Stepfamily and Christmas
About the Guest
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Ron DealRon L. Deal is one of the most widely read and viewed experts on blended families in the country. He is Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®, founder of Smart Stepfamilies™, and the author and Consulting Editor of the Smart Stepfamily Series
Holidays for newly blended families can be a minefield of hurt feelings if you don’t know the terrain. Ron Deal talks with Michelle Hill to help families navigate the holidays by managing expectations from the start.
Stepfamily and Christmas
Michelle: She wants to hang stockings over the fireplace on Christmas Eve with her kids, like she grew up doing; and his kids—well, they grew up building gingerbread houses every Christmas Eve—what’s a blended family to do? Here is FamilyLife®’s Blended®’s Ron Deal.
Ron: Sometimes, you just have to let go of that tradition and morph it, change it, switch it up; find what will work. Make a new tradition to match your new family, and the circumstances that you are in, and have a spirit of gladness about it; that’s what makes it Christmas.
Michelle: We’re going to talk about Christmas, blended families, traditions, and how to make it all work with blended family guru, Ron Deal, on this edition of FamilyLife This Week.
Welcome to FamilyLife This Week. I’m Michelle Hill. Welcome to the week before Christmas, and your life is just a bustle of activity. Let’s take a look at your to-do list: the Christmas cantata, check; grocery shopping for Christmas brunch, check; you sent out those Christmas cards this year; right?—oh, okay; that will be the “Happy New Year” cards, check; Christmas shopping, check; wrapping, well that always happens Christmas Eve; a plan for your blended family—oh, wait; that’s why Ron Deal is joining me today—because he’s the expert on blended families. He gives leadership to Smart Stepfamilies and FamilyLife Blended.
Ron, I’ve just got to start things off and ask you: “What are the unique pressures that are facing blended families at Christmastime?”
Ron: Well, first of all, let’s just acknowledge—everybody, no matter what kind of family you have—you’re feeling the stress and the tension of putting it all together, and being where you’re supposed to be, or trying to get to where you want to be and be with family, and cook the meals, and just buy all the gifts.
Michelle: Not enough time for anything at Christmastime.
Ron: So there is pressure there; right?
Ron: Add to that COVID—[Laughter]
Ron: —the one word we’ve all come to hate; you know?—and the uncertainty that goes with it/the ambiguity of it: “Okay; we’re going to show up at Mom’s house, and there is going to be 80 people there. Will they all be in masks? Should I wear a mask? Do I have to—can I say, ‘Hello’? Can I hug my favorite person that I haven’t seen?” That’s just difficult.
Now, you translate that for a blended family—it’s: “I’m sending my kids to this house; and there are 80 people there. What will they be exposed to? How do I prepare them?—that’s out of my hands. How do I communicate with the other home: ‘I hope that they are COVID safe’?”
Michelle: That adds a heaviness—not only complexity—but a heaviness to it; because, just as you are unpacking that, I’m like, “Oh!”
Ron: Yes; we’ve all heard the news reports—funerals, and weddings, and family get-togethers—that becomes a super spreader. That kind of anxiety can really just kick in; I know that’s difficult.
You add on top of that—one of the things we recommend in our ministry, here at FamilyLife to blended families, is that they plan, plan, plan, plan, plan way out in advance of holidays. But then we always come back and say, “And be flexible,”—[Laughter]—because that wonderful plan, and all the—you talked with three households; including grandparents, and the other bio-parent, and two stepparents on whatever; and you got it all worked out perfectly; and then it snows somewhere, and somebody can’t get to where they are supposed to be. Or—
Michelle: —and there are tears.
Ron: —there is a hiccup somewhere in the schedule, and the dominos fall. It’s just not going to work, so you’ve got to flex; you’ve got to find a way through.
We did a FamilyLife Blended podcast, Episode number 21, Stepfamilies and the Holidays—is one of our most popular—because we interviewed a bunch of parents. We just let them talk about all of the things that they were stressed about. One of the things they shared was—when you, as parent/stepparent; whoever is in charge of your home—when you work really hard to be happy and show some contentment about what’s happening—it may not have been what you planned; but when you get okay with it—it really helps children get okay with it. But if you are completely miserable, and griping, and grumbling, and gritting your teeth around what the other home is doing, and on and on, guess what?—it’s stressful for your kids—they don’t want to go; all of a sudden, they just want to retreat. They don’t want to make anybody mad. They are miserable, too; everybody is miserable. There is something about finding contentment with the stuff you can’t control that is going to help—
Ron: —this Christmas be about the Savior and not about your inconvenience.
