BUILDING STEPFAMILY TRADITIONS
By Elizabeth Einstein *
STEPFAMILIES, Fall 1993
Holidays should be joyful times, but as families come together they produce stress. Few married couples have escaped the argument as to with which parents they will celebrate the festivities. The stepfamily's widened sphere of relationships creates an even greater chance for stress because children may be expected to spend holidays with both families.
Moving between families means that youngsters can continue the traditions of the old family at the same time that they discover new ones within the stepfamily. The two sets of traditions that are common to most stepfamilies can become the source of an exciting learning experience for both adults and children. But melding the two requires careful negotiations. In multicultural families, is Christmas or Hanukkah celebrated? Or both? I thought everyone expected that stockings would be hung on Christmas Eve and gifts would be opened on Christmas morning, and that coloring Easter eggs was a family affair. But my new stepchildren expected to open gifts on Christmas Eve and assumed that a rabbit decorated the eggs.
When the kinship system shifts, the debate over where to spend the holidays heightens. Just because everyone has always gone to Auntie Jane's for Christmas, that tradition holds little meaning for a new wife and her children, who have not yet established an emotional tie to the extended family. On the other hand, new spouses must understand the family kinship ties and traditions of their mats. To avoid such competition, the new stepfamily may want to have the first year's holiday means alone at their house. This may provide the intimate time needed to establish new traditions and plan future gatherings.
A rather unusual idea that might be just right for some families is suggested by Dr. Irene Goldenberg, who believes that holidays include being in the bosom of one's family "because it feels good to be nurtured there." She recommends that the stepfamily's members celebrate holidays with different families of biological origin. Rather than bicker over which place means family and tradition to whom, why not let them all be where they really want to be?" she asks. ‘Why should the stepfamily be forced to select one family or stay home?" Of course this suggestion is not traditional, but neither is the stepfamily. And such a solution will not work for everybody. "If such a plan is rooted in anger, or if someone feels distressed at not being with a spouse at holiday time," she cautions, "then it will fail." The time when a stepfamily identity is being built offers a perfect time to establish new traditions. Often during the breakdown of former families, few joint activities continue. Creating new traditions provides good chances for the new stepfamily to gain a hold on intimacy.
At our house we made birthdays special. Besides the usual presents and privileges the dining area was festooned, best dishes and linens came out, and the birthday person chose the menu. In contrast to Jeff's annual request for pizza, Bev's birthday dinner choice was prime rib, artichokes, and angel food cake. We made Halloween into a big event too. After a long drive to the pumpkin farm with an autumn picnic, each of us selected the perfect pumpkin. These were then carved during a family affair complete with popcorn and cider. When they were adorned with flashbulb noses, yarn hair, and a potpourri of hats, the finished jack-o'-lanterns reflected our personalities as well as the fun we'd had. As stepfamily traditions are being built, dilemmas can produce resentment. A tradition on my sons' birthdays had been to unpack their baby books filled with hanks of hair from their first haircuts, hospital ID bands, and snapshots of toddler birthday parties; and we reminded them about their earlier years. Because I had had no part in the childhood history of my stepchildren, not only did I not have such a collection for them, I felt this display unfair and soon stopped it. But giving up a nice tradition hurt me.
Roots and memories are important, and sharing histories brings the stepfamily closer together. If baby books and mementos remain with the biological mother, a stepmother can reconstruct a history by gathering clips of achievements or snapshots from the father or from grandparents. Using this collection as a focus on a stepchild's birthday eliminates guilt and resentment, and a nice tradition is continued.
* Elizabeth Einstein is a past SAA Board Member and a frequent presenter at stepfamily workshops. This article was excerpted from her book The Stepfamily, Living, Loving & Learning, by permission.