Cathryn's Articles for Stepmom Issues and Relationships

Handling the Holidays: Choice & Creativity can save the day.
Holidays and special occasions, which are supposed to be joyful times in our lives, can be infuriating and heart-breaking for many stepfamilies. There are so many expectations, beliefs, rituals and emotions invested in the holidays and 3 or more parental figures involved. How can you help yourself in this stressful time?

Choice and Creativity can make (And Save) your Holiday.
Make the Choice and use Creativity to make the Holidays Special!

Holidays and special occasions, which are supposed to be joyful times in our lives, can be infuriating and heart-breaking for many stepfamilies. Instead of having 2 parents, each with families to share the children and activities with, there can be 3 or 4 sets of families all vying for limited time and attention packed into a small window of calendar time. Happy Holidays? For many, not so happy and not feeling much like a holiday.

What can you do? What are your options? How can we create joyful memories when there’s so much potential competition and conflict between bio-parents?

What I’m about to share has worked for me. It’s not going to work for everyone but I’m sharing it in case there’s anything here that you can use, revise or spruce up to help you make it through the New Year with your sanity and your relationship with your Beloved intact and stronger than ever!

When the holiday stress began, I got caught up with fairness and justice (or rather the lack of it) and what the divorce and co-parenting agreements stated. Right from the start, hostile bio-mom showed us that she wasn’t all that concerned about anything as mundane as rules, agreements or fairness or even the well-being of her son. After a rough couple of holiday seasons, I realized, with a jolt, if we want to survive and enjoy the holidays, we had to let go of trying to control the schedule and activities.

For any of you with suspected narcissistic bio-moms, please remember narcissists feed off of “battles” and can’t stop themselves until they get the last word in and believe they’ve won and you’ve lost. There’s no win-win with a narcissist. She HAS to believe she beat you in order to back-off. Knowing this, you and your DH can use this to your advantage.

The holidays are supposed to be a time when people are good and kind, etc. but sadly many stepfamilies experience even more stress. We also feel like we should have at least some choices and that it should be fair, but many times we don’t have the ability to control what happens. Most of the time, getting angry doesn’t help either. Given that we can’t control so many variables in this situation, what can we do?


We can choose to use some of our many gifts and talents. We can choose to use our creativity and the power of choice to make the holidays meaningful, fun and relaxed for us, our DH’s and all the children involved in our lives.

How do we do that? The first thing we do is step back and realize that we really do have choices, even if it doesn’t seem that way.

We can choose to decide that the most important thing for the holidays is to have fun together, whenever and wherever we can. We can decide to throw out the specifics of the calendar and celebrate whenever we are together. We can decide that we’re not going to fight the bio-mom, except for the battles that HAVE to be fought. We can decide that it’s more important to share a meaningful, memorable, joyful time together than to battle to try to get our fair and equal share of dates and times according to the rules and agreements.

Good Gracious!!! That’s a lot to swallow! That’s one of those, “easier said than done” kind of choices. True. However this is also a choice you (and your DH) have complete control over and can make together without anyone else interfering.

If you decide that shared happy times are most important to you, you’ll surprise yourselves at the amount of fun and peaceful joy you can experience over the holidays. Of course this choice also means you have to be willing to ignore the voices of ego, unfairness, injustice, tradition, rage and any other residual feelings still whirling around in your consciousness, for they will have a good “case” and not go quietly.

NOTE: Therapists agree that children rarely remember their daily lives. What they remember are holidays, family rituals, traditions and vacations. A choice to walk away from the annual battle with the bio-mom (whenever you can) means that you have more time and energy to create some really fun, silly, happy, sacred, loving family moments together. Look at the ways to spend your time and energy...then choose!