Michelle: —which Christmas should be about—joy and contentment anyway—
Michelle: —because it should be the happiest time of the year. Yet, it tends to be the hardest time of the year for so many.
Ron: Yes, yes; Shannon Simmons on that podcast—they’ve taught their kids from, day one, that: “Christmas is not about you.” I just thought, “Oh, that’s so good.” [Laughter]
Michelle: We’ll have a link [to that podcast] on our website at FamilyLifeThisWeek.com; that’s FamilyLifeThisWeek.com.
Ron, let’s get practical here. Let’s say that there is somebody, who hasn’t had that COVID talk, and—
Ron: Yes; wow.
Michelle: —they are going into releasing their kids for, maybe, Christmas Eve or maybe Christmas Day. What needs to happen? What’s the communication that needs to happen?
Ron: Okay; so it’s very tempting for co-parents to talk to one another through their children; don’t do it! It’s so easy to just say—you’ve got a 16-year-old—“Hey, tell your dad, when you get to his house….” Not a good idea; right? Even if you’ve done it for years, and you think, “Oh, he’s okay with it,”— he’s not okay with it—he carries all of the emotional weight of that message, and all of the backlog of baggage between you and your former spouse; your child carries all of that with him in that message.
Michelle: We’re talking about heaviness earlier; that’s like high stress for a child—
Michelle: —no matter the age.
Ron: That’s right. Be a parent; make the phone call—have the conversation, adult to adult—with the other home. Start with an invitation: “Hey, I’d like for us to just spend a little time talking through our expectations for how we can manage the kids and do so in a safe way.” Again, the pandemic is in the background; so that’s often one of the pieces to this whole conversation. An invitation is not a commanding: “Listen, when the kids show up, you are going to…”—that’s a controlling message—by the way, my guess is that didn’t work when you were married [Laughter]; it’s certainly not going to work now.
Start with an invitation: “I’ve got an idea; do you mind if I share that? I’d love to hear yours.” Be collaborative in that. I know it always sounds easier than it really is. Somebody is listening right now, and they are saying, “Oh, man; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried, and it just doesn’t seem to work.” I do get it; it takes two to have a decent conversation.
Michelle: You know that there is going to be one parent, who says, “My child has to wear a mask, going into your parents’ home.” The other parent goes, “Absolutely not; I don’t wear a mask. I have no qualms; I have no issues.”
Michelle: Then you’ve got this child, who is feeling like, “Well, Mom makes me wear a mask; Dad doesn’t.”
Ron: —and they are stuck.
Ron: Right; okay, so let’s talk around that.
Michelle: Coach us through that.
Ron: Yes; clearly, if there was a black and white, it would be easy; and we could be done with this; but it’s never that easy. I did write an article this past year; we ended up calling it “Better Safe Than Sorry: Co-Parenting in the Age of Social Distancing.” It’s all about—it still applies, because we’re still in the pandemic—here are some principles I think how people need to think about:
When the children are with you, you are in charge.
When they are with the other home, they are in charge.
If you have some concerns about the other home, and how they handle the pandemic, then you need to talk, adult to adult, to the other home.
At the end of the day, you’ve got to respect their boundaries; and they are in charge.
Of course, if we were sitting here, talking about some extreme circumstance of abusive or whatever, you would do something about that: you would contact authorities, and you would get somebody else involved.
Ron: Now, let me just say another principle: “Don’t make a unilateral decision; because the courts have been clear, through the pandemic: ‘Visitation stipulations/divorce decrees are still in effect.’”
