Olive branches can sprout from a large family tree

Sunday, November 28, 2004

NEW YORK -- The holiday season represents an opportunity for families to come together, even if divorces or differences have moved them apart.

Whatever the issue was that polarized parents, stepparents and other relatives, it should be set aside during this season and everyone should do their best to be inclusive and respectful of other family members and their desire to celebrate with the children they share ties to, says Barbara LeBey, author of "Remarried With Children: Ten Secrets for Successfully Blending and Extending Your Family" (Bantam).

"You all have a connection through the children that you all love," she says.

Unintended casualties of divorces and separations often are the relationships children had with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins, who are no longer invited into an ex-relative's home for what had been a traditional holiday event.

But, LeBey says, it doesn't have to be that way. "One of the best rules to remember is that there are no ex-parents and ex-grandparents, there are only ex-spouses. If everyone keeps that in mind, they'll understand that these relationships can endure beyond romantic relationships and remarriages."

She adds: "Kids look forward to this time and they can't have it ruined by friction in the family that they never asked for."

If it's emotionally -- and geographically -- possible, LeBey suggests the immediate family with whom the children live open its door for others. That won't be easy for some stepparents, she says, but it's the best route if there can be agreement among the adults to be on their best behavior for a few hours.

Often it falls on mothers and the stepmothers to do the coordinating. If they can get through that, they've already given a gift to their children. LeBey says the conversation should start with an assessment of their relationship to the kids.

"If a stepmother can take the first step and contact the biological mother -- it won't work in all cases but it's worth striving for -- and say, 'I have no intention of taking your place. I only want to be a loving and caring adult in their lives and I need your help to do that.' Then take a breath and say, 'I'd like you to be with us for the holiday."'

Conversely, for a mom who could first acknowledge that she believes the stepmother has the best interests of the children at heart, LeBey says.

Sometimes, though, hard feelings run too deep and bringing together people who are essentially bitter enemies won't make for happy holidays. In those situations, LeBey says the parents and stepparents and their own newly blended families should work out a schedule so no one "hogs" the kids.

An example: If Christmas Eve is the big event for the immediate family, then suggest the other birth parent or grandparents on that side invite the children for Christmas dinner.

The next set of negotiations likely will be over traditions -- which ones are included and discarded, which family members have proprietary rights over them and what's left for a new blended family to make their own.

LeBey encourages putting the focus on food. It's something everyone enjoys, she says, and it offers a chance to incorporate several family traditions -- from several families.

A new wife can ask her husband's parents for a family recipe or an ex-brother-in-law can swing by the bakery in his neighborhood that makes those fabulous pies.

"Traditions are like the glue that holds families together. Maybe it's food or something you do, like opening some gifts on Christmas Eve, but keeping them gives a sense of continuity and unity," LeBey says.

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