin Adams is our mastering engineer, and Megan Martin is our production coordinator.
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