Woman First

Single and Step Parent Holiday Solutions

by Loriann Hoff Oberlin

In planning their children's celebrations, single and step parents must anticipate problems and handle unexpected ones in an already stress-filled season. Here are no-nonsense solutions to help everyone have the happiest of holidays.

Problem: My kids are spending Christmas with their dad and his new wife for the first time, and I don't have plans. I don't want the kids to see I'm upset. What should I do?

Solution: "Let them know that you have some holiday plans of your own," says Susan Shapiro Barash, author of Women of Divorce: Mothers, Daughters, Stepmothers — the New Triangle (New Horizon Press, $16.95). "This way, they'll feel less torn about leaving you alone. Say goodbye with a smile, plan to celebrate either before or after the 25th."

Barash says the holidays will certainly exaggerate any loneliness you may feel, especially if your ex is in a committed relationship and you're not. But be proactive and make plans with friends or family, or even volunteer at your church, synagogue or soup kitchen where your mind will be occupied, and you'll feel good.

Problem: It's only my second season single, and my budget is pretty tight with legal bills on top of holiday expenses. How can I economize?

Solution: Keep holiday dinners low key with ordinary dishes and requests for everyone to bring a covered dish. Simplify gift-giving or draw names for extended family. If your kids are old enough, choose one big item — a computer or a new TV. Supplement with stocking stuffers.

Also, you can present one or two small items on the holiday, promising to shop Dec. 26 because many items are substantially marked down. Forego cards in favor of e-greetings, and give crafts or baked goods to teachers, family and friends.

Problem: Two years ago, I remarried and moved to Colorado. My children's father wants to visit and give them skiing lessons over the break. Is it a bad idea to invite him to join us for the first night of Hanukkah?

Solution: On the contrary, it's a good idea, especially if all adults can behave like grown-ups and be civil to each other, because kids are happiest when their parents (and stepparents) get along. "Today, many parents forge closer bonds with former spouses than in the past, and what better time to do it than during holidays when families should be together," says Barbara LeBey, author of Remarried with Children (Bantam, $13).

Aim for a relaxed atmosphere. Create moments when your children can be alone with their dad while you're preparing food or setting the table. Then, as a group, talk about positive topics, nothing contentious.

Problem: We're separating and don't know whether splitting Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years Day is wise, or whether to swap every other year. What's best for everyone concerned?

Solution: Most families find that splitting Thanksgiving or Christmas into "eve" and "day" is too stressful, according to Mary L. Davidson, author of The Everything Divorce Book (Adams Media, $14.95). Alternate years for each holiday, especially if you're in different states.

"The other parent can have another four-day weekend some other time. Alternating the Christmas holiday and perhaps the winter break is easier on everyone," says Davidson. "Make this alternate time special by creating traditions with movies, videos, favorite foods — anything to make it memorable."

Problem: My ex-husband converted to Judaism when he remarried, and my 8-year-old daughter is upset that her traditions might not be celebrated in their home. Is there some way to mend this situation?

Solution: Spiritual traditions are important and when they change, it takes everyone time to adjust. "Reassure your daughter that she won't have to skip Christmas but can count on celebrating it together with you," says Cheryl Erwin, co-author of Positive Discipline for Single Parents (Prima Lifestyles, $16.95). "You can also help her anticipate what a Jewish holiday celebration might look like. If you can, you might let her father know that she has some questions, so he can help her feel comfortable."

Reframe her father's new faith in the positive by indicating how fun it might be to learn new customs, try new foods and understand some of the celebrations her friends talk about at school.

Problem: My ex-husband is bringing my kids to his girlfriend's parents' house for Christmas dinner, with lots of people they don't know. Should I talk to their father about how uncomfortable they might feel?

Solution: If you have a decent relationship, tell your ex that the children are a bit apprehensive about spending the holiday with strangers. You and he can ask the children if there are ways to help them feel more comfortable, advises Erwin.

"If you can't talk easily with your ex, listen to your children, understand their feelings, and perhaps, coach them on how to suggest fun things to do," she says. "For instance, they might ask their father to rent them a
video or plan to take along a
board game to play as a group. Working together to prepare a family meal might be a good way for everyone to get to know each other better as well."

Loriann Hoff Oberlin is a freelance writer and author of Surviving Separation & Divorce (Adams Media, $12.95).