BOSTON — At the holiday season, there's no place like home. But for millions of families divided by divorce and recombined into stepfamilies, an annual question looms large: Whose home will be the center of activity, Mom's or Dad's?
"Holidays for stepfamilies are just very complicated," says Kevin Ricker, a marriage and family therapist in Sylvania, Ohio, and a stepfather himself.
All the routines that once spelled Christmas for two separate families - gifts, decorations, stockings, meals, - must be blended and then coordinated with children's visitation schedules.
Of 60 million children under the age of 12 in the United States, 30 million live with one parent and that parent's partner, according to a 1994 study by the University of Wisconsin. Despite these large numbers, specialists say, many stepfamilies are still feeling their way when negotiating the holidays.
"A new stepfamily may be facing new rituals together, or a parent may be facing not seeing their child on a holiday for the first time," says Judy Osborne, a family therapist at Stepfamilies Associates in Brookline, Mass. "Some children may also be traveling long distances."
To smooth these arrangements, family counselors offer a guiding principle: Make holiday plans well ahead of time. "The greatest pain and anger and confusion come from last-minute jockeying," Mr. Ricker says.
"Structure it down to a T," adds Valerie Gadsden, a stepparent in Belmont, Mass. "The more everyone knows what's happening, the fewer surprises and disappointments you have." She and her husband try to make arrangements for his young daughter's Christmas visits by Thanksgiving.
As parents coordinate schedules, counselors emphasize the need to keep children informed. "It's very important to let children in on discussions, rather than dropping things on them," says Linda Braun, executive director of Families First in Cambridge, Mass. "It's also important to be gentle, with a willingness to acknowledge a child's feelings."
To help stepfamilies negotiate uncharted territory, some family-service groups offer preholiday workshops. But increasingly, organizers find that many working couples are too busy to attend, relying on their own trial-and-error approaches instead.
Welcoming new ideas
In her workshops, Ms. Braun urges stepfamilies to acknowledge their uniqueness by saying, "Look, we're not the same as this family, and we're not the same as that family. We are a whole new family. What's good about that is we can bring new traditions and ideas and create them."
Traditions in first families, Braun notes, tend to evolve over the years. Creating new rituals, she explains, strengthens the bonds in a new family and provides continuity and predictability for children. That in turn helps to keep the holidays from becoming "tense and intense."
Braun suggests that newly remarried partners spend time some evening discussing how each celebrated previously, and what their concerns and hopes are for their combined holiday. "If the adults can clarify their own expectations and can work out meeting each other's needs, then they'll be able to do that with the children as well," she says.
Yet meeting children's expectations does not mean saying yes to every demand, according to Jeannette Lofas, director of the Stepfamily Foundation in New York, which she founded 21 years ago. "Parents today are so permissive, and try to be logical," she says. "They're afraid of losing the child's love. They ask, 'Would you mind if we go to Carol's house for Christmas?' The child will say, 'I want to have it here.' "
When Ms. Lofas counsels children in stepfamilies, she tells them, "There are certain things you do in life that you have to do." She finds they usually accept this.
To maintain a calm atmosphere during arrivals and departures, Lofas recommends quiet routines, such as welcoming children with milk and cookies. Too often, she finds, "Kids come in the house, the TV goes on, suitcases and backpacks get put anywhere." Enlisting children to lay the fire, decorate, and help with Christmas dinner also creates bonds. "You do it together," she says. "Kids like that."
That approach also avoids the problems one couple related to Lofas. The husband, she says, told his wife, "Why should I make my kids do anything when they visit for the holidays? I see them so little." To which his wife replied, 'Why do I have to do all the work for your kids?'"
Emily Visher, who with her husband, John, co-founded the Stepfamily Association of America, based in Lincoln, Neb., calls holidays "a time to sharpen your creativity and your flexibility." Doing that, she finds, can bring rewards. It's a time for divorced parents to cooperate instead of trying to outdo one another.
"If the households don't get competitive with each other, that's a real advantage to children," says Mrs. Visher, who lives in Lafayette, Calif. Households with a good working relationship, she adds, might even find it useful to share the cost of a big gift.
When cooperation and negotiation fail to resolve holiday schedules, some parents seek outside help. Mr. Ricker and his wife have "a very good working relationship" with the father of her children. But the holidays became such an issue, he says, that "we had to go back to court to straighten it out." Both parties now abide by a standard court schedule stipulating that one parent will have the children from 6 p.m. Christmas Eve until 6 p.m. Christmas night.
"It may not be the best, but at least it's fair," says Ricker. "It stops the arguing, because you know that next year you'll have the same schedule."
For other stepfamilies, religious differences pose challenges. When Iris Kingsbury of Needham, Mass., who is Jewish, remarried 10 years ago, she and her husband, a Roman Catholic, "never discussed what we would do about Christmas," she says.
Ms. Kingsbury says she overreacted when his daughter hung a wreath on the door. The wreath came down, but a Christmas tree went up every year until his children left home. Yet, Kingsbury says, "I'm very lucky, because my husband accompanies me to temple on Jewish holidays."
Tracy Bianchi of Howard Beach, N.Y., is also part of a Jewish-Catholic remarriage. Her husband's three daughters are Catholic, but Mrs. Bianchi has invited them for Hanukkah this year. "It makes me feel good that they want to come and be part of this, because this is my holiday and my religion," she says.
When both partners are Jewish, Hanukkah is usually less problematic than Thanksgiving or Yom Kippur, says Lynda Goldberg of Newton Center, Mass., president of the Greater Boston chapter of the Stepfamily Association of America.
Explaining that her 12-year-old daughter typically spends Thanksgiving with her father, Ms. Goldberg says, "She just has unbelievable opportunities with her stepmother's family. Yes, you feel sad, but you realize she's having a wonderful time."
Whatever the holiday, she adds, "If you can lose the guilt feeling that your child's not there and you're disappointing people, or that you 'failed' as a parent because of a divorce, you can relax and have a wonderful time."
Enlisting the relatives
Other relatives, too, play a role. Osborne finds it helpful if extended family members can learn more about stepfamilies. "If there's a new family forming, and a grandmother or grandfather says, 'Well, you have to be here,' this family is under pressure to decide what they're going to do."
Many stepfamilies find that time is on their side. Osborne says stepmothers tell her that after four or five years, family members are much more familiar with one another and therefore can plan with greater ease. Goldberg, who has been remarried for seven years, agrees. "I'm no longer really battling my ex over who has our daughter," she says.
Whatever the situation, Osborne says, "I wish people could really take it easy and remember that the holidays are about connecting, often just one on one. Rather than thinking we have to be with a certain person on a certain day, we can create memorable holidays wherever we are."
She adds, "If you work hard at understanding what went right and what went wrong, next year you're going to have a chance to make it even better."
HOW TO MAKE
Family counselors offer tips for stepfamilies at holiday time:
*Make plans early, and organize details carefully. Work out exact dates and times of arrivals and departures.
* Make a written itinerary for children and the adults involved in their travel. Ask the other parent for written confirmation on travel schedules.
* Communicate with other family members about everyone's expectations. Listen to children's concerns. Honor each other's feelings.
* Plan new traditions within the stepfamily. "People ... think of traditions as right and wrong, whereas they're just different," says Emily Visher of the Stepfamily Association of America.
* Be flexible. If children will be away for the holiday, celebrate with them on another day.
* Set standards for gift-giving. Discuss financial limits.
* Keep a sense of humor and the spirit of the holiday. Jeannette Lofas of the Stepfamily Foundation in New York says, "Holidays are often about forgiveness and new beginnings."