Building Holiday Traditions: The Stepfamily Way

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When you are juggling the demands of a home, marriage, children, stepchildren, a job and other obligations in the midst of the frenetic holiday season - bonding moments may be the last thing on your mind. But don't let the opportunities to draw closer to your stepfamily slip away. Here's a few tips to help you carve some time out of that busy schedule.

1. Expand your time frame beyond a 24-hour period. If you celebrate Christmas like us, then you know that the big day can mean a whirlwind of activity - and stepfamilies often face added pressure by adding into the whirl custody swaps and supplemental relatives who jockey for time with the kids.

Because we live in a stepfamily, one gift we can give our children and stepchildren is a sense of appreciating family and the people one cares about throughout the year. Think beyond December 25th. In our household - Santa Claus is coming on a completely different day because the kids are going out of town this year with their mom to visit her relatives. There will be plenty of merriment in our house - just on another day entirely.

2. Think interactive. Find activities that allow your stepfamily members to do something together. It might mean attending a school production of "A Christmas Carol" together and discussing it later. Or decorating a tree together, going ice skating, building a snowman, caroling for the neighbors, collecting food for the needy, preparing a special meal or making ornaments and other crafts around the kitchen table. If all else fails - go to the movies - and talk about it after.

Personally, I like the arts and crafts activities the best because they leave a touchstone every year that we can revisit, underscoring our continuity as a stepfamily. When the boxes full of Christmas decorations come out of the attic each year, we search eagerly for the glass ornaments we painted together amid the piles of ornaments and chintz. They're almost always the first ones on the tree and given places of prominence.


3. Be sensitive to fragile feelings and find ways for individuals to connect to the whole celebration. Because the holidays can carry memories linked to broken families and expectations for "normalcy" are heavy, they can also be a fragile time for children and adults. My husband took each child to the store separately to buy three ornaments for our Christmas tree and talked with each privately. This gave each of them a sense of belonging and some precious alone time with their dad.

The first time we painted ornaments together as a group, the kids were rowdy and obnoxious. I got upset and slipped out for a little space. When I came back my stepson ran up to me offering an ornament and saying he was sorry for being bad. This from a teen who grunted at me on a daily basis, answered questions in a monotone, and whom I thought didn't even know I was alive?! Today that ornament is one of my most prized possessions.

4. Don't be lazy. Don't chop the kids out of holiday activities just because involving them takes too much effort. As an introverted writer, it's tantalizingly easy to picture myself in the kitchen baking up a snowstorm of holiday yummies and crooning along to Christmas carols - blissfully alone and minus the mantle of stepmom-hood.

But I realized last year that chopping the kids out of an activity they could enjoy, was giving away an opportunity for me to bond with them. The kids wanted to find out how all these lovely confections were churned out, and my possessiveness about time and space prevented us all from having a fuller experience, one that could even become a tradition - or at the very least a memory.

So this year the baking will happen while the kids are at our house - even though it means delaying my annual bon-bon bonanza. I think it's a smart move, because when love goes into the cookies -that's when they taste the best.

A thirty-something wife and stepmom of three, Dawn Miller writes a bi-weekly column on life in blended families at www.thestepfamilylife.com. Website links about stepfamilies, a free newsletter and a bookstore are available. Readers are welcome to email her at dmiller@thestepfamilylife.com.

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