If you’re thinking to yourself there’s no way in the world you’re going to give that bleepedy bleepin bio-mom what she wants this year-I totally understand where you’re coming from. The rage, hatred, grief, pain, powerlessness, resentment and disrespect that so many of us have had to endure from our situations is really off the charts. When we’ve tried to take the high road, do the right thing and let so many things go, over the course of the year, we feel like at least we should get to do something we wanted at the holidays, right?!!! Well you’re right of course, but what we want or being right or true or good rarely carries enough weight to make it happen. Sadly.

As frustrating as it can be, we SMOMS learn, at some point, that doing battle over the holidays only re-invigorates many hostile bio-moms. We endure such stress and trauma because at some level, we don’t think or feel we have a choice. Not feeling like we have a choice fuels and adds to our rage. It can feel like we are stuck with stressful holidays and that’s not something anyone wants to look forward to year after year.

But as I mentioned, we really do have a choice.
At first it might not seems like a desirable one, but think about it for a few moments. Pretend you’re looking back on this holiday season.
What do you want to remember?
Think about last year.
Think about what you and your DH imagine you’re headed for this year?

What if you could give yourselves the gift of a relatively non-traumatic, peaceful, fun, happy times with each other, your families and the kids and skids in your lives? Is this potential, imaginary holiday memory strong enough to silence those other inner voices?

In this case, the best route to success is to get off her game board and start playing another game, your own game. It’s a fun game because you get to make up all the rules, change them whenever you wish and everyone gets to win. Let’s win this Holiday Game and recapture the holiday fun and happiness that so many of us remember, longed for, looked forward to and/or want to share as a family.

This is where your imagination and creativity comes into play.
I’m going to start a list of creative holiday ideas and ask all of you to add to it.
Let’s create a long list of possibilities.

Creative Ways To Enjoy YOUR Holidays!

Start new family rituals anywhere you can!
Combine family traditions wherever you can!
Come up with things that do not have to happen on a specific day!

1. Have a family meeting and ask everyone to make a list of the 3-5 things they want to do this holiday season. Help the little ones come up with their lists. Make sure to write your own. Put this list is a special, visible place for all to see. Make a special bulletin board or pick a wall or clear off the fridge. Keep adding things as events pop up. Tell them you’re going to do as many as time allows but not everything, set their expectations based on your situation. It’s meant to be a list you can pick from whenever you’re together. Maybe draw 1 thing out of a bowl at the beginning or end of each time together and find ways to make it happen. Looking forward to things is part of the fun.

2.Kick-off the Holidays with a family party. Whatever day is the first day in your holiday season, decide that this is the day you have a family “holiday kick-off” party. Decide what that means. The possibilities are endless and depending on the age of the children involved can be designed by them, with them or for them. Make it a fun, easy, happy time. Pull out decorations, make your lists, write to Santa, bake something, eat something, have the teens search google for a family charity project, do something that’s different from anything else you do all year. Eat just holiday desserts as your dinner that night. Use your imagination-fun is the goal.

3.You and your DH make a private list of the things that are important for you and all the kids in your life. Between the two of you, make a priority list and promise yourselves that you will keep your “thinking caps” on until you two can think of ways to do what is most important to both of you and each of you. Save your lists from year to year as everything may not be possible each year but over the years, you can accomplish many things.

4.Come up with new ways to be silly together. (this is an endless list) Gather up your favorite music and start a ritual of 10 minutes of holiday music, karaoke, singing or listening before bedtime. Have a family talent show, one person does something after each meal you share together. It can be telling stories, sharing memories, planning new ones. These kinds of things do not have to be tied to any day of the week or date, just whenever you are together. This way the children will have things to look forward to but not disappointed if bio-mom changes dates or plans, you can just do them the next time.

5.If Santa is involved at your home, help the little ones make posters “Santa, I’m here too!” and put it in their windows. This was something we did when ss was little, because he was at one house Christmas Eve and the other one Christmas afternoon. He felt so relieved when he realized Santa could find him wherever he was. (Some things defy logic.)

