This year Christmas will begin for stepparents Beverly and Tom Langdon of Westminster on Sunday when her son visits his father in Canyon Country and will continue right up through Dec. 30 when his daughter visits her mother in Pennsylvania. In between, there will be visits to four sets of grandparents and, for Beverly Langdon, herself a stepdaughter, to three sets of parents.
For stepfamilies--combining children from previous marriages and blending traditions of two and sometimes three families--holidays, a time of enormous emotional stress for many people, are even more complicated, more frantic, more stressful.
In 1983, there were 25 million stepfamilies in the United States, according to statistics compiled by the Stepfamily Assn. of America. By 1990, half of all the people in the United States will be in a stepfamily situation, according to the association.
"This whole stepfamily phenomenon is fairly new," said Nancee Noel, president of the Orange County chapter of the Stepfamily Assn. "That's why there are no models as to how to deal with the complexities of the holidays. A lot of times it is the little things--when to decorate the tree, when to open the presents--that are the big stumbling blocks in stepfamilies."
Beverly Langdon remembered her first Christmas with husband Tom's family 2 1/2 years ago. "In Tom's family the tradition was that you open one present, then wait till each person has opened one present. You wait and watch and then you open another. Then you wait and watch. It just about drove me up the wall," she said. "I'd start to open a present and someone would say: 'No, wait! No, wait!' I couldn't figure out what was going on."
Fortunately, the Langdons, who have three children, two from previous marriages and one of their own, were willing to talk about their holiday traditions and, more importantly, willing to compromise.
"Tom thought I was buying too many gifts for the kids," she said, "because in his family they weren't used to having so many. So we compromised. I still bought quite a few gifts, but we each opened them one at a time."
But for the Langdon family, which consists of Tom's daughter, Rachael Langdon, 8; Beverly's son, Donnie Moreau, 7, and Beverly and Tom's son, Jimi Langdon, 5 months, the biggest complication was family holiday visits.
"One of the first things we realized was that it is impossible for the kids to visit everyone in one day," Beverly Langdon said. "It is just ridiculous to try. I think it is really important to work it out ahead of time as far as who is going where and seeing whom. Don't assume things."
This year Donnie will visit his father on Sunday and Rachael will visit her mother the week after Christmas. "And on Christmas Eve, we will visit my mother in Torrance," Langdon said. "Then we will spend Christmas morning here and Christmas afternoon with my husband's family at his sister's house in San Bernardino. Then after Christmas, we will visit my father in San Marcos."
According to Noel, a Costa Mesa marriage and family counselor who specializes in working with stepfamilies, the Langdons' solution to their own holiday problems could serve as a workable role model for others in similar situations.
"It is extremely important to communicate within the family before the holidays. Next year start planning on Nov. 1," Noel said. "Look at your plans and try not to end up running to his house and her house, taking the kids here and there so that instead of the kids being able to relax and enjoy the holidays, it becomes a mad dash for everyone."
Ellen Kaufman, Jewish family life education coordinator for the Jewish Family Service in Garden Grove, also stressed the importance of planning ahead. "Stepfamilies have so many crazy things going on in just scheduling themselves that this time of year is very difficult for them," she said. "They have to start planning early. It is not easy being a stepfamily. During the holidays everyone thinks they need to be really happy. They have to have a lot of fun. What they need to do is step back and realize that for stepfamilies this is a difficult time. They are not going to be totally blended. They are going to feel a lot of tension. Things are not going to run smoothly. Their expectations should not be so high."
Kaufman, who counsels Jewish and non-Jewish partners who have intermarried, said she believes that the biggest issue in stepfamilies is "who belongs and who doesn't. It is very difficult for intermarried couples, even if they don't have children.
"The holiday season is the time when families have a lot of traditions, and just being aware that children from different families are going to have different customs and that great respect needs to be shown for everyone's traditions is important," she said. "What most couples do who intermarry is that they end up celebrating both holidays--Hanukkah and Christmas."
Noel said that it takes between five and seven years for a stepfamily to establish itself as a new family. "So if things are not going smoothly," she said, "slow down. Don't panic. If you have unrealistic expectations, then you will end up being disappointed."
Noel, who teaches a class called "Keeping Your Balance in a Stepfamily" at Orange Coast College, offers these suggestions:
- Communicate. "The big thing is to talk to the whole family. Talk about your traditions. Each family is coming in with its own. One may open its presents on Christmas Eve. One may wait until Christmas morning. One may serve bean soup on Christmas Eve. The other may hate bean soup."
- Compromise. "Whose traditions do you follow? If you bulldoze your way through, anger results." Noel suggested that a stepfamily might talk about establishing its own traditions. "Sit down and say: 'What do we want to do? We are a whole new family.' So develop your own special holiday traditions. It may mean that we celebrate Christmas the day after or the day before."
- Be flexible. "It takes openness and flexibility to be successful, and it is very important to empathize. Just substituting the word 'different' for 'right and wrong' can get rid of a lot of conflicts."
- Eliminate expectations. "Make no assumptions about how you are going to do anything during the holidays. We all go into the holidays with such an emotional charge. If you have unrealistic expectations, then you will end up being disappointed. And you'll end up blaming others for your disappointment."
One of the most important things to remember, Noel said, is even after the holidays have come and gone, the stepparents will still be together. "The family is important, but it is also important for the couple--the stepparents--to take time for themselves, to show their love for each other, to start their own special traditions. It will also make the kids happier, too. Let's face it. That's why the family is together to begin with--because they (the stepparents) love each other. So during the holidays, don't lose sight of that love."