As much as you love your family, that doesn’t change that the fact that a stress-free holiday gathering is like Santa — it only exists for children. It can get heated because of clashing personalities, but also because one of the kids always touches the damn thermostat. Looking for relief? Just take in that blissful look on your kids’ faces as they sneak another candy cane from the tree (let it slide) and revel in the family presence. Really, it’s the most wonderful time of the year.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Step-Parenting
Of course, the tension will grow exponentially for those of us brave enough to celebrate as a blended family: dads and step-dads quietly competing to be the cool one, moms and step-moms openly one-upping each other’s displays of affection, four sets of grandparents trying to tell you the secret to raising kids despite doing, at best, a passable job with you.
You’d rather celebrate as a small unit and see your child’s eyes light up when you lie about Santa, but you gather for the kids, because you should. “It’s super tricky,” says Wendy Paris, author of Splitopia. “A lot of time people don’t get along, or they just feel anxiety from someone else stepping in. But all the research shows that kids benefit from having positive relationships with other adults.”
How do you get through the holidays together when you don’t want to share your kid’s time and attention with anyone else? We talked to dads, step-dads, and even a few moms to get the tips that will help you survive blended family gatherings.
1. Leave your ego at the door.
Kids are terrible with money and don’t care who bought which present or who picked up the check. The only thing children want to spend is time with the people they love. Don’t use them as tools of overcompensation. That’s what cars are for.
“You want to create a feeling of safety and abundance for your children,” says Paris. Rather than creating what she calls a “scarcity mentality” that compels you to compete because you’re worried there might not be enough love to go around. “I think four parents can be better than two. It takes a certain mindset.”
Forming a team will be easy once you drop the measuring stick, and you’ll have a hand free for an occasional high-five.
2. Know your roles.
Co-dads are a great concept. But the dad is still the dad, the step-dad is the step-dad, and both men should understand and vocalize what that role means within the family ahead of time. Otherwise you can create a snowballing affect of anxiety and resentment for you and the child that could ruin the holidays for everyone — not to mention make actual snowball fights downright dangerous.
“I’ll definitely give my opinion, because that’s how I am. But I’m like, dude, it’s your kid it’s your decision,” says Sarah Cleffi Muhlstock, a New Jersey attorney whose blended family – four parents and five kids – gets together several times a month for birthdays, soccer games, concerts, and more.
“The role of the stepparent is pretty challenging and not every situation is equal. Some step-parents are there in the background and some are more hands on. You have to be careful. You don’t want to make the other parent feel threatened.”
Similarly, if the dad sees the step-dad contributing to his kid’s life, he should say something and make it obvious that he supports the relationship. You don’t win points badmouthing the other guy (but destroying him at Monopoly is still fair).
3. Do something fun, even if you don’t want to.
Kids rarely remember sitting in front of the TV with their dad(s), and you rarely get to interact or show joy and pride in your kids from the confines of your couch. So don’t watch a game when you can go to one. Go outside, throw a ball, chop down a Christmas tree, and see just how much your kid enjoys being around their dads when they’re interacting with each other and having fun. You might learn something — like that your fellow dad’s football team sucks.
“We played mini golf together – myself, my daughter, my ex, [her boyfriend] Scott and his two daughters – and it didn’t feel weird,” says Colin Dungan, a lab manager at Universal Photonics Inc. in Brooklyn and a divorced father of an 8-year-old. “Scott seemed totally comfortable with it, too … I’m glad to see him cheering for her and to know there’s someone else encouraging her. It’s good seeing someone else in her corner rooting for her. It’s good to see she has support.” And letting the kids win will be good for everyone’s pride.
4. Small talk is acceptable, if not preferred.
“Conversations are almost never about my daughter,” Dungan says, adding that you don’t need to have deep, personal conversations, especially in a public setting. Just talk about whatever passes the time: that football game, the weather, your fledgling UFC career or whatever you get to enjoy when your kids are out of the house. Treat them like a coworker — unless you happen to share a kid and ex with your coworker.
“The conversation typically revolves around guy things,” says Michael Pace, a student in Durham, North Carolina who has had a dad and step-dad of more than 20 years often end up alone in the corner at parties. “My stepfather has recently gotten into guns and shooting them, and my father is a huge outdoorsman, he loves fishing and hunting. He’s not huge into the specifics of the gun as much as the trophies they can put on the wall and being out in nature.”
They also found common ground in support of Trump, Pace adds. “They’re the only old guys in a room focused usually on babies. That’s why they gravitate towards one another.” That said, give it a minute.
5. No one is expecting you to be friends.
“I wouldn’t socialize with them on purpose,” says Cleffi Muhlstock of her ex and his wife. “But I would do anything for them and help them out in a heartbeat.”
You’re both grown adults. You already have friends and you probably don’t need more. But don’t undermine the relationships your child is building with family just because the step-dad likes Creed and the Yankees. We all have our shame. Get him a beer, nod your head when he talks about golf, and he’ll afford you the same politeness when you’re discussing the classic car you’re rebuilding.
“We have aspirations that everybody’s friends, but that may not happen and that can also be fine,” Paris says. “I don’t actually have to be buddies with my ex-husband’s girlfriend for my son to have a good life.” To be fair, she probably doesn’t want to go to brunch with you either.
6. Let the other dad do what he’s best at.
You can’t be everything to everyone, especially your child. They need other adults in their lives, like coaches and leaders and teachers whom they trust and from whom they can learn things about the world or new skills they can enjoy. And yes, this could include a dude who may or may not sleep in your former bedroom. Life is weird, man.
If you see the other dad as an asset — someone who can teach your son a curveball or how to play guitar — to you instead of as someone who keeps you from spending time with your child, it will take a lot of stress off the holidays, it will help make them well-rounded humans, and sometimes get you to take a turkey-induced nap and know their in good hands, too.
“Different adults have different strengths,” Paris says. “My stepfather taught me to use power tools. We went shooting, he taught me to drive a car, he had a different kind of moral code that was a big influence on me. He never became my dad. But he did introduce me to things.”
7. Set an example.
Shut up and smile. Harbor your feelings. Build a big harbor. Because despite their heads being buried in devices, your kids are actually paying attention. They’re smart to enough understand tension between the parents during the holidays.
“You always have to think about how you’re setting an example for the kids and you always have to act like the bigger person and set aside differences,” says Cleffi Muhlstock. “It’s for the good of the kids to see people getting along.”
But it doesn’t end with the kids, she says: “I think women are more territorial. More mama bear types than men.” Paris agrees that while movies and television pit hyper-masculine men against one another, trying to one-up each other, often it’s the seemingly more nurturing mom and stepmom that are ready to spar for scraps of love. So set a good example and hope everyone follows suit.
Having a blended family holiday should be fun! Catch the perfect family flick this holiday season. Brought to you by Daddy’s Home 2 starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. See it in theaters November 10.