6.Whatever your family traditions are or have been, look for new ways to do happy things. The key thing is together and fun. Doesn’t have to be expensive. Have any teens in your home have a Swap Chores Night where, you all make a big deal of it (Like NBA Draft night-for example). On this night, with you and your DH as Commissioners who need to approve the trades, they trade with each other for a designated period of time.

7.Create the holiday events, independent of the calendar and teach the kids that “it’s our holidays because we are all together.” This is not a hard sell for them but may be more charged for you and DH. Give it a try. Ask the older ones for ideas and their favorite traditions.

8.If you expect scheduling troubles with Bio-mom, tell your families ASAP that this year you and your DH are going to do things differently and that you can’t promise being anywhere at anytime this year. Explain your situation (although they will most likely understand) and ask them to help you by coming up with some of their own ideas for ways to spend time together. Is there a family project you can do whenever you are together? Asking people for their help can be fun and results in some super ideas. Being together become more meaningful when the people involved have been involved in making it happen.

9.Start a “Do One Thing” Tradition. This was a tip we got 10 years ago from a sister SMOM. They started a tradition that every day, each member of the family would do one nice thing for someone else in the family. At the end of the day, everyone would share. It was so powerful and special for this family, they made it a tradition for each day they were all together. Think of the possibilities.

10.If you have a big stepfamily and there are “the boys versus the girls” in your home, mix it up and create two new teams for your family. The lefties versus the rightees. The people born on even days versus odd days, even months vs odd months. Think of something silly and different. For the holidays, give the teams different tasks, like these reality shows, and appropriate for your home. Find ways to share the chores, give teams varying rights or tasks like requests for what to fix for supper and other team fixes it, that kind of thing. Get creative and it will be something you remember for a long time.

OK, You can see here that I could go on and on.
Check out the article about "Connecting for your Skids” for more ideas.

Now it’s your turn. What creative, fun, happy, clever things can you add to the list?

If your situation presents a challenge to using this approach for the holidays, reply about it and we’ll all put on our thinking caps and see what we can come up with.

If you feel resistant to giving up the holiday battles, write about that and we’ll do our best to see if we can help you feel differently and/or more willing to try something new.

As my coach used to say, “Nothing changes until you do...and when you change, everything can change.”

Now it’s your turn. What can you add that to help this holiday season?

Your Truly, Cathryn

Copyright 2011 Cathryn Bond Doyle

Replies from the Bulletin Board through 1.31.12

Thanks Cathryn!

One of the things I can really relate to you about is this sense of how things "should be" and this deep desire for fairness and justice. Last year (my first Christmas living with skids and FDH as a family, I felt this huge pressure to make things perfect. I felt like FDH's family was suddenly looking at me to do so (they weren't it was all self inflicted pressure).

I stressed myself out for months. I had all these fantasies about how things should be and waht I should do. Not to mention I was working excessive hours at a very stressful job. By the time Christmas came I was so tired and stressed out that I spent most of Christmas day in bed crying. I ended up feeling very disappointed in my FDH (he didn't meet my fantasy expectations) and devastated when a package was stolen off of our porch (something awful that normally I would have been able to deal with a bit better).

Skids have memories, our families have great portraits of skids... but I made myself suffer with all that pressure and do not have happy memories of Christmas last year.

Needless to say, when FDH and BM re-did the custody agreement a couple months ago one of the things I worried about was holidays. As it turned out we were allowed to move to a different state with skids but BM gets skids for nearly every holiday (four visits a year during major school breaks). At first I felt like we'd been robbed of something because we might not get to celebrate holidays on the actual calendar day (some we'll be able to, some we won't). I even thought that perhaps our family (when FDH and I have children together) would not have a chance to develop unity since skids would be absent on holidays.

Haha! I've since been able to reframe these fears. Cathryn you're so right, when I think about my childhood and holiday memories of the past, I don't think "oh well that year we had thanksgiving dinner the day before thanksgiving so it's not special." No way! I remember my family, my grandmother's china, the table cloth, the "kids" table, Gran's cranberry bread, the smell of the house, the warmth from the turkey cooking... So what we don't have the calendar day, we still have the chance to make memories, and traditions. As for Christmas, skids are totally excited to send letters to Santa asking him to come early this year!

