Being a combined family means that there are simply too many moments out of our control when it comes to making things fair for all four kids. There are toys, parents, grandparents and locations based on days of the week that they simply do not have in common.
While things are not always the SAME for all four, I’d like to think that as a collective and combined family unit (parents, grandparents, aunts/uncles combined) we do a pretty good job making sure that in the end, all the kids get the same treatment and rewards. But that takes some work, especially around Christmas.
Our Combined Family Christmas
It starts with Halloween, really. My stepkids go to SeaWorld to trick or treat, and my daughter heads to the Rec Center here to participate in fall activities on weekends when they are apart. They compare stories. Sometimes they are all happy for each other. Other times, they find reason to complain. For Halloween, the three older ones have three different classroom parties, generally on different days, and the ones with parties earliest seem to forget they already had one when the later ones happen.
“That’s not FAIR!” they shout when another comes home with a decorated cookie or bag of candy corn. There is no use reminding them that it is indeed fair and the exact same scenario that they had in their favor yesterday.
The same is true of classroom parties when Thanksgiving rolls around. On that holiday, we also split time with the three older ones and their “other” families. We make those arrangements depending on the year, but generally we have all the kids for Thanksgiving Eve and the first part of the actual holiday. Then my husband drives to a designated meeting place and the kids hop in vehicles, two heading one direction and one heading another.
They see different family members and have individual, special experiences related to the holiday. The baby stays with us which does not seem to bother her — yet. I anticipate her asking why she doesn’t get to go somewhere else in a few years. Maybe we can arrange something with my husband’s parents — or come up with our own special plans centered around her.
If Thanksgiving takes some strategizing, arranging Christmas is like a part-time job. We compare shopping lists and debate who will get what for whom, and what items are universally a “no” when the kids ask (this year, it is the Wii U that all adults have agreed to bypass). We try to make sure that the gifts received at all the stops our older kids will make will even out in the end — or at least come close enough that they will not know the difference. Again, this is a facet that will take even more strategizing as my youngest gets older and realizes she is actually getting less than the others.
In years past, my husband and I tried desperately to steer buying family members away from too many toys. When you add in what we buy, what their other parents buy, what four different sets of grandparents buy, plus family members from four sides buy — it can be overwhelming come December 26. Plus, they simply do not play with all of it. We have suggested clothing, pajamas and checks made out to their respective college savings funds. There has been some focus shifted to those items, but our home is still an explosion of LEGOs, tiny plastic pink parts and battery-operated chaos after all the gifts have been opened and brought home.
Partially out of frustration and partially out of busy-ness in other areas, this year I gave no such ban on toys. I decided to save my breath. If we can sneak a few still-boxed items away from the flock to donate, great. But I know that the people who buy the gifts are doing it out of love and good intention, so I decided to save my finger-wagging for bigger issues. My guess is that our new toy arsenal will look exactly the same without my no-toy edict as it has in years past.
Gifts aside, the Christmas experience differs among our kids. My husband and I are not part of the celebrations that take place outside our home, so we just try to plan our own combined family traditions when we have everyone together. This year, we gave the three older kids their “big” gifts a few days early, mainly for practical reasons. These are the gifts from my husband and I (Santa gets some, but not all, of the credit here). We got my stepson a basketball hoop for the driveway. Christmas Day we will be at the home of my in-laws and then he is heading to his mom’s house until after New Year’s. If we waited to tell him about the hoop until Christmas morning, it would be over a week before he could even use it.
The same is true of the Doc McStuffins checkup center we purchased (after much searching!) for my stepdaughter. My daughter Emilia will be back a few days after Christmas, but it brought us joy to watch her playing with her fully-stocked art easel in advance of Christmas morning. All of those items will be waiting for them to play with when they return, and in their new permanent spots in our house. We also let them open small gifts from my parents early — mainly so it would be a special unwrapping experience and they could have some time with JUST those items before the onslaught of everything else. I was able to snap several cell phone shots of the kids enjoying their new toys to send to my parents as a result.
My stepkids do the Elf on the Shelf with their mom, so I’ve bypassed doing that tradition here. On the days that they are with us, she sends my husband a picture of the Elf’s orneriness. The first year we were married, I tried to do 25 Days of Christmas activities but it was too hard to keep up on the days when my stepkids were gone. Instead, we have shifted to a mystery Elf who is never seen and drops off random gifts at random times throughout the month of December.
The Elf left gifts for everyone but my husband last week. The older kids received puzzles, and the baby received stacking cups. I received a nice pair of underwear (that I opened unknowingly in front of the children, who were all very happy that they got something better than underwear). They scolded Daddy because he must be on the naughty list (you think?) for the bad words he occasionally says. He vowed to do better leading up to Christmas.
We walk down the street several nights during the week in December to look at all the Christmas lights. We bake Christmas cookies together and then make care packages that we deliver as a combined family to the fire department, police department, hospital and library. We also make a baked goods package for grandpa’s office with a “thank you” note to his staff for keeping his insurance agency so busy and some for the front offices of their schools.
I help my stepkids pick out a gift for their mom and wrap it. I help my daughter pick out gifts for her two-year-old sister that lives with her biological dad and wrap that too. We have our combined family pictures taken. We hang seasonal artwork from school on the fridge. We order delivery pizza and celebrate when they are done with school for the calendar year. My husband and I enjoy some relative quiet for a few days after Christmas and take the time to purge old toys and get our home reorganized for the New Year. We order sushi too.
I suppose our Christmas season is non-traditional in many ways. I’m sure there are even some who would feel badly that our kids move from place to place during the holidays, and that new basketball hoops or art easels sit unused for a week or two as a result. I grew up in a nuclear family and certainly cherish those together holiday moments that I recall.
For me though, allowing others to bring joy to my children at Christmastime has become part of what I enjoy most this time of year. Our traditions, shared and separate, as a combined family are what make our Christmas truly unique each year. I’m always newly astounded at the amount of people from so many families who truly love my children — and how blessed we really are to all have each other.
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