A Healthy Stepmother . . . holidays and resisting the urge.

I have no idea how I made it through the first few Christmas holidays with my husband and his three kids. I have no memory of the things I did to get through the days. I have a few very dramatic and negative memories surrounding schedules and who was where and when. I have a few very touching and meaningful memories surrounding a gesture a child made toward me or an experience we shared during those days. But, mostly, I blocked out how uncomfortable and frustrating it was.

Sadly, it was likely painful and uncomfortable and awkward for the kids and their dad, too. I thought at the time it was my fault everyone was struggling. I lived through meals where my husband’s ex and her extended family were the main point of discussion. I lived through present exchanges where I felt like an after-thought. I lived through meals where everyone became silent when I spoke.

I survived.

Over the years, I developed some self-preservation tactics. While the kids had the option to get mad and stomp out or punish me with silence, the scene of these often muted good-byes was and is my home. My husband invited me here. I was, and am, going to trust him and not second-guess him or make him prove he wants me here.

As the holidays approach, I’m writing a few notes to remind myself about what I can do to stay grounded for the next few weeks. Maybe some of these ideas will be useful for you. Most of them are free, almost none of them involve things you might never do, and you can practice them year-round.

1. Listen to yourself and act accordingly.
It’s likely that at least 50% of your difficult times seem difficult because you’re tired. Often, you’ve done too much and if it’s all new, it’s exhausting. Some days you might need a nap. Some days you might need silence. Other days, information would be helpful so you can understand the complexities of the history of your new relatives. Still other days you could need familiarity. Surround yourself with a place to retreat for naps or alone time, photo(s) of good times with your own relatives, and a calendar full of dog walks. Resist the urge to push yourself past your limits. You are not super-anyone.

2. Get clear about your role.
It’s not your job to make Christmas fun, good, lovely, wonderful, amazing, or the-best-ever for anyone. Let me say that again . . . you are not responsible for making sure that anyone or everyone has a good holiday experience. Resist the urge to take that on as your own. Every single person in your household will have the kind of holiday he or she can hold in his or her heart. You can schedule experiences that let them have an opportunity, but you cannot make them have a fun time or insist that they enjoy it or even guarantee that it will be memory-building. Take your “I’ll-be-everything-to-everyone” hat and put it way back in the back of the closet with your off-season clothes until you really need it or deserve it. That will be never, but that’s another blog post.

3. Schedule friend time once a week by phone, an online chat, or in person.
Get out your calendar and call all your girlfriends, sister, mother, or your stepmom girlfriend. Make sure that you have a girlfriend date scheduled weekly between now and the end of the year. Each weekly session would ideally be at least 30 minutes long and you would include topics such as how you are feeling about yourself, how things are going, what you hope for the holidays with your family, and how you are taking care of yourself. You could also report the things your husband is doing to support you and explore how you might ask for any other kinds of support you need from him. Resist the urge for this phone call, chat, or coffee meeting to turn into a skewering or bashing of the ex-wife. This is your Christmas, not hers. This is your time to focus on what you need for you and what is in your heart and soul. If you spend your time calling her hateful names or analyzing what she is doing or not doing, it’s very counter-productive. You are much better off to focus on what you feel inside and to talk about what you dream of and hope for your weeks ahead. Plan how to meet your needs. Yes, how you can meet those needs for yourself. Not how your husband can meet your needs, not how the kids can meet your needs. The question is: How can you meet your needs, for yourself. How?

4. Schedule couple time, hire a sitter, barter with a friend.
Go out with your husband away from your home without children. If this is a dog walk, if this is a shopping trip, if this is to the movie, make sure you get once a week time with your husband. Just walk and breathe and don’t even try to talk. Go to the movie and hold hands, silently. Run through the gift list or actually look for a gift, but leave the big worries for later when you are back at home. Compartmentalize. Find a way to build a sacred boundary around your time together. Give signals that tell your husband you are thinking of him. If you need a hug, ask for one. Do not wait until he thinks of it. Resist the urge to berate him for not thinking of it. If you listen to your needs and you determine you need a hug, ask. Keep it simple. Keep it direct.

