7 Tips to Ditch High Conflict at the Holidays
For blended families, the holiday season is longer, more complicated, and more stressful than for traditional families. (Yayyyyy 🙄)
We try to cram at least as many Super Fun Activities in as a regular family (more, probably, if we do our usual compensating-for-divorce-guilt shit). And because we see each other less, it feels like there’s more pressure riding on everyone having a good time. No. No, not just a good time—the PERFECT TIME.
EVERYTHING MUST BE PERFECT.
And then high conflict between households comes along to crank up the pressure on your emotional InstaPot that much further into the red.
Can any of us survive the holidays mostly unscathed? Yep! These tips can help you keep the biggest culprits of high conflict at bay so your stepfamily can enjoy a calm(ish) little corner of holiday cheer.
1. Stick to the custody schedule
During the holiday season, there’s always some big party or fancy event or special occasion that tempts you to ask for (or agree to) a day trade. You know, just this once. Just cause it’s the season and everyone’s feeling charitable and gosh, Christmas only comes once a year! ‘Tis the season for forgiveness, right everyone?
In a high-conflict custody situation, your only charitable feelings should be directed toward your custody order. The second you stray from those hallowed words, that’s the second your CO stops protecting you. If you’re dealing with an opposite parent who historically doesn’t keep their word, cancels plans at the last minute, or refuses to reciprocate favors, don’t think the holiday season is gonna change any of this.
2. But also stay flexible
At the same time, don’t get too emotionally invested in the exact particulars of your holiday celebrations. For example, if you’re scheduled to have the kids for just a few hours on Christmas Eve, you’ll probably pile on tons of expectations and want everything to be exactly just right. And then when it isn’t (because of course it won’t be, because nothing ever goes exactly just right), the disappointment crushes you.
There are so many possible pitfalls that the holidays bring up—present competition between houses, off-kilter schedules that affect planned custody time, questionable cookie eating habits and totally ignored bedtimes. You can’t possibly prevent all of them, and it’s better not to try. Focus on simply enjoying whatever moments you have with the kids, whenever you have them, and for however long.
3. Plan ahead. Like… way way wayyyyy ahead.
We’re celebrating our blended family Christmas this year on December 16th, because that’s when we can all get together. We picked this date back in September, informed the kids that their presence was mandatory, and started shopping in October. We also let our extended families know our chosen date ahead of time so anyone who wanted to could mail the kids’ presents in time for our early celebration.
Since you’re sticking religiously to the custody order (you are, right??), planning ahead shouldn’t be a problem. But if you’re in any doubt whatsoever about when or whether you have the kids, then….
4. Make alternate and backup plans
When Dan & I sat down to talk about our Christmas plans this year, we slapped a calendar in front of us and didn’t leave the table till we had 3 potential dates penciled in. We learned years ago that the holiday is when we celebrate, so we’re not hung up on gathering at any one particular day—as long as it happens at all.
And I also booked some dinner plans and date night plans for December 24th, December 25th, and New Year’s Eve/Day so Dan & I won’t be sitting around sadly twiddling our thumbs and wishing the kids were there. If you know you’re susceptible to the holiday sads, plan some fun stuff to distract yourself/your partner from missing the kids. Alternatively, block out some private time for crying into your peppermint mocha and get it all out of your system.
5. Don’t bother trying to compete
There are so many different ways Christmas can feel like a contest. Not just Christmas—really, the entire holiday season from November through January. Who gets the kids for which holiday this year, who bought which presents for how much, whose elf on the shelf gets into the silliest shenanigans.
I’ll never forget one of my all-time fave holiday stepparenting moments, when my SD said “Here’s a list of what I want for Christmas… and on the back, here’s a list of what you & Daddy can get me” (aka, the cheap gifts). That was the year I decided we were 100% done trying to compete with any other households, and announced that we were invoking a 2-present limit for everyone and one of those presents had to be handmade.
Know what? The kids never complained. They were excited to make presents. We strung up cranberries and popcorn and made paper ornaments for our tree. It was a really fun and completely new way to celebrate. And a gentle reminder that, really, Christmas for us is about celebrating our time together.
The only way to “win” at Christmas is to not play. If you find your blood pressure rising over gift-giving and other holiday activities, take a minute to step outside the red haze and brainstorm a creative solution instead of getting sucked in.
PS, avoiding social media can realllly help with keeping competitive feelings under control.
6. Go low-key if you must
Finally, if your child’s other parent is notoriously difficult to the point of not respecting your usual boundaries, don’t hesitate to downshift into stealth mode. Don’t blab your plans around. Don’t volunteer any additional information outside of what’s required by your custody order. Keep your holiday schedule under wraps to protect the sanctity of your celebration as much as possible.
The year that HCBM got her panties in a bunch enough to flat-out refuse SD spending any time with us over winter break was a hard one. On the upside, she announced her intentions in early November, which gave us enough time to plan around her.
We were sure if HCBM knew we were cooking up a way we could celebrate Christmas with SD anyway, she’d find a way to sabotage us. The problem was, SD reported every single thing we did or said right back to her mom, so anything we came up with would have to be kept secret from SD. And that meant also keeping it secret from my BD.
Voilà! Surprise Christmas was born! We celebrated the day after Thanksgiving, and didn’t tell the kids what we were up to till we’d turned off our phones and pulled out the tree. Both girls were over the moon about Christmas coming out of absolutely nowhere, and Dan & I reveled in the priceless gift of schadenfreude as we listened to SD rave to her mom about how “this was the coolest Christmas EVER” in the car on the way home.
7. Fake it till you feel it
The first time we celebrated our blended family Christmas on some random day at the end of December, I hated it. I thought it was the fakest-feeling Christmas ever. Everything felt pointless, especially celebrating at all when both of the girls had already had at least 2 Christmas celebrations each.
About halfway through decorating the tree, I had to excuse myself to our bedroom and have a good cry at the unfairness of life, the stupidity of custody schedules, and the brutal reality of stepparenthood. Like, seriously? We’re supposed to be a family but we never get one holiday all together?
Fake Christmas felt like just one more fake thing about our fake family, which already felt nothing like the family I imagined. And there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
So I won’t tell you that celebrating your blended family holidays on non-traditional days doesn’t suck. It can for sure. It definitely did for me. But only at first. The next year, our random day Christmas (in January, that time) was easier. And the next year after that, easier still.
Fast forward to today, and celebrating whenever we can just feels natural. Sensible. Especially since our girls are older and have boyfriends and their boyfriends have family obligations with expectations of their own. So while everyone else is duking it out over whose house they’re visiting on December 25th, we get to be the easygoing parents who shrug and say “We just love you! Come whenever! The holiday is when we celebrate!” And, not gonna lie: it feels really fucking amazing getting to be the good guys for a change.