It can be hard to be the non-biological parent to a child during the holidays. It's common to experience resentment (on your end, and the child's) about where Christmas Eve and Day are spent, competition over who gave the kids the better gift, and jealousy over memories you might not be a part of. Here are ways to make this time of year easier, and a lot of fun for the whole family.
1. Make a clear plan about who gets Christmas Eve and Christmas Day
In my family, we found the best solution to this sensitive topic is to alternate years—one year mom gets both days and the next year it goes to dad. In order to make this work, the dad or mom can have the weekend before or after Christmas to spend time with their kids, open gifts, and do a special activity such as hiking, skiing, or skating.
2. Be sensitive—the kids didn't ask for this
If, in fact, the arrangement is that the kids are going to two different places for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, realize that the kids are going to be sad about having to pack and travel. More than not, they will not be in the most festive mood upon arrival in your home. Be empathetic. They didn’t choose this situation.
3. However, when it’s time it’s time!
If Christmas present opening has been arranged for 10 o’clock in the morning on Christmas Day, waiting hours for stepchildren to show up can wreak havoc on your holiday. Don’t let it. If your biological children are ready to open gifts and the stepkids are not there yet, it’s unfortunate—but so be it. Let the celebration begin. Do not let the stepchildren’s lateness ruin the celebration for your family. This also goes for Hanukkah gifts, lighting the Hanukkah candles, or whatever celebratory holiday event you have prepared.
4. Establish new traditions
You might be of strong religious faith and go to a place of worship, or you might not, and what happens in the bio mom’s house doesn’t have to happen in yours. Make the holidays a tradition in your household that everyone wants to participate in, by finding new ways to bring your blended family together. For example: The stepkids and biological kids can exchange homemade gifts, go on a fun scavenger hunt, or decorate the tree together. Start a new Christmas movie tradition (my family always likes Elf with Will Ferrell!) and remember, the holidays are for everyone.
5. Sharing is caring: Split the BIG gift so both sets of parents win
It’s best to coordinate gifts between both sets of parents to avoid unwanted surprises. It’s a complete downer to watch a child open a gift you thought was truly special only to find out at that moment that their mother or father already bought the same thing! It’s also puts the child in a position where they might want to lie about having already received the gift, so they don’t hurt your feelings. Have the big gift be the "unified gift" where both sets of parents chip in equally and everyone can feel the glory. Remember, it isn’t a competition.
6. Don't be offended if the step kids don't love what you pick out
Unless the children are young, don't assume that they'll love what you pick out. You'll get your feelings hurt during gift opening when all you get is a very lame, "thannnk you." Have your husband get suggestions from the kids so you can plan accordingly. If you don't get a clear answer, a true win is the gift card, which takes the guesswork out of the equation. How about wrapping the gift card in a fancy box with a big bow? Telling them you wanted them to have the ability to choose what they like scores points!
7. Coach your partner on what gifts the stepkids should buy you
It’s not on the top of biological mom’s list to pick out the perfect gift that makes you feel soft and fuzzy (quite the opposite usually!) so make it easy for everyone. Have your partner take your stepkids to the store himself so he can be in control of the situation, or if logistically that doesn’t work, perhaps your partner can pick something up for you from the stepkids, trust us—that will ease A LOT of discomfort during present opening time!
8. Stepkids vs bio kids: Who gets the most (and best!) presents?
It often happens that an extended family will shower the stepchildren with gifts and your own biological children feel sidelined…Yes: Same dad, same grandparents, but the stepchildren end up receiving better gifts or more gifts. Whether it’s out of guilt (or, maybe, everyone just favors the stepkids!), it surely creates some animosity. Try to shrug it off when it happens. However, have a conversation with your partner in private and address the issue so your partner can raise awareness to the family and hopefully rectify for next year.
9. Let the kids decide where their new presents live: Moms’ house or dads
Anticipate that the stepkids might want to take the gifts you bought with them. If the gift is taken back to their mom’s home, there is a possibility that you might never see it again. Remember, a gift is just that: A gift. Don’t make the stepkids feel as though they can't take their new gifts back to the other house. Children are excited when they get something new, be it a toy or a new shirt, and they don't want to have to leave it behind. It's not their fault they have two homes. So be the bigger person and let them walk out the door with it.
10. Set a festive holiday table, but serve what they want to eat
There is nothing worse than spending all day in the kitchen, setting a beautiful table, and having the kids scowl when you put the meal out. Make sure you know what they'll eat, even it's only chicken nuggets and tater tots or frozen pizza. Make a beautiful meal for you and your husband, light the candles, dim the lights, and microwave theirs if that's what they want. Enjoy the time sitting down together.
11. Gracefully acknowledge family vacations
Don’t be surprised if your stepkids and their other set of parents go on a wonderful vacation when you, your bio kid(s), and your partner choose to have a staycation instead. Sure, it's hard to watch your partner shell out child support and alimony and not get to experience vacations with his children, but realize that his ex might be with somebody else who has the resources to take your stepchildren to fabulous places. If your bio kids seem jealous of your stepkids, try not to let your own resentment show. Your jaw might hurt from all the clenching, but grit your teeth and plan some fun, local experiences instead.
12. Finally, it's all about the memories, baby
It is best to make the time from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve more about family and less about material items. If you really want to make your stepkid(s) happy, ask their opinion on how they want to celebrate. Then advocate for your kid(s), and when they are old enough, let them make some of the decisions. Remind yourself, it isn't about competing with the ex for the best gift, food, or party, it's about giving the kid(s) happy and healthy childhood memories, and they will thank you for it as they get older.
Kendall Rose is the author of The Stepmoms’ Club: How To Be a Stepmom Without Losing Your Money, Your Mind and Your Marriage by Kendall Rose; Source Books; May 2018.