There are some people, right now, who haven’t seen their kids in three months; because they made a decision, a while back, for safety of the children—to leave them in the other home. I totally respect that/totally respect that. As far as the courts are concerned—if you, together, make a decision, I think they’ll honor it—but on paper, they still expect a back and forth. They still expect that, if it’s Dad’s house at Christmas this year on these dates, that that is still what’s going to happen. If you make a unilateral decision—meaning you don’t even bother to tell the other home: “I’m keeping the kids;—
Ron: —you’re not getting them,”—you may really face some blowback when this pandemic is over, from a legal standpoint; you need to be careful. It’s a dialogue.
Michelle: That’s good to know.
Ron: It’s conversation; don’t just go off and do what you want to do.
By the way, another little tip, from a legal standpoint: if one home is getting more time with the children, because you’ve agreed that that’s the safe way to handle things, it’s totally understandable, when the pandemic is over, that the other home is going to be able to make up that time. If they’ve been three months in one home, someday, the other home may get their three months back.
How all that gets worked out—I mean, there are so many questions the courts haven’t had an opportunity to figure out. I’m just telling people: “There is a legal implication for this, so don’t go off on your volition. Have a conversation and try to reach some decisions together.”
Michelle: I’m just curious: “Are there some other tips that you have concerning what’s going on, legally—
Michelle: —“during this?”
Ron: Again, the pandemic changes a lot of things: “If you and the other household decide to make a temporary change in what the visitation decree actually says should happen, because of the pandemic, just document that—document, document, document,”—I mean, that’s what attorneys will tell you.
Here is another; let me just connect a couple of dots for us here. I mean, the holidays, like we said, are stressful. I think, for blended families, one of the things that can happen is that stress and—because there is so much sentimentality to the holidays; you want it to be so special, and you want to share that with your children—it also brings up some of the old pain of the past; in particular, as it relates to a former spouse: “You hurt me bad back then; I can’t forget that. Now, you want me to be nice and give you the kids for an extra couple days.” Sometimes, pain gets in the way of being negotiable, and kind, and decent.
We’ve even run into some people, who are taking advantage of the pandemic to try to make other changes in their relationship with their former spouse; I don’t think this is the time.
Michelle: Great advice, Ron—a little heavy—so I’m thinking we need to take a break, so that we can take a breath a little bit. Think about this, and we’ll be back in two minutes and talk more about blended families and Christmas.
[Radio Station Spot Break]
Michelle: Welcome back to FamilyLife This Week. I’m Michelle Hill. Today, in the studio, is Ron Deal. We are talking about blended families and Christmas.
Ron, let’s say that I’m coming alongside a friend, who just got remarried, and she has kids/he has kids. As a friend—or maybe, this is a family member—how do I come alongside of them for this first blended Christmas?
Ron: Yes; share this podcast with them. We talked about an article, “13 Ideas to Manage Holiday Step-Stress,”—you know, real practical things like that—pass that along and then ask, “Is there anything here that kind of speaks to your situation?” and “How can I help?”
You know, it could be as simple as doing them a little favor: dropping a kid off somewhere, or covering a base while they have to go and do something else that only they can do; but you just take care of house and home or something for them. If you go there first, it does open the door; and I think it makes it easier for them to say, “Oh, thank you. If you could feed my dog, that would really be helpful.”
Michelle: You would think that that would be something that would just be every day common occurrence; but yet, when there is so much going on in one person’s head, and trying to remember schedules, feeding the dog is probably the last thing on their mind.
Ron: Right; so those are practical things. The other thing you can do is sit and listen. You know, sometimes, people just need to share and talk and think out loud. You’re not going to have all the answers—and they don’t expect you to have all the answers—but you’re just being a friend/you’re just hearing them out.
Michelle: —or offer to help them wrap Christmas presents, which brings up another question. Christmas present expectations—[Laughter]—like, when I’m thinking through that in a blended family,—
Michelle: —that could easily add up to hundreds/maybe, even thousands of dollars because: “Do I have to get for everyone?”
Ron: Yes; back to the plan, plan, plan. I was talking to one couple; they said, “Yes; we’ve got six sets of grandparents to our children and stepchildren, and our house/their dad’s house,”—you know, the other side has a second house. All of a sudden, you’re talking lots of homes/lots of people; everybody wants to buy a present.
