CHRISTMAS is a wonderful time for families — but what if yours doesn’t fit the traditional stereotype?
Like thousands of people in Ireland today — one in 10 marriages here ends either in divorce (nearly 88,000 according to the Central Statistics Office) or separation (116,000) — you may be in a relationship with existing children on both sides.
Certainly blended families can work well — take the Kardashians and the Jenners.
When Kris Kardashian and Bruce Jenner (now Caitlyn) tied the knot back in the early ’90s, they each brought four children from their previous marriages.
Later they had two daughters between them, bringing their kid-count to 10, a situation once described by Kim Kardashian as “like The Brady Bunch on crack”.
However, blended families aren’t always like The Brady Bunch, and in some cases, Christmas can pose a real challenge, particularly if a family unit is newly established.
How do you keep the magic of the season alive when there are so many needs and expectations to be met — and in not a few cases — feelings of loss, sadness and anger to be tackled sensitively?
“The early stages can be more difficult to negotiate,” observes relationships therapist Bernadette Ryan, a counsellor with Relationships Ireland, who explains that although well-intentioned adults may assume it will be happy families all the way, this often does not turn out to be the case.
In fact, she says, such expectations may turn out to be more based on fantasy because “the reality is more complex”.
In the original family, she explains, the couple will predate the children, but in the blended family the kids pre-date the couple — and this changes the whole family order.
“So whereas a child may have been the eldest in their family of origin, now they may no longer be the eldest, and that can be difficult for the child — and for the other children.
“Other challenges can be around the age of children and the needs of all the children involved,” she says, explaining that teenagers may express resentment at the arrival of a step-parent and step-siblings in their home, or the imposition of a new-style Christmas after many years of tradition.
Younger children can feel torn and guilty if they find they’re having a good time in a new blended family.
“There is sadness at the absence of a parent. That needs to be acknowledged, and the child should be allowed to feel sad.”
Children may be mourning what has been lost, says Ryan and they may be afraid to express this sadness because they don’t want to upset the status quo.
Some of the challenges faced by blended families can be logistical, says psychotherapist Karl Melvin, pointing out that transporting a child or children between the homes of separated or divorced parents can be awkward.
The first Christmas that Louise* and her partner John* spent with their blended family of two young children each, aged six, four, three and one, was very difficult.
The problems were logistical, she recalls: “My partner’s ex wanted him to stay with her and their children in their former home, even though they were separated. However the children came to us on Christmas Day.”
But there were prolonged and often bitter arguments over arrangements, which left Louise’s partner driving 100 miles on Christmas Day to collect his children from and later return them to, his ex-wife.
His oldest child was withdrawn and quiet that day, Louise recalls: “She felt guilty leaving her mother on her own to come to us Christmas Day; she knew her mother was upset,” recalls Louise, who says there was no sense of relaxation or calm on the day.
“The whole day was spent driving, and nobody got to enjoy the day — my partner couldn’t relax or have a drink because of the long drive ahead of him. There was a lot of driving around between houses,” she says.
On top of all of that there was ill-feeling about the distribution of presents — both by Santa and by members of the extended family networks.
Louise’s own family bought her new step-children presents, but John’s family did not buy presents for Louise’s children.
“There was jealousy over that,” she recalls adding that there were also arguments of where Santa would stop off.
“The adults were arguing over where Santa would be leaving presents,” she says, with John looking for Santa to leave gifts for his children in both his former and current homes — while Louise’s children only got presents in one house.
“We spent a fortune ensuring that everyone got exactly the same amount of stuff,” she recalls.
By contrast, Louise’s arrangements with her ex were more organised than that of her partner and his ex-wife — that first year, she said, they went “as smoothly as they could have gone”.
Over the years, she says everything got smoother all around because the bitterness resulting from the break-ups faded and the adults started to focus on the practicalities, learning not to let their personal feelings get in the way. However, it took time.
Stepfamilies must tackle a number of holiday issues that traditional families will never have to face, says Laura Haugh of MummyPages.ie. “For example, who gets to have the children on Christmas Eve and wake them up Christmas morning, which family is going to buy the new games console and where it will reside, not to mention the wants and wishes of the grandparents.”
Couples, adds Melvin, may also face the possibility of dealing with sad, upset or angry children who are misbehaving or who have a strong sense of entitlement exacerbated by a parent’s feelings of guilt or protectiveness.
Avoiding a sense of favouritism or exclusion among step-brothers or step-sisters is critical, he warns.
New partners may make the well-intentioned mistake of paying more attention to their step-children than to their biological children — not a good idea.
If introducing children to a new extended step-family (step aunties/uncles/grandmother), it’s important ensure that the child feels welcome and at home in the new circle, he says.
Allow, where possible, for a visit by the absent parent on Christmas morning, advises Ryan.
“The other parent needs to be taken into consideration here, and a lot of thought and preparation needs to go into this.
“Preparations need to be made for Christmas,” she says, noting that these must take into account both the children’s and the adults needs.
But remember, she counsels, “We cannot be all things to all children so try to prepare well and be open to the possibility that it may not be all happy-clappy.”
Therefore the best time to start preparing for a different Christmas has to months before, and not left until December, Ryan believes.
Let the child know what’s happening, suggests Melvin, and involve them in the plans.
If possible, he says, allow the children to spend some part of Christmas Day with both parents together, if even for an hour.
But although it’s important to let a child know he or she is still very special and that Santa will find him or her even though the new family may have moved house, don’t allow a child to rule the roost.
“You are still the parent,” he says.
Understand the importance of tradition to a child — because in Ireland, Christmas is all about tradition, says Ryan.
“Children love traditions; they love the pattern of belonging in their family and being able to rely on things,” she explains.
A big question for the blended family can be whether to incorporate some of the former traditions with new traditions or to simply introduce new traditions for a fresh start.
Above all, as a parent, don’t shoulder all the responsibility for every else’s magical Christmas — remember, says Melvin, you’re no use to your child if you don’t look after yourself.
Put some time aside for yourself this Christmas, Ryan counsels: “You need a break too. Do what you can to help children feel as good as possible and try to understand the concept of the ‘good-enough parent’.
“Don’t shoulder all the responsibility for everyone else’s magical Christmas.”