It’s all Relative: Negotiating holidays with your non-traditional family!

Negotiating the holidays for “custom made” families can be challenging. If you’ve read my blog before you know I don’t like the terms “broken” or “divorced” for my family. My term of choice is “custom made.” This takes into account not only the family made by marriage, divorce and remarriage, but the family that we’ve made because there are simply people in our lives that we love. “Custom made” includes my extra children, the ones I didn’t give birth to but often took up residence on our couch when needed. It also includes my diverse group of friends, who are more like family to me than most of my blood relatives. So how do we accommodate our non-traditional, unorthodox, custom made families during the holiday season? How do we create memories when our families look nothing like the families in the holiday television specials?

My own parents were wonderful at this. I know it took time. It was the 1970s. Divorce was not common, yet somehow, my parents came up with a plan that worked for our family. By the time I was in high school, I spent holidays at the same house with my mother, my father, my step-mother, my step-mother’s x-husband, and all of the children that belonged to each. Was it easy? I’m sure it wasn’t. Was it worth it, absolutely!

Now I know every situation is different and every family is different. Spending holidays together will not work for everyone. So if you can’t pull it off, if one of you is still hanging on to anger or resentment, then don’t try it. It is much better to have happy holidays apart than miserable times together. The holidays, for me, were always about making wonderful memories for my children, no matter what form that took. Some of those memories have been traditional and some have been unconventional. As a family we’ve learned to deal with divorce, remarriage, death, separation and new relationships. We’ve cooked fresh game and we’ve made To-furkey, depending on the guest list. Yes, sometimes there have been awkward or uncomfortable moments, like explaining just exactly who Grammie’s new boyfriend was to the kids when they were younger, but we worked through it. Most Christmas mornings my x-husband came over with his youngest (my children’s baby sister) so all the kids could open presents together. I know very few families that have pulled that one off!  I have included my children’s half-sister in so many family events that she has grown up calling me “Auntie Karen.” Weird, yes, but completely worth it! We did it for the kids, because really, it wasn’t about us anymore!

So what do you do if this is your family’s first holiday after a major life change? My advice is to hang on to some old traditions but more importantly, try to be flexible. Make new traditions. If the kids are spending time away, give them some of the family decorations so they can put them up at the other parent’s house. If you have moved to a new place, buy yourself new decorations to go with your new traditions. One of my biggest adjustments to downtown living was not being allowed to have a live tree in my apartment. So instead of hiking out in the woods with the kids to cut a tree, you can now find me hoisting a five foot artificial tree onto a four foot high ledge in the front window, and then the kids and I taking turns standing on the ledge to decorate it. This is mostly because there is just no extra floor space to put a tree but also because it is a really cool spot and you can see it from several streets over. Traditions change but they don’t have to be any less fun!

Chances are if you are sharing time with your children’s other parent, they won’t be with you during the entire holiday.  My adult children and I usually have our big celebration on Christmas Eve and then they reserve Christmas Day for their father or step-father. Whatever you do, do NOT be alone! I discovered this the first year after my divorce when my children left for their stepfather’s house. Although I wasn’t alone, the fact that I wasn’t with them really threw me into a funk that lasted for days. So last year, a good friend and I decided to do something completely non-traditional and invite friends and fellow holiday orphans out for Chinese food! It was so much fun we are doing it again this year and following it up with a party afterwards. Now this looks absolutely nothing like the holidays we had pictured for ourselves, then again, the rest of our lives look nothing like we planned either. In fact, our every day lives certainly don’t look anything like those families on TV, so why would we expect our holidays to.

My experience has always been that those unusual circumstances in your life, the people who join your circle unexpectedly, those events and moments that you never would have conceived of, those are usually the best times and the very best moments of all!

And if you do have a down moment, feeling a little dysfunctional, take a look at some of these families at the link below! I guarantee you’ll feel better!

Awkward Family Holiday Photos!


*This is an updated 2012 version of an older blog titled “Honey, please pass the turkey to your dad’s new wife!”

Karen Foley

About Karen Foley

Karen Foley, has successfully been writing her blog for the BDN since May 2011. By successful, she means a few people read it, and she has not been sued, stalked or fired since starting it.