They had to kind of get coordinated—you know?—“What kind of gifts are you thinking of getting?” “What kind of gifts are you…”—some people—you can take that to the nth-degree; or you can just try and say, in general: “It would be helpful if you were to get this…” or “…do that.” It takes somebody sitting down and trying to think it through a little bit and take some initiative.
Michelle: —and communication.
Ron: —and communication.
Michelle: That’s what I’m hearing; is that, throughout this whole entire Christmas process, communication is the number-one thing that we need.
Ron: If you are a couple in a blended family, and you each have former spouses or former partners, you are each responsible to connect in/try to find out what’s going on: “What are they thinking? What kind of gifts are they going to do?” Try to be in touch with the grandparents on those sides. Then bring it back home and say, “Alright; what have we learned? [Laughter] Now, what are we going to get the kids?”—you know? There is a lot there.
Now, we’re just a few days away from Christmas at this point. You may go, “Oh man! I wish we would have done that.” Okay; next year—you know?—it’s alright. “Live and learn,”—that’s one of the pieces of hope I want to share with our listeners right now—is nobody knows how to do this for their family on day one—nobody. First Christmas, they don’t know; second Christmas, it’s getting a little better, but they still don’t know.
The point is: “Keep moving it forward; live and learn; adjust based on your experiences; receive this year. Step out of this Christmas and make a couple of mental notes: “You know what worked was this, and this, and this. What didn’t work was that and that. All right, next year, we’re getting ahead of it a little bit; we’re going to handle it differently.”
You know what?—eventually, things kind of smooth out. There is some stuff you’ll never be able to control; but at least, you have a sense of how to go into it.
Michelle: And there are other days in the year; it’s not just the one day for Christmas.
Ron: You know what? That’s one thing—if there is anything I’ve heard, over 28 years of doing this, from blended family couples—it’s: “Be flexible, and adjust, and make it work.” Again, maybe, you think: “It’s all about Christmas morning,” or “It’s all about Christmas dinner,” or “It’s all about Christmas Eve,”—but you can’t get that with the kids this year or for whatever reason—find what will work. Sometimes, you just have to let go of that tradition and morph it, change it, switch it up. Make a new tradition to match your new family, and the circumstances that you’re in, and have a spirit of gladness about it; that’s what makes it Christmas.
Michelle: In your panels that you have done, throughout the years, of questioning couples—blended families and everything—are there a few that come to mind about how creative they were for Christmas?
Ron: Yes; it’s brunch on Christmas morning instead of Christmas Eve. Sometimes, you’re celebrating Christmas three days before Christmas, which it just feels weird to even say; you know?
Ron: But that’s when we have access to the children and Grandma and all the little stars align. Guess what?—“We’re doing it then, and we’re going to go big.” When you throw yourself into it—and again, it’s the attitude that makes the difference—yes, there is a little disappointment, along with it; but it’s still okay; it’s good. I think those are the big things that people have to think through.
Michelle: I hear what you’re saying, Ron; but in my family, every Christmas Eve, we go to the Christmas Eve service at church; and then we go home, and we open up one present.
Michelle: Mom makes egg nog, and we all sit around the tree, and we sing a song, and we share our favorite memory from the past year. Sounds beautiful; right? And it’s not just our generation; it’s been for generations upon generations that that has been the tradition. You’re telling me to be flexible—
Michelle: —and to give that tradition up?
Ron: I am. What I am saying is—you may be able to keep the tradition, but your kids may not be with you.
Michelle: That’s hard.
Ron: In some ways, it doesn’t really feel like we’re doing the tradition; because the kids are at the other house during that time; so “What’s the point? The whole thing is wasted.” No; that’s not—
Michelle: Because that’s what I hear—is that it is wasted.
Ron: You know, I mean, let’s be realistic. There is going to come a season, where children have their own families and their own lives. They live half way across the country; and they can’t make it then, either, on Christmas Eve. Life brings change to our traditions, and we have to adapt into them. The tradition is not an idol, or is it?
Ron: Sometimes, we make those things into idols.
I understand—it’s important; it’s helpful; it’s great—and you want to keep that up—honor the part of it that you are able to honor. Some people/they could say, “Well, we could do that on Christmas Day. We can’t do it on Christmas Eve; but I’d rather wait, Christmas Day, and go to the production, and have egg nog; because the kids will be with us on that day, and that’s worth it.” Okay; yes, find what’s most important about the tradition and strive for that; but yes, there is loss.