Hopefully I'll be able to let go of having making things perfect! Though I am already a bit preoccupied with portrait ideas... I hope it's not starting again :-P

Thanks for the ideas Cathryn!

BTW we're doing Thanksgiving dinner early before skids fly out to BM's... but I'm not cooking! I ordered it take out! shhhh!

Dear Anahata, Thanks for your comments. As I was reading it I was feeling such a kinship with you. When we try so hard and fail to meet our imagined goal, it can be devastating. Holding onto the hope for a perfect experience gives us pleasure in the moment, even if it never happens. It's a future that makes us happy in the present. That's why day dreaming and planning can be so fun. However, in our imaginations, WE are rested, relaxed, connected to the ones we love and THAT is what truly makes most of us happy.

As we realize that the true elements of the futures we imagine are more about feelings and less about "stuff" it can be very freeing. One of my favorite family Christmas Memories is when I was in 8th grade (sister in 6th grade.) We were planning to go to my grandparents for Christmas week. To save car space, we opened our gifts to and from each other (Mom, Dad, Sister and Me) the night before we were planning to leave and we ate all the leftovers in the fridge picnic style. It was terrific! During the night all 4 of us came down with, what was them called the "Hong Kong Flu." Coughing, feverish, etc. It was so bad that my folks felt they couldn't drive and we didn't want to inflect anyone else.

As shocking as it was, we realized that we were going to have to stay home for the holidays. It was Dec. 23rd. My Dad made the calls. My Mom called a couple of her friends. A few hours later we had a fridge full of soup and crackers. We spent the next 3-4 days together in the family room, pull out sofa bed watching movies (when we weren't sleeping.) There were none of the trappings of the "perfect" holiday but the time we spent together in that shared unique experience, safe and sound together was/is a priceless memory. Why? Because my Mom and Dad framed it up that way for us. The Hong Kong Flu Christmas.

As stepmoms on a mission, we have the ability to model this kind of creative problem solving and enjoy whatever happens to the best of our ability. Perfect is over-rated and, in my opinion false advertising. I believe that what we are all looking for is available at anytime right within our hearts. NO scarcity there for any of the stepmoms, I call SMOMS. Your skids are very lucky. I wish you a joyful celebration with your family.

Awesome... I love this post.
Last year I *gasp... did not cook Christmas Dinner.... we spent time playing, enjoying games together, playing bingo and just spent TIME together. We had a meal ( I completely forget what it was) and I didn't fuss..... no one mentioned they missed it.... but they DID mention how much fun we had together.

Traditions can become chains and rob us of time together. I choose to not DO but to BE.

Hi, Good to hear from you and your story.
You're so right that Traditions CAN become chains but from my perspective only when they become obligations and duties.

It's probably a good way to test any traditions by asking yourself, do I feel I "should" or "have to" do this? If yes...pull out the chain cutters and put on your thinking cap.

When we do things because we feel we have no choice resentment will flare in some form or another. Pay attention to this sensation of resentment because it can be a wonderful clue to STOP, feel your feelings and then think of some options. As we become more and more aware of our feelings, we give ourselves the chance to change instead of repeatedly bracing or enduring.

As we come up with other plans, it's often possible to feel the emotional relief flow through us, sometimes the excitement can feel like a serge of energy or even make us giggle.
It's feeling we have a choice!
It's a WOO HOO moment we can create to liberate ourselves whenever we feel imprisoned by the beliefs, traditions and expectations that have been imposed on us. It's a growth choice. Take a look at my article about choices for more ideas about the power of choice. ("Are your choices based on courage or fear?)

