Surviving Christmas in a blended family

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By David Whitlock


Christmas can be tough, especially for blended families. And apparently there are plenty of them. It’s been estimated that more than half of Americans live in some form of a blended family.

Stepfamily therapist Steven Straub believes that the blended family will become, if it’s not already, the predominate family structure in the United States.

One of the major stressors during the holiday season involves the dynamics involved in blending a family. The holiday season comes packaged with enough tension already, what with gifts to buy, traffic to fight, and programs to attend.

When you throw in the jealousies of a step grandmother, or the vengefulness of an ex-spouse, or the hurt feelings of stepchildren, or the insecurity of stepsiblings, (the variables for family strife are virtually endless) a veritable boiling cauldron of emotions threatens to spill over into the dream of the quaint family Christmas, scalding any possibility of what peace and joy might have been.

Eight years ago I experienced my first Christmas with our blended family. With each Christmas our family has drawn closer together as we’ve experienced the challenge of each holiday.

I’ve learned a few lessons that have helped me grow with my blended family during the holiday season.

I ceased chasing that perfect Christmas; it doesn’t exist; there never was one and never will be. God could have made that first Christmas a perfect one, but he didn’t. No room was left in the inn, and the holy family was homeless. Maybe God was trying to tell us something: Life is experienced in the struggle — in brokenness, in hurt, and in pain. Just as he was there in a dirty stable the first Christmas, so God is in the midst of our families’ messiness.

Releasing the pressure of finding the perfect Christmas freed us to try new things. We’ve taken past traditions and incorporated them into our family in ways that created something different. For instance, we open some presents on Christmas Eve (a tradition from my family) and some on Christmas morning (a tradition in Lori’s family), and in so doing started a new tradition.

I’ve also learned that no matter the number of children (we have four) in a blended family, each child is different, and each child is the same. Each has unique characteristics, but they all have the same basic emotional needs: love, acceptance, security, attention. In healthy family relations those needs can be met. Maybe that’s why the biblical character, King David, described God as a “father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,” a God who “places the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:5, 6). Christmas season bristles with emotions so tense they sometimes seem to ricochet off the walls. I like the words of the Apostle Paul when he admonished his readers to “take care of those who are weak” (I Thessalonians 5:14). Often, during Christmas, those in blended families are experiencing the deep pain of broken relationships or feeling the emptiness of a loved one who is no longer there. Or maybe both.

It’s perhaps the sense of loss — the absence of a parent or child at Christmas, the grief of what once was and never will be again - that is most pronounced in blended families. But, the void felt by changed circumstances cuts across the emotional landscape of all family structures, however “family” may be defined.
My mother and father are encountering the emotions experienced with their first Christmas in a retirement facility. “I miss the smells of cooking in my own kitchen, decorating my house, and inviting friends over,” Mom confided to me the other day. And then with added insight, “One thing about it, life is about change, no matter your age or where you are.”

Or the type of family you’re in.

It’s true; it’s inevitable. Change is the permanent constant. Successfully blending a family is only saying, “Yes,” to the possibilities for new life, knowing that whether it’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter, life is found in the one who never changes, the one who calls us forward, the one who knows blending our life with those we love is what life is all about.