ONE STEPMOTHER'S REFLECTIONS ON THE HOLIDAYS
By Mary Hayes, Ph.D.*
STEPFAMILIES Quarterly, Fall 1993
I don't think of myself as a stepmother. No one refers to me by that title nor as far as I am able to observe, do they even think about me in the role; yet, that is part of who I am and feelings described by stepmoms I have known were all too familiar to me at Christmas time last year.
A few years ago following our first holiday season together as a new merging unit, I had jokingly said that the following year I planned to leave town before Thanksgiving and that I would return after the new year began. That year both Thanksgiving, which we celebrated with my spouse's daughters a day or two after the traditional date, and Christmas Eve produced major emotional scenes. In retrospect, of course, this was an indirect expression of pain and anger about the changes in their previously predictable family system. Until I distanced myself from the events, I was both surprised and hurt by these episodes. Subsequently, life calmed down somewhat and I forgot about my resolve. The year progressed and suddenly it was November again. A second round of holidays was much easier. The emotional territory was more familiar to all of us, and we seemed more comfortable together. Arrangements became almost routine in the following seasons. Rather than approaching the time with a sense of dread or calling a travel agent to ticket me to far-off locations, I eagerly planned for our celebrations. I anticipated a good time.
This year my husband and I reflected back on that earlier time. We were grateful that we had moved past those initial stages. My spouse's three young adult daughters are all in their twenties. The youngest and oldest of them have their own apartments and his middle daughter lives with her mother. All three women are employed, and the youngest is also a full time college student.
These are fun-loving women, alive and alert to the world around them. Music is a passion in each of their lives, and they regularly bring some new find or old favorite along to play when they come to the house. They are athletic and enjoy movies, board and card games, parties, books, and people. They experience rather than observe life. They are a bonus to my relationship with their dad. I also find them a challenge. It is easier for me to be with the girls one at a time. Interactions focus more on the here and now aspects of our relationship or the activity we are sharing. Both their dad and I separately seek them out individually as well as in their sibling group.
I am reminded of my lack of history with them most of all when we are together as a group of five, as a family. When I plan and carry out ritual celebrations or even routine tasks differently from the family I married, subtle competition about style often emerges. Differing definitions of privacy and boundaries become evident. A variety of needs and expectations is demonstrated.
The stress of holidays can make the differences more apparent. These young women became aware once more of their profound sadness over what will never again be for them a structure to which they can return, a biological nuclear family. They are vocal about this loss. They also register the loyalty conflicts they experience when they are deciding where to spend what part of the holiday time with whom. They do not like this complication.
This past Christmas was no exception. The explicit and rather negative critique of the dinner menu offered before we ate should have alerted me to some tension. Some conversation at dinner developed an uncomfortable edge. In the process of serving or clearing dishes, I missed the content of the potential conflict. Apparently we avoided trouble at the time by moving into the living room to share some gifts with one another. I don't know exactly what set off the explosion, but suddenly one of the girls was shouting, asking rhetorically and in a loud voice, why we thought she ever wanted to come to our house. She then quickly retreated upstairs. She was unwilling to return even when her dad tried to talk with her. Another of the girls went back into the dining room as the third sat crying quietly.
Eventually, we all cried. I felt terrible. Before they left for the evening, we tried to talk a little. It was late; we were all tired and eventually we said our goodbyes hastily and somewhat awkwardly. After the kids left, we talked for a long time, trying to figure out what had occurred. We realized that not only were some of the usual structural pressures operating, but also that a whole series of new variables had been introduced into the family system in recent months. In our gathering that evening we experienced the cumulative effect of many changes in all of our lives. We thought we understood the earthquake we had survived, but that didn't make us feel a whole lot better or eager to face the aftershocks and future tremors.
We've done a lot of excavation and repair work on this mess since then. I think we are all clearer about it and agree that it did not happen because of our lack of love and caring. We verbally acknowledged our ability to be open about feelings with one another when they occur. We may even feel a little closer as a group because we were so vulnerable to one another. Needless to say, it was not a painless achievement. Semi-seriously, I renewed my declaration to be far away when the 1993 season arrives. At this time, however, I am working on some less drastic plans to make the time happier for all of us. As the season nears, we will all find a way to make our stepfamily work more smoothly.
* Mary Hayes has her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Southern California. She is an assistant professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and has taught several courses on marriage and family therapy.