One of our extended family emailed me last week, asking about our family plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  I was surprised, since I was still working on my plans for October.  I hadn’t even thought about later months, much less made plans.  At first I groused a bit about the added pressure.  Then I realized that she is doing exactly the right thing by planning ahead.  Theirs is a complex blended family with three sets of parents and several sets of grandparents, all of whom expect to see the children during the holidays.  She really does need to start planning now in order to get everyone on the schedule.

Advance planning is a key part of lowering stress during the holidays.  Whether you are working with the biological family of a foster child or a stepchild, you will have to navigate a lot of emotional land mines.  Identifying them early will make it more likely that you can find an early solution.  Even if you can’t avoid the land mines completely, you can prepare yourself and your child for the fallout.  

One point to remember is that planning is a process.  You don’t need to have an actual plan right now.  You simply need to start the discussion.  Once I focused on my relative’s question, for example, I was able to narrow down our Thanksgiving celebration to the weekend after the holiday itself.  I still need to canvass the rest of the extended family about the exact day, but I have a narrow enough range for everyone to plan around.

Also don’t hesitate to set boundaries in your planning.  There are only so many hours on Christmas Day.  If you let every set of parents or grandparents have a piece of that particular day, you will have a very hectic schedule.  Both you and your kids will be exhausted.  Insist on a schedule that works for your family.

That being said, don’t forget to be flexible.  Celebrate the occasion, not the specific day.  My husband, for example, always solved the Christmas Day conundrum by celebrating with his children and extended family on Christmas Eve.  That left all day on Christmas for the boys to spend with their mother, without any pressure to be with their dad.  When we married, my husband and I kept that same tradition.  In the process, we discovered the side benefit of having the entire day to ourselves.

Which thought leads me to the last principle — plan a unique celebration for your immediate family.  Whether you are parenting stepchildren or foster children, you are forming a unique family team.  You need to do all you can to build relationships within that team. Part of that building process is resisting the forces that tend to divide the kids into “ours” and “theirs.”  Complex blended families and foster families usually see different sets of children visiting with different sets of biological relatives at different times.  You need to accommodate each child’s desire to visit with his or her own biological family.  But in the rush of scheduling for everyone, build in some time for your family to celebrate together with no outside distractions.

This family time can be something simple, like a family dinner-and-a-movie.  It can be more elaborate, such as my friends who always plan a trip between Christmas and New Year’s Day.  It can be service-oriented, such as helping with a food or toy drive.  The details of the project are not as important as there being a project.  Time and the opportunity to work together are essential to the relationships that you want to build in your family.  Don’t miss the opportunity to provide those tools during the holidays.

So start planning now for the holidays.  Give yourself enough time to navigate the land mines and figure out a schedule that works for your family.  Above all, while accommodating everyone else, remember to find time to build your family’s relationships.

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Debbie Ausburn

I make my living as a lawyer, but what I do is take care of other people’s children.