CHRISTMAS CARDS: Jen Walker (standing on left) and her partner Craig Fisher, (seated at right) clown for the camera with their respective kids (from left) Jonah Bommassar, Paige Bommassar, Tyler Fisher (lying down), and Joshua Fisher.
Photo by Buffy Goodman
As the holiday season approaches, many blended families are thinking about how to plan for a happy and stress-free melding of worlds. And experts say those who are not, perhaps should be.
“The hope is that parents can meet beforehand and discuss what everyone would like to see happen and how to implement that,” says Christine Nelson-Voigt, an Alberta Health Services social worker. “Children may experience a sense of loss because of things changing, but change can also mean positive, fun, and new experiences. It’s all in the reframe.”
Sometimes the blending can be beautiful. Other times juggling it all, especially during the holidays, can be stressful.
Craig Fisher and Jen Walker have the formula down and find a little planning, a lot of patience and open lines of communication (between everyone, from each other to former partners to all their children), make it work.
“Our scenario is very special, in that we get along with our exes and all of us have the same mentality – it’s about the kids,” Walker says. “You have to let go of your ego; that has to be put aside. The biggest part is put the kids first.”
Fisher adds: “We’ve always said to the kids, ‘This is the schedule we set out but if you want to be with the other parent, that’s totally cool.’ ”
Still, there is a learning curve. And for the modern-day Brady Bunch – which includes Fisher’s two sons and Walker’s daughter and son, aged from 10 to 17 – it meant realizing it is all about perspective.
“If you are looking at it from the kids’ perspective, they get two Christmases, two birthdays, pretty much two of everything,” Fisher says, extolling the virtues which can be found in blended family-dom. “As a parent, I get to share in the growth and development of other people’s children. I love being around them, hearing about their day and hearing about experiences. Not that I didn’t enjoy my kids. I do every day, but I get to do it all over again.”
The couple says one ingredient to a happy holiday is respecting old traditions and creating new one albeit in different households.
Nelson-Voigt agrees. “Holidays can be emotional times, in particular if one partner or family is feeling they’re losing time or something of significance with their child,” she says.
“If possible, if one parent values a certain aspect of the holiday more than the other, they should be able to do it with the kids. For example, if decorating the tree or baking cookies, or whatever it may be, holds special meaning, perhaps then the other parent could take on something else or create a new tradition which will carry forward. The goal is always to add to the children’s and families’ experiences as opposed to taking away from it.”
Walker and her partner say another golden rule is to never trash-talk any parent and acknowledge if one has custody of the children, the other parent does not.
“If you are that parent that has that child, I would say put all your differences aside just for one day and appreciate and understand the other parent doesn’t have the children for that Christmas,” Walker says. “Pick up the phone [for the kids to call them] and say ‘Merry Christmas,’ ‘I wish you were here.’ Take pictures of yourself opening presents – ‘Dad and Mom are still happy even though you weren’t there,’ ” Fisher adds. “I think every kid thinks about every parent.”
Charles Coleman, with Journey Counselling in Calgary, says it isn’t always so easy. Sometimes unresolved issues can’t be patched up all pretty just because Santa is paying a visit. “Usually, I would classify parents in two categories – those who have come to accept the separation and new family setups and those who have not,” says the registered psychologist and marriage and family therapist. “Those who have accepted should be able to set up a meaningful experience,” he explains. “Those who haven’t … It doesn’t matter whether it was Halloween costumes or Christmas holidays, any topic that brings them together where they have to talk becomes an opportunity for conflict.”
Photo by Buffy Goodman
If that’s the case, Coleman, citing an African proverb – “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers” – cautions parents to remember to make children the priority. “It’s better not to talk about the other parent at all than to talk negatively,” he says.
But, no matter how well the blending is done and how seemingly perfect parenting partnerships between exes, some pragmatic conundrums can prevail.
Sometimes that is to be expected. “One of the major issues I’ve heard coming up often is where the kids will spend Christmas and with whom,” Coleman says. “It’s usually a mishmash of parents and new parents and kids and then grandparents and then existing traditions the nuclear family had – and one parent trying to keep the tradition going, but the other parent has married a new partner and wants to set up a new tradition, so there is a lot of chaos that can occur.”
A lot can be mitigated, however, with planning, patience and compromise.
“While Christmas can be the most meaningful of holidays, it’s not the only holiday,” Coleman says. “Stepping back gives them an opportunity to have a long-term view. This year they will be with one parent, the next year with the other.”
While older children might have connections with friends, enhanced with social media, younger children are more isolated and might find it the transition into a newly blended family a little more tough, says Coleman.
He suggests “creating an environment where the other parent is present,” which could mean displaying a photograph of the other parent, shopping for a gift for them, or making a phone call or sending a text to deliver holiday greetings.
“Just create a little moment while [a child is with] one parent to create connections with the other parent,” Coleman says. “The kids’ experience is, ‘We do have two homes now, two Christmases and two traditions’ – and the sooner they can accept it, the better they will be long term.”
Of course, people can’t turn back time, but Walker and Fisher say setting their family up for happy, healthy holidays comes down to striving for that sort of environment on the home front year-round and it even goes back to how they waded into combining their kin years ago.
“We didn’t jump into a relationship, we really eased the children into the potential we might be an item,” Fisher says of the six- or seven-month process. “It was a strategy of success.”
And for all blended families bracing for the holidays, Nelson-Voigt says expecting perfection may be setting the bar too high. “Recognize it’s not going to be perfect and that this is OK,” she says. “Holidays are often stressful for all kinds of families – too much pressure can be put on all of us and emotions run high – if it doesn’t go as planned, try to let that go and learn from it and move on.”
Tips for a healthy blended holiday
Since every blended family’s dynamic is different, there isn’t one recipe for guaranteeing the holidays are happy and healthy.
But here are some tips.
- Create two separate experiences rather than trying to mimic experiences between parents.
- Connect with the other parent for the sake of the children.
- Settle on a schedule, but be flexible and let children feel they are part of the process.
- Emotionally try to disengage with your ex if the situation is combative, and remember to put the kids first.
- Meet beforehand with all parties to discuss how the holidays will go; have things organized and don’t leave too much to chance.
- Develop new traditions without taking away from the old.
- Parents need to compromise, be flexible and recognize things may need to shift a bit, always being respectful. For example, if tree decorating is important to one parent or to the kids, maybe the other parent could do the gingerbread house or other traditional activity on a different weekend.
- Don’t try to do too much in one day. Two houses or two big celebrations may be too taxing for everyone.
- Think of kids’ needs first, which means you may need to let go of what you want.
- Communication is key. Letting the kids know what is happening on what day. If appropriate and feasible, try involving them in decision-making.
- Discuss what went well, what could be better, and remember that for next year.
- Try not to overwhelm children by trying to compensate for
the separation by buying them more gifts or splurging. Keep it simple and meaningful.
- Don’t trash talk the other parent or compare experiences from one household to the other.