Our CO is such that we either get a lot of December or barely any. We make ornaments every year that we give to family as presents. It is something that can be done at any time, so it works well for us. We also do an advent box that has things in it for the days the skids are with us (and now also every day for DD). And when we don't have a lot of December time, we do some Christmas stuff the weekend after Thanksgiving. We also do a Pre-Christmas celebration the last weeknight we get before Christmas on the years we don't have Christmas.

So, I guess just having traditions that can be flexible and ready to do the times the skids are available, if you want some traditions that can be every year.

That season "kick-off" party is a great idea! I really love it!! This year we won't see SS until Jan 2nd (can you believe he does not go back to school until the 9th?!) So maybe we will have a celebration at the end like a holiday "wrap-up" party instead. If we can let go of the idea that day 25 is the only one that matters during Christmas and instead celebrate the season, we can find our own moments to create joy.

Speaking of the BM that has to win... we discovered that the minute we let go and she could make the schedule we finally got what we wanted! The CO states we get every other Christmas break (the entire break). But when we don't get any time during her Christmas break we go from T-day to Spring Break w/o seeing SS and that is hard. So the first year DH asked for a few days after the holidays and she agreed because SS had a 3 week break. But then they could NOT agree on the schedule. She wanted him to fly out Dec. 26th so she could leave on a cruise w/ her BF but that was just too expensive. DH finally said we'll just try and work it out next time, he couldn't do it. Next thing you know she e-mailed him with travel plans on a later day that were more affordable like it was her idea! It's true, these type of people just need to feel in control.

Hi Heather E, Good Thinking about the "wrap-up" Party. Maybe you all start a new family tradition of celebrating the new year. You could all write out goals, have a "Show and Tell" about what was best about last year and what everyone hopes to do in the coming year. Maybe even video it as a future family collection. Great Job!

As far as the narcissistic Bio-mom, good for you and DH. You're beginning to see that tactic that will work. Once we can let go of our own natural need to win, feel heard or feel equal with her (which is so hard until we understand the futility of it with narcissists) we can focus on how to manage the situation with a narcissist. She may feel we lost, but we get what we want...better than the old way of battle til the end, right?!? The good news is that she's not likely to notice anything other than how clever she feels for "beating" you guys and/or getting what she wants. Go figure!

The date on the calendar is just that. A date on a calendar.

My in-laws have Thanksgiving on a day OTHER than Thanksgiving so that their sons can spend T-giving day with their spouse's family. One of DH's brother and his partner are clergy, and typically, the big holidays have church services, so - work days for them. So, my DH's Thanksgiving is never on Thursday. The last couple of years it was Friday. This year it's Saturday.

Growing up in my fractured family - Xmas Eve dinner was with mom. Xmas day was with dad. It was always kind of stressful because my dad would see what his GF's ex could provide his 8 kids and my dad couldn't provide us. (she's my stepmom now ). That's on top of stressing over whatever my mom got us. Of course, that was on good years. It was 50/50 whether mom would be committed for Christmas. Christmas was stressful at our house. Always. Oh, and I have a Christmas season birthday. Oh joy.

Dealing with BM for Christmas really hasn't been an issue. Having grown up with that nightmare of a Christmas scenario, there's not a lot she can do to create that level of stress. But having said that - I have started to suggest to DH that as the boys are now 18 & 21 - why don't we try to work with them and BM to come up with a date that would work for everyone. Honestly - I would prefer to see them for Xmas services with DH's parents rather than Xmas day - mainly because they can spend the time with their grandparents.

When my kids and skids were younger, it was just too difficult dealing with uncooperative 'other parents' to try to get all of us together on Christmas Day so we celebrated 2 days prior to Christmas. All the kids/skids/grandparents, etc. came to our house. We cooked Christmas Dinner, opened presents, watched Christmas movies, and celebrated together as a family with no interference from uncooperative "other parents" We did that for about 5 yrs. while the kids/skids were teens. We now have wonderful Holiday memories because we eliminated the guilt and tug of war games. I would recommend this to anyone!
Stepmoms on a Mission®
PO Box 7, Medford NJ 08055