Last Updated on November 25, 2018

When I was a child, Christmas Eve was an elaborate event in my dad’s Italian family. For that special night, my Nana prepared an exceptional menu of meats, fish, pastas, and pastries that would make angels salivate. My cousins, aunts and uncles, godparents, and various other people filled the house with boisterous talking, bellowing laughter, and an occasional argument. Nana’s girlfriends spoke only Italian, and they smelled a little odd. But their pinch to your cheek or bone-crunching hug only added to the fun.

Think My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and you will get the picture. I cry every time I watch that movie. It brings back wonderful memories of the holidays at Nana’s and causes me to recall a time when I belonged to something bigger than myself. I felt loved and secure.

Now Nana is gone, the house is sold, and the family is scattered. My quest to find meatballs like hers has proved fruitless, and I’ll never again walk into her familiar kitchen that affectionately whispered, “Welcome home.”  The sights, sounds, and smells of the holidays have a way of triggering all sorts of memories and emotions, don’t they?

After 25 years as a stepmother, I recall a number of tense holiday seasons when I wanted to walk out to the Nativity scene in my front yard and ask Baby Jesus to move over. I’d whisper, “This is not the life I bargained for. I don’t care if it’s freezing outside, the manger gives me splinters, or the hay makes me sneeze — at least it’s calm, quiet, and safe.”

The holidays can be stressful because they represent a symbol of family belonging. And there’s the rub for a stepmother. When she feels “outside” of the family circle, the occasion can throw gasoline on an existing flame; the event can magnify her loneliness and discomfort.

But there are ways to overcome. Here are a few insights to help with stepfamily holiday hassles.

Stepfamilies Are Unique

Stepmother Sherrie explains the situation to her sister. “Julie, if you think the holidays are hectic at your house, try coordinating schedules, decorating, shopping, school programs, dinner, and gift giving with the parents of three households. Add to the mix that most of the adults involved don’t even like each other, and you have a taste of what Christmas is like in a stepfamily. Everything is more complicated because there are so many people who influence the plans, including the biological mom, her parents and siblings, and her husband’s family.”

The multiple-home, multiple-parent, multiple-grandparent, and in-law complexities of a step family often rise to the surface during special occasions. The collision of various traditions, preferences, and cultural norms can produce an interesting dynamic. In addition, it seems that holidays and special occasions bring out the best and the worst in people.

Stepmom is in the Hot Seat

Guess which family member typically feels the brunt of the holiday strain? The stepmother does. That’s because the calendar and planning of family celebrations often fall on her. A stepmother may feel overwhelmed and shocked by the flurry of activity and the sudden responsibility to coordinate everything.

Custody Conflict

Typically the greatest holiday discord comes when the two homes cannot agree on a reasonable visitation schedule. When the biological parents and/or step parents refuse to work together to determine what is best for the kids, tension arises. It’s not uncommon for one parent to view “winning Christmas morning” as a victory in the divorce battle. But as stepmother Jennifer shares, there isn’t much to celebrate. “The bio mom and I try hard to work toward a reasonable solution, and we’re as flexible as possible. But this rarely works because my husband is not willing to give up control and refrain from demanding his way. Then the situation turns back to yelling and screaming, and everyone suffers.”

Topsy-Turvy Traditions

Traditions play a huge role in the holiday dynamic. When family rituals and customs are sustained, they reinforce identity and define what is “normal.” I’d love to pass on to my stepsons the Italian family traditions I’ve experienced. But I quickly learned that they already have their own traditions based on family background. What feels cozy and familiar to me isn’t “normal” for them. This lack of shared tradition makes each side feel different, disconnected, and separate, thereby generating discomfort and stress for everyone.

Toxic Circumstances

When several family members who are unsettled about the step family are gathered together for a special occasion, the cumulative anxiety may create an explosion. The underlying raw emotions that each person carries may be inflamed by others in the room. Therefore, take caution before throwing numerous family members into close surroundings if you suspect they are incapable of handling the tension. It’s best to celebrate separately until these issues can be resolved. Trying to resolve family conflict during special occasions is usually unproductive.

Click here for second part of this post and two intentional ways to conquer holiday hassles!

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  1. Thank you for this very accurate description of my life. I am not the stepmom but the mom. I struggle to make everyone happy and my husband is so patient. Our difficult schedule has caused problems with him and his family because they just don't understand how complicated it is. Thank you for helping me to see his side.

  2. Jen- I'm so glad the article blessed and encouaged you. Sometimes just knowing we aren't alone makes it easier to cope. Blessings to YOU. Laura

  3. Priscilla says:

    Hi Laura – I know this is January, but I'm just reading your post and wish I had seen it before the holidays. I also own a copy of your book, The Smart Stepmom, and it has helped me not to get my feelings hurt several times. Thank you for sharing your experiences!