Even after all these years, it surprises me how powerless one can feel as a stepparent and how important it is to manage expectations. This crystallizes often over the holidays when I ask my stepchildren to help me with the holiday card and have to negotiate their schedules as though I'm a United Nations diplomat.
Unlike my 10-year-old son, with whom I can say, "Please be at this place at this time" — and when he doesn't, I can yell, "Get your butt down here now" — every request to my step daughters must be managed carefully.
At the same time, if you ask step kids how they feel after their parents’ divorce, they will say they feel powerless, with no say in anything, that they have to juggle between two families while negotiating roles, rules, and status in both households.
Recently I emailed my stepdaughter telling her that step parenting is a lot like gardening a bed of roses. Instead of getting to dig deep and attach myself to the root stock, I am allowed only to skim the surface and never feel as though I've penetrated top soil. If I grab the flower the wrong way, it can be prickly. But it is still beautiful and worth nurturing.
She emailed me this response: "Just like the rose, stepchildren cannot help but have thorns, because it is in their nature to protect their roots."
I loved this exchange because it is honest — and helpful. The holidays are an emotionally charged time for any family — but even more so for stepfamilies. After years of experience, and as a certified stepfamily coach, I have learned that the secret to having a good time during the holidays is recognizing that each person should have a say in some part of the event, which makes it more a democracy than a dictatorship. The other part is following the adage that no act of love, however small, is wasted.
So here are some suculent tips for creating positive blended family memories on Thanksgiving:
• Create traditions for the new stepfamily. At our house, we go around the table and each person must say something they are grateful for. It sets the tone that we may have had a loss — we're not an intact family but an expanded one — yet there are still many things in our lives that are good.
I usually do that before we eat. Before dessert, our tradition is that we then have to go around the table and have each person identify a quality they really appreciate about each person at the table. This gesture has a way of connecting everyone and emphasizing love and the connective tissue that binds.
• Ask each person about their favorite dish from childhood. Therefore, it feels that everyone has participated. If your stepchild says, "My mom makes the best apple pie," I wouldn't get competitive and try to outdo her apple pie, but I might try to offer an apple crisp the next year. You have to believe that the heart is elastic enough to love many people. As much as possible, emphasize the joys of blending.
• Spread the Cheer. Because I want everyone to be around me on this holiday weekend, I have created a Friday Thanksgiving celebration. I hate it when family members are straddling different homes, and I want my stepchildren and son to be united. This has turned out to be a wonderful new tradition. On Thursday night, my immediate family celebrates Thanksgiving. On Friday night, we get everyone.
• Be Inclusive. I often invite my husband's ex-wife for Friday night. I have found that if you surrender your ego for the greater good, there will be rewards. My stepchildren are comfortable loving me since I'm kind to their mother and my son gets the bonus of seeing his sisters more often. And I love how all these personalities blend and create a bustling family.
We are all tending a family garden of some kind. Do not overwater or underwater. Find a balance. Maybe it isn't a rose garden. Maybe it should be described as a bed of hybrids, something akin to what Luther Burbank, the divorced 19th century American botanist, invented when he created plumcots, and potatoes, and spineless cactus in his greenhouse.
When families blend, relationships expand. They are no longer solely determined by biology but by ever-changing social relationships.