5. Decorate for yourself.
Maybe you live in a home where the kids like Christmas but they won’t spend time decorating with you because you are not their mom. Maybe you are putting things on the tree that they remember and you don’t put them up in the exact correct location. First of all, decorate for you. Schedule and advertise the tree decorating so that if they want to attend, they’ll can make plans to be there. Resist the urge to take complaints about your efforts not being the same as past years in a personal way. Wait. Just wait. Let those comments roll off. If there are decorations you know are special, set them aside so the kids can put them on the tree. I have a Santa collection and every year I dibs the mantle for the wooden, glass, ceramic, and metal Santas and the candles that need to be lit every night.

6. Decorate yourself.
Dress up. Resist the urge to go to the store in your sweats, even for a quick errand. Instead, get out your nice jeans or your favorite holiday outfit and wear them, often. Get a Santa hat and go grocery shopping. One year, I flew to Colorado to visit my cousin and wore a Santa hat all through the Chicago airport. I had so much fun meeting and talking to people. The hat was an instant friend-maker. Guaranteed to help you feel in the spirit. You don’t need to buy new clothes, in fact, I’d recommend against it. Just get out the things you save for special occasions and wear those. Your favorite clothes will feel more comfortable and more secure, and you can enjoy being inside a cocoon that is yours, all yours.

7. Get out the candles.
Light the candles every single day. I used to buy pillar candles but now I’m all about tea lights. They are self-contained, they go out after about 4 hours, and they are stable and will not fall over or spill. I have several candle holders now and change out the tea lights on a daily basis. Yes, I go through a lot of them but in the end it’s less expensive than pillars or tapers, it’s safer, and I get the lift of the festive feeling every single day. No resistance here.

8. Cook your favorite meal.
Make a meal that you love . . . with food you love to eat. The day after Thanksgiving I cooked all day and made a meatloaf packed with all kinds of vegetables, a side dish of brussels sprouts, and a casserole of fennel gratin. It was a meal I’d been dreaming of for weeks and it tasted amazing. That was my Thanksgiving. Do that for yourself. If you know your family doesn’t like your favorite types of foods, then send them out shopping or to the zoo and have your friends over to enjoy your cooking. While we’re on this subject, let your husband cook the meals for the kids. Or let him plan what they will be and help you prepare. Or, go out. Or, have the kids help you cook. Resist the urge to schedule yourself to do all the cooking, especially over the holidays. If you are not a custodial stepmom, let him cook for his kids. It makes so much sense. He knows what they like, they really want him to cook for them anyway, and he was probably cooking for them before you came along. And, even if you don’t like what he will serve them, eat a bite or two. Resist rejecting it. I know I turned my nose up at some of it because I didn’t want so much pasta, etc., but eating a small portion or even just a bite paid off. Sort of like what I expect the kids to do when they get served a meal they don’t like.

9. Scale back everything.
It seems like the holidays arrive and there’s 10 times the work to do. The shopping, the meal preparation, visiting, and cleaning the house so it’s ready. Resist the urge to sign yourself up for all these jobs. Divide and conquer. You start with, so and so is coming over for dinner, who is going to vacuum the living room and who is going to wipe down the bathroom sink? Even if you have never assigned chores or talked about this as a family, just bringing up the subject when everyone is together and spelling it out like that, it’s remarkable how adaptable everyone suddenly becomes, including your husband. Another idea is to scale back on how many things you schedule over the vacation. Stay home and keep things simple. We have two or three dinners for every holiday because of the way our family is constructed. This year, I was going to do the big traditional meal again on the final family dinner and my husband said, no, no, no, no, no…we are going to get deli meat and nice cheeses and build sandwiches. In the end, we made a sandwich bar and everyone built his/her own. No wonder I love this guy. As it was, I was exhausted by then and not as talkative as usual, but I hung out and watched and listened and enjoyed. It was a nice time. A very nice time. Minus the hype.

10. Plan a couple getaway for January.
Find a way to get out of town. Send the kids to grandma’s house or plan to go away when the kids are at their other house. Whatever you do, schedule a getaway for after the holidays. Knowing were leaving on a certain date has meant everything. Every time I’d get frustrated or feel crowded or hurt from being ignored, I’d think of the getaway and feel better inside. Nothing to resist here.

These ten items are my anchors for taking care of myself at any time, but especially during the holidays. I’m sure I’ll think of more as I go through these next few weeks and I’ll blog about them. In the meantime, I need to get my online chats scheduled. Excuse me . . .

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