Blended families can add emotional stress to the holidays

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Posted: Tuesday, December 24, 2013 12:00 am

Christmas is a holiday on wheels for many families trying to squeeze in visits with Nana Betty, Aunt Ellen and all the other kin.

For families with step-relatives, the holidays become an even bigger challenge because of a sometimes complicated list of relatives that seems longer than Santa's beard.

Take a look at Cassie Peters' family tree, which has included a mom and dad, a brother and a half sister, three stepsisters, a stepbrother, one stepfather, not to mention grandparents and great-grandparents.

Peters said that after her parents divorced when she was 2, Christmas Day sometimes felt like an emotional marathon. Different sets of kin from each side of the family stopped by at separate times, and sometimes there'd be a car ride to fit in a visit with more step-relatives.

“It's a lot to juggle,” said Peters, a 20-year-old Omaha native. “You would just be tired halfway through the day. You're wishing for the afternoon nap you're not going to get.”

The politics of keeping kin happy at holiday time can be daunting for families with step-relatives. Emotions can run high after a divorce, and feelings can easily get hurt. Chances for success increase if families compromise, stay flexible and realize they can't please everyone, experts on family relations say.

A 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center showed that more than four out of 10 American adults have at least one step-relative in their families, such as a stepparent, half sibling or stepchild.

That's because of major changes in demography in the past 50 years, including increases in divorce and in the share of babies born out of wedlock. Today, families are not as clear-cut as they were a couple of generations ago, when it was more common to have just mom, dad and the kids.

Dawn O. Braithwaite, a step-family communication researcher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the prevalence of step-relatives means two things for families.

“Children have more people to love them,'' said Braithwaite, chairwoman of UNL's communication studies department. “The downside is it's complicated.”

After a divorce, parents and kids can face a heavy dose of holiday stress trying to meet family obligations, said Larry Ganong, co-chairman of the department of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri.

“We are creating these complex webs of relationships,” he said.

For Peters, Christmastime is easier these days, partly because she has control over whom she visits.

Still, she'll stay busy.

She'll spend Christmas Eve with her mom's side of the family, including her brother, half sister, cousins and aunts. On Christmas morning, she'll visit her dad and his family, and in the afternoon she'll connect with a smaller group of her mom's relatives.

Peters said she loves her family and all its different versions and enjoys spending time with them. Looking back, she realizes her parents faced a tough task managing the holiday schedule but did their best.

Divorce decrees can help the holidays run smoothly for families, said Kathleen Schmidt, an Omaha attorney who practices matrimonial law, but there has to be give and take.

Decrees are often specific, she said, and might say that on Christmas Day mom has the kids from 9 a.m. to noon and dad gets them from noon to 3 p.m. But what happens if grandma's flight is delayed and she can't make it to the gathering at mom's house on time?

Rob Brackett, a 35-year-old Omaha dad, said he and his ex-wife understand the importance of staying loose when it comes to schedules for their children, ages 5 and 9.

“Some people wave the divorce decree around like it's gospel,” he said. “If you don't have some flexibility, the ones who are going to get shortchanged are the kids.”

He said it's a year-round challenge to work out a fair schedule for birthdays and other family events, but the logistics get particularly tricky during the holidays because it's such a compressed time.

Brackett said his decree specifies that he and his ex-wife each get the kids for Christmas in alternate years.

The same is true for New Year's, and this year they will be with him. He wasn't scheduled to get his kids until Dec. 31, which meant they would have missed a trip to Chicago to celebrate their great-grandmother's 101st birthday.

Brackett said his ex-wife agreed to let him have the kids a few days earlier so they could join him on the trip. He'll, in turn, give her a few extra days with the kids at another time to make up for it.

“We work together,” he said, “to make sure the kids have the richest experience.”

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