By Marni Jameson
I never set out to be the poster woman for blended families. DC and I were both married before, for happily ever after. Then his wife suddenly died, and my marriage hit the rocks, and here we are, middle-aged newlyweds with a blended family of five (arguably) grown children.
Ever since we got married earlier this year, life has been one new beginning after another: new home, new marriage, new friends, new traditions. Wait. New traditions? That’s an oxymoron. Tradition by definition means old, as in you’ve done something the same way for yeeeeaaaarrrs.
How’re we going to do that? As the female lead in this new ensemble, I feel it’s my job to create the holiday magic. But as I list toward our first married holidays together, I’m looking around for the blended-family playbook, and finding I have to write it as I go.
It doesn’t help that our kids, who range in age from 21 to 35, live all over the country, scattered like dandelion thistle across four states. Getting them together is like expecting goldfish to line up when you blow a whistle.
Though they are all on board with the new deal, I can sense spines stiffening, heels rooting deeper, as we discuss just how and where and with whom everyone will spend the holidays. Turns out, they’re writing their own playbooks. How dare they get on with their own lives!
See, I presumed everyone would come to our house. But a few inquiries revealed that the two married offspring, both sons, were going to their in-laws’ for Thanksgiving. Two of the girls – one in Phoenix, one in Houston – both have boyfriends, and don’t want to travel on a crazy weekend; they want to cook dinner in their own apartments. (Both invited us.) The youngest wants to go my brother’s house, who lives near her in California.
“I feel abandoned,” I tell DC.
“Be grateful we have independent kids who landed on their feet, and have solid extended families.”
“How could they not need me?” I cry. “Was it my mashed cauliflower that I tried to disguise as potatoes?
He has no words. Who would?
Meanwhile, my Norman Rockwell picture of everyone huddled around the turkey is turning to mincemeat.
Before I make a mama-sized mess out of this, I decide to call a pro. Dr. Donald Gordon is an expert in parent-child relationships, and founder of the Center for Divorce Education, in Ashland, Ore.
“Humans crave predictability,” said Gordon, when I asked him why traditions are so important to me. “Simple routines like getting up and making coffee are comforting, while a change in patterns is stressful. This repetition of pattern gets amplified on holidays, when expectations are high, and the potential for disappointment therefore great.”
“I’m crestfallen and the season’s first holiday isn’t even here yet,” I say.
“Holidays for blended families can be tricky, because they bring back memories of previous holidays that can never be again. People who have lost a loved one really feel it.”
“But how do you create old traditions in a new marriage, when everyone wants to go his own way?” I asked.
“It takes time.”
Blended – I like to call them remodeled — families make up most families today. Though no two blended situations are the same, for those working to find their new normal this holiday season, here’s some advice from Gordon:
- Continue the traditions you can. Wherever you celebrate (and we will be going to my daughter’s in Houston, after all), do at least one activity that you’ve always done on that holiday, said Gordon. Maybe you have Chinese takeout the night before Thanksgiving, or perhaps you all shoot pool, play board games or take a long walk after dinner. Do those activities again. Then look for unique ways to build a tradition in your new blended family.
- Make the menu meaningful. Food is the center of many traditions. Don’t mess with expectations. Ask the other side of the family whether they have a traditional dish they like to have, and make it our have them make it. Meanwhile, introduce them to yours.
- Tune in. “Blended families cause swells of emotions, good and bad, for everyone involved,” he said. Kids often feel worried and anxious because they are trying to find their place in the new mix. “When you notice your kids are suddenly quiet, or moody, that’s your cue to say, ‘You look a little concerned.’ Then listen. You want kids to know their feelings are legitimate and that it’s good to talk them out,” Gordon said. “You can’t always fix what’s bothering them, but you can show you care and understand.”
- Embrace the present. Recognize and accept those feelings of missing what is no longer, but don’t wallow. Swiftly shift your attention to the present and what you’re grateful for at the moment: the meal you’re enjoying, the home you’re in, the people you’re with, the nature walk you take. Avoid ruminating over what’s past. Traditions, like families, evolve in wondrous and unpredictable ways.
- Encourage connection. In a divorce situation, kids commonly miss the parent they’re not with. Help your child connect with that parent or other absent family members through a phone call or FaceTime.
- Don’t expect a fast warm up. If kids don’t warm up to the new spouse or step siblings right away, that’s normal, said Gordon. “These relationships take a lot of years; bonding will happen in time. Don’t push it.”
- Lower your bar. Happiness is the distance between our expectations and reality. If you heap a lot of expectations on the holiday, and it falls short, you will be unhappy. Maybe just say, if I get to be with loved ones, that’s enough. “Look for what you’re grateful for instead of focusing on not getting everything you want.”
Isn’t that what being thankful is all about?
Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of two home and lifestyle books, and the newly released Downsizing the Family Home – What to Save, What to Let Go (Sterling Publishing 2016). You may reach her at www.marnijameson.com.