It’s difficult to plan a holiday without dreaming of something out of a Normal Rockwell painting: smiling family gathered around a perfectly cooked turkey.
It’s an image that’s quickly shattered the moment you add sound.
When you’re part of a blended family, however, setting realistic expectations is a far more important step than setting a beautiful table.
When they met and married 11 years ago, Beth and Bob Brodell each had two daughters from previous marriages and soon had twin boys together. “We’re a real life, ‘Yours, Mine and Ours,’ but the key is we consider them all ours,” Beth says. The Brodells found creating their own traditions as a newly formed family helped everyone ease into those first few holiday experiences.
Their Christmas “Seven Gift Rule” arose from the budgetary concerns that sometimes come with having a large family. The same budget, set for each family member, must be used to buy exactly seven gifts. If someone gets one expensive gift, they may receive six pairs of socks as the remainder, but everyone has seven gifts to open—even mom and dad. Another Brodell favorite is that everyone must be present to decorate the tree, whether it’s the day after Halloween or the day before Christmas. Beth says it’s a balance: “You need to be flexible with everyone’s needs, but hold tight to those traditions.”
Flexibility became Deb and Kent Brody’s motto in raising their blended family, which now includes six grandchildren. “If there’s a fork in the road, choose the high road,” Deb says. When they first brought their families together for the holidays more than 20 years ago, they surrendered Thanksgiving Thursday to former spouses, instead creating Thanksgiving Wednesday. Deb explains, “It works out perfectly, everyone is always available! Stopping by our house for dessert has become a tradition for friends, extended family and our former spouses.”
Dr. Anne Malec, a licensed Chicago marriage and family therapist, agrees. She says it’s important to focus on the children: “Make it easy for your child to feel good and you’ll create goodwill for everyone involved.” She adds that you can’t ignore that the holidays have changed, but you can create some consistency for your new family unit.
“It’s important to keep your expectations realistic,” advises Dr. Nancy Molitor, a clinical psychologist in Wilmette. She reminds parents to move slowly and be respectful of the range of emotions involved: “This is new territory with new rituals. Wait for everyone to catch up. After a few years of practicing, you figure it out.”
As with most things, a sense of humor can help ease the transitions. Instead of picturing a perfect holiday, visualize yourself handling things well when something goes wrong. The year your tree falls down as you hang the last ornament, or the fire department responds to smoke billowing from your kitchen on Thanksgiving Day, may seem like a failure at the time, but it’s these shared experiences—good and bad—that make a family. That even goes for the perpetually lumpy gravy!