I mean, this just brings up the other subject that—anytime, you get to a special day, and somebody is not there—you know?—it’s bittersweet. Parents die, and relationships change. Kids are there; they are not there. There is always a little bitter with this sweet when it comes to the holidays; in particular, for blended families—not for every member of the family in the same way—but somebody is missing somebody.
The other side of this conversation is: “Acknowledge that,”—you know?—turn to a child, and look them in the eye, and go, “You know, I was thinking, ‘I bet you wish your dad was here right now, and he’s not. We all miss him, and we’re just—I feel bad,”—you know—‘This is/it’s so good to celebrate Santa, but I know you’d love to see your dad in that Santa outfit.’ Let’s get out some pictures; let’s talk about it.”
Michelle: That could be really hard for some parents/very difficult.
Ron: Yes; it is.
Michelle: I mean, that’s a dying to self. That’s like totally putting on Christ-like behavior and saying, “I want my child’s best first.”
Ron: Some people think, “If I go there, it’s going to ruin everything.” I’m here to tell you, as somebody who has had great loss in my life, that is not the case. You will have your moments of sadness, and tears, and reflection, and “Let’s get out the video” or “Let’s tell a story about the person who’s not with us right now”; and it’s a sad moment. You turn the corner, and you get out the egg nog, and you start talking about the Cowboys’ football game; and it’s okay—you know?—and you’re back to Christmas.
I think the alternative is to go into denial for 48 hours, and not talk about this person who is not here—like, “What is that?!”—like that is far worse for the spirit of anybody: a person, a family, a child, a relationship.
Ron: So much better to acknowledge the bitter, along with the sweet, and let them both be a part of the day.
Michelle: I heard from someone recently that God does His best work on empty. I mean, you go back to Genesis 1:1—and the earth was void and was without—and God filled it. In these spaces—like a Christmas Day or a Christmas Eve—when there is somebody, who is missing, or there is something that’s missing—we can have the expectation that God is going to fill that space.
Ron: Absolutely; lean in.
My wife and I have been reading the Psalms. I’m just stunned by how often the writers of the Psalms acknowledge the hard, right there with the good; right beside faith is their struggle with the circumstances of their life—that’s the human condition.
Ron: Again, I think we go a long way to help our children and to help ourselves when we’re not afraid to step into those spaces and let God join us there.
Michelle: Good word; great advice, Ron. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Ron: Yes, thanks for having me.
Michelle: Looking forward to having a conversation, again, with you next week, following Christmas; because we’re going to check in on how Christmas went. You know, there is the unwrapping of the presents, the egg nog, and the breakfast casserole, and the many conversations. Maybe, there is a conversation that did not go well, like in the Maday family. Ron Deal’s going to join me, along with Bob and Vicki Maday. We’re going to talk about a Christmas done wrong and a Christmas done right. That’s going to be next week on FamilyLife This Week.
Also, if you have further questions concerning blended families at Christmastime, go to our website, FamilyLifeThisWeek.com; that’s FamilyLifeThisWeek.com. We have a link to Ron’s podcast on there and also a couple of links to some articles/some other further resources for you to best get ready for this week and the week afterwards.
Also, I just want to leave you with this little passage. We’ve been talking about this a lot, throughout the fall and winter months, and that comes from 1 Corinthians 13. Remember these words?—“Love is patient. Love is kind. Love does not envy or boast. It is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It’s not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things. It believes all things. Love hopes all things. It endures all things,”—of course, that is the love passage from 1 Corinthians 13. Let’s love each other well this Christmas.
Thanks for listening! I want to thank the president of FamilyLife, David Robbins, along with our station partners around the country. A big “Thank you!” to our engineers today, Keith Lynch and the awesome Bruce Goff. Thanks to our producer, Marques Holt. Justin Adams is our mastering engineer, and Megan Martin is our production coordinator. Our program is a production of FamilyLife Today®, and our mission is to effectively develop godly families who change the world one home at a time.
I'm Michelle Hill, inviting you to join us again next time for another edition of FamilyLife This Week.
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