The Blended Family Holiday

Sue had always loved the holiday season. Like so many people, she had warm memories of Christmas trees, cold weather, special foods, presents, Christmas movies, and all those things that go into making the month of December “the most wonderful time of the year.” But a monkey wrench got thrown into the works when she married Bill. Bill had been married once before and had grown children from the previous relationship. Now, making Christmas merry was more of a challenge. In addition to having a blended family, they had to figure out how to blend divergent holiday traditions. Sue had always opened presents on Christmas morning. Bill’s kids had always opened them on Christmas Eve. Sue’s tradition was a large Christmas day meal with turkey and dressing. Bill’s kids were used to steaks cooked outside on the grill. Sue savored settling into a chair to watch a certain set of Bing Crosby movies. What meant “Christmas” to Bill’s kids was watching football. It’s not that one thing was right and the other was wrong but that it was different. They had to figure out how to handle those differences.

It’d be wonderful if there was a “one-size-fits-all” solution to this dilemma but there isn’t. While there may not be universally agreed upon solutions, there are healthy ways to address these differences and unhealthy ways. The first year they were married, Sue and Bill found themselves engaged in the unhealthy methods. There was no mutual agreement forged out ahead of time so Christmas that year was characterized by hurt feelings and unspoken tensions. It was miserable. But they used that misery as an impetus to not let that happen again. Long before Christmas arrived, they sat down and made a plan so that everyone was on the same page with respect to their expectations. That helped. It wasn’t perfect but it also wasn’t miserable.

“Home” For the Holidays

“Merry Christmas, Amanda. Are you going home for the holidays?” Amanda had been asked that question about a hundred times since Thanksgiving. And every time it was posed, it irritated her. Intellectually, she understood the well-meaning intent of her holiday-greeting friends. But on an emotional level, this seemingly innocuous question ignited an internal firestorm.

Amanda had been raised in a small town several states away. She grew up as, what some have termed, an “emotional orphan.” That is, her parents were biologically alive but emotionally and relationally dead. Being a low-maintenance child among siblings who demanded more time and attention, she fell through the proverbial cracks. There was an unspoken but very strongly communicated family rule. It was: “Us is more important than you.” Amanda intuitively understood that family should be a place where the individuals are encouraged to discover and cultivate what makes them unique and gifted. But in her family, healthy individuality was discouraged in favor of an unhealthy conformity. Her family was more of a glump than a collection of individuals who loved each other. And on top of all that, there were family dysfunctions too numerous to mention.

So, when people asked her if she was going “home” for Christmas—an innocent question—she took offense. She took offense because she had worked very hard in her life to escape the confines of the glump and to establish her own life outside of the dysfunction. “Home” was where Amanda now lived, not where she’d grown up. She had established her own traditions and her own life. And by doing so, Amanda was able to have a better relationship with her family than she would have had by adhering to the family rule. Robert Frost once said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Amanda had discovered a family application of that principle.


The Holiday Supermom

Suzette’s stomach always knotted up just a little about the time November rolled around. The holiday season had begun, and Suzette’s mind was filled with both excitement and dread. She was excited for all the obvious reasons, but dreaded these months because she knew that no matter how hard she tried, she was likely to fall short of somebody’s expectations—mainly her own. Her expectations were fed by images of a holiday “supermom” that played like a 3-D movie inside her head.

Here are some vignettes from that movie.

Suzette would rise before dawn—nothing new for her—to fix special holiday breakfasts for her clan. Dawned in festive aprons, she would sing merry tunes to her husband and kids as they rubbed sleep from their eyes while sitting down at the beautifully decorated table. Several nights a week were spent entertaining neighbors at their exquisitely festooned abode. Local newspapers assigned photojournalists to chronicle the changing external adornments that so beautifully graced their residence—designed by Suzette, by the way. The star of her internal movie was consistently hospitable, never got flustered, got everything accomplished, was always upbeat, and brought cheer to everyone who crossed her path. And she so inspired others that they actually became nicer people.

Many moms dread the holidays because they have supermoms like Suzette’s living inside their heads. These internalized taskmasters make constant demands for higher and higher levels of performance. No one can live up to such standards, but moms still attempt to do so whenever the holiday season arrives. It’s better to do what you can, when you can, to whatever extent you can. It’s only an illusion that anyone does it perfectly—an illusion like Suzette’s supermom. But remember, it’s better to be a “good enough” mom than one who never lives up to an illusion’s expectations.

What If You Dread That Holiday Family Gathering?

This is the third of four articles about holiday relational stress. We’ve previously looked at expectations and comparisons. In this article, we’ll discuss those obligatory family gatherings.

“Have you ever noticed how we talk about the same things every year?” said Terry to her family as they drove home from the family Christmas party. “As predicted, Uncle Fred told the same old jokes—lame ones I might add—and we all laughed on cue, just like we’ve done the last umpteen years. If I weren’t related to these people, I’d never spend time with them.”

Sound familiar? It may or may not be that you dislike these family members, but that you see them so seldom that you don’t have a lot in common with them—besides ancestry, that is. Consequently, getting together is more stressful than it is pleasant. Here are three things you can do that will help to make these occasions more enjoyable.

Before you go, plan out some things to talk about and some questions to ask. Most people respond well to inquiries about what’s going on in their lives. While you’re there, keep the conversation light and focused on pleasant topics. These are not occasions for surfacing and discussing family dysfunctions. After you leave, laugh about the funny stuff, but don’t squander your time and energy rehashing the irritating aspects of the visit. It’s more pleasant to laugh at Uncle Fred’s limited joke repertoire than it is to be irritated that he can’t come up with some new material. And remember, if these people frustrate you, you only have to do this once a year.

We’ve now discussed the holiday stress that results from comparisons, expectations, and obligations. In the next article, we’ll discuss something that doesn’t actually exist—the holiday supermom.

Shooting for That Norman Rockwell Christmas

This is the second of four articles about relational situations that cause stress during the holidays. We previously looked at comparisons. In this article, we’ll discuss holiday expectations.

A few days before Christmas, you pack up your car and deliver presents to six of your friends. By the time your visits are completed, you’ve observed the following six things: well-mannered children, stylish holiday attire, pleasant in-laws, impeccably decorated 14-foot trees with all the lights working, perfectly wrapped presents, and outside decorations that make the evening news. As you pull back into your driveway, you notice that ladder still laying in the front yard—the one you’ll use to hang partially working lights on broken gutters. Your kids are running wild, no presents have been wrapped, your Thanksgiving decorations are still up, and you’re praying that the in-laws will cancel their holiday visit—something that’s never happened before.

Are you stressed out by the gap separating what you think the holidays should be and what they actually are? If so, you have a large peer group. In fact, unreachable, unrealistic expectations wreck the spirits of many holiday revelers. So, how can you keep this from happening?

First, keep in mind that most people are so focused on meeting their own expectations that they’re too preoccupied to notice when you don’t meet yours. In short, few people care or notice when your decorations go up, how many lights burn on your tree, or how fluffy the bows are on your presents. Second, stay focused on what’s important. You’ll enjoy the holidays more by celebrating their significance than you will by attempting the impossible—living up to your unreachable expectations.

We’ve now discussed the holiday stress that results from comparisons and expectations. In the next article, we’ll talk about those uncomfortable family gatherings.



Dr. Alan Godwin is a private practice psychologist in Brentwood, Tennessee. He is the author of the recently released How to Solve Your People Problems: Dealing with Your Difficult Relationships. He and his wife, Penny, have been married for 31 years and have 3 children.