Dear Dr. Jann: This is the first Christmas my husband’s kids are with us. I want to make sure everything is right, but food seems to be a big problem. They like the way their mother makes gravy. They like the way their mother makes cranberry sauce. I feel like I’ve lost before I’ve started. I want this Christmas dinner to be wonderful. What’s good ex-etiquette?
Dr. Jann: If you’re feeling insecure about all this, the natural thing to do is to try to copy how the kids’ mom prepared Christmas dinner. That can be a disaster—a little too much sugar in the cranberry sauce, a little too much flour in the gravy and all you’ll hear is, “That’s not the way my mom does it.” That’s right up there with, “You aren’t my mother.” Both are because you have allowed yourself to be in competition with someone they love—and—you are doing something other than their parent would do. Knowing that, there is no need to compete. She is their mother. Comparing one home to another is the bane of successfully combining families. If you don’t, you are undermining your own success. Do what you do well, in the spirit of the season.
One of the things that ensures the successful combining of families is to acknowledge each family member’s individuality and what they bring to the family. Too often new couples try to blend everyone together and that individuality is lost. That causes resentment, particularly in teenagers, who at that age are striving to become their own person. No one wants to fit into someone else’s idea of family. Have a clear idea what you want for your family while not undermining their past. “Mom’s cranberry sauce is wonderful…but so is this. Try it.”
So, what can you do to ensure you will have a peaceful and loving holiday when combining families this holiday season?
- Have reasonable expectations. Nothing will be exactly the way “it used to be.” Know that smooth transitions into comfortable holidays take time, acceptance, and patience.
- Don’t copy. You won’t be able to do it right. Bring what you do well to the table—literally. If it’s burgers, make burgers, and do it with flare!
- Lead the way. Be positive all year round—not just during the holidays. Make it a natural part of your conversation to point out the positive actions, attitudes, and attributes you have observed in your family members and for which you are grateful.
- Don’t badmouth. Our children not only learn gratitude from us, but attitude. The next time you’re tempted to gripe about your circumstances, what their mother did, how different your kids are from your husband’s, etc., take stock and make an attitude adjustment. The kids are watching and will mimic your behavior—good or bad.
- Help your children express their gratitude. Make sure you’re setting the stage for your children to feel comfortable talking about the things for which they are grateful. That means curtailing teasing and ridicule when other family members speak honestly from the heart.
- Cultivate new family rituals. Family rituals are extremely important and help family members bond. Talk about what rituals are important to you, your partner and the children. Discuss which rituals cannot continue, how some might be altered, and what new ones might be started. Let the kids weigh in—and make sure you listen.
Successful family get-togethers are important for bonus families as they help people to bond and build shared experiences. Make this holiday a successful one by focusing on togetherness, honesty, acceptance and love for one another. That may mean accepting an ex. Just remember, they are your child’s other parent. That’s good ex-etiquette.