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How to survive stepfamily struggles during the holidays

Kate Chapman is a mom, stepmom, wife, chicken wrangler, and recovering corporate ninja.  She lives on a suburban mini-farm with her husband Gabe and the six children in their modern-day Brady Bunch: Simon, Sarah, Caden, Amy, Lottie and J...

Being a blended family doesn't have to mean extra stress during the holidays

Holidays are hard. The days are filled with people you don’t see often (sometimes by choice) and stretched schedules and wallets. As a step parent, I know that it also means that all the blended and step stigma (real or perceived) comes out to play reminding you, by the kids’ schedule and your memories of holidays past and your patchwork quilt of a family tree, that your current situation doesn’t match the Rockwell cards you’re receiving in the mail. Here's how I've learned to survive step family holidays.

1. Figure out the schedule early

“What?” you say. “We have a schedule. It’s already defined in our agreement.” Of course it is, and maintaining your high school weight is as simple as diet and exercise. In my experience, both are a little more nuanced. What’s defined in the agreement just starts the fun. My ex and I have a good relationship, and both support our custody agreement, and we almost always shift the schedule. There’s family visiting from the other coast, a must-see Nutcracker performance, a long-awaited ski trip in play. Life happens and the schedule shifts. To save your sanity, get this year’s schedule nailed down with your parenting team early.

2. Define absolute must do’s

I am a sucker for holiday happenings. I’m out with the crowds at Pancakes with Santa and craft fairs. I fill our family calendar with our own traditions – the Sibling Tree and extended family sing-alongs and Christmas movie marathons. It’s exciting in anticipation and exhausting in execution. But running from one magical activity to the next turns me into a Scrooge. Over the years, I’ve learned to put one big activity on the calendar a weekend during the holiday season and to block time to just be at home together.

More: Make a ‘sibling tree’ for the best Secret Santa exchange ever

3. Tell your family (and then duck)

Your family, extended or blended, may not love the boundaries you’ve set in step one and step two of this handy holiday guide. My mother-in-law wants nothing more than to have her step-grandchildren attend her extended family celebration. I understand that and appreciate her kindness. That just doesn’t work for us because it falls on the same weekend as the family Jingle Bell Jog. So we gracefully and politely decline and hold our ground.

More: How to have a happy holiday as a new adoptive parent

4. Be flexible

Set the schedule and rules and tell everyone and then be flexible. Seems contrary, but that’s how blended families roll. Once you’ve established the guidelines, you can take a deep breath and relax. Your people know what’s happening (or not) and what to anticipate. But things change. Last minute tickets to holiday shows and friends driving through and unexpected sledding opportunities sometimes provide the real magic of the holidays. The key is to read your people. Do they want to do this new thing? Will it overtire anyone (especially you)? Does it require prep, or can it be half-assed and still thoroughly enjoyed? If you think it can add to the fun without adding to the work or complexity, Carpe Blitzen!

Flexibility works the other way, too. Ditch the planned activities if the tribe isn’t up for it, and while you’re at it, ditch the guilt. So what if you paid for tickets to Elf Jr. at the community theater if, when the time, comes no one wants to go? At that point, your choices are go with a bunch of recalcitrant South Pole elves or stay home with wine. You’ve already spent that money. Do what feels right in the moment. Crack open that bottle and turn the carols up.

More: 10 holiday traditions from across the world your kids will love

5. Extend grace

Be kind to yourself. Be kind to your spouse. Dig deep if you have to and be kind to your ex and his new wife. Bite your tongue when the plans change and focus on what the kids see. The magic of your family, even if it is patched together and strictly scheduled and filled with ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, still sparkles.

An earlier version of this article was published on Kate's blog LifeInProgress.

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