Practical guidelines to consider for parents of blended families.
Published: May 31, 2017
By: Stephanie Rodda
Birthdays are a time for families and friends to gather together and celebrate life. When it is a child who is being celebrated, extended family members are often included and the party becomes even more memorable. But what about blended families? Who is to be included? What are the boundaries? How do we explain such issues to the child who is involved?
Blended families, like all families, come in various sizes and shapes. Sometimes birth parents are divorced and step-parents become an important part of the child’s life. Sometimes children are adopted or even being fostered. In that case, there may be birth parents to consider and possibly include. There are some practical guidelines to consider as you decide.
When it comes to how birthdays and other special days are celebrated, there are a number of factors that weigh in, such as schedules, distance, and perhaps most importantly, how well the parents get along.
“Animosity is never good for children,” says Dr. Vivian Friedman, a child and family psychologist at UAB’s Department of Psychiatry. “Even if the parents can get along for the two hours of a party, the child may be on edge, fearing that trouble might erupt at any moment. If parents get along, it is fine for them to celebrate together. If not, they can celebrate separately.
“You can successfully celebrate either together or alone. Except for very young children, they understand that their parents are not together any more. Children of divorce sometimes brag to their friends that they get two parties and two sets of Christmas presents. It is the parents’ attitude, not the number of celebrations that matter.”
Jordan Boswell, whose parents divorced when she was a young child, recalls that separate birthday celebrations were all she ever really knew. Each set of parents had their own style of making her feel special and loved. While her mom’s family usually met for a traditional birthday dinner and gifts, her dad’s family chose to have creative themed parties. “I always felt it was normal. I was 3 when my parents divorced, so I don’t remember anything different.”
It was at her high school graduation that she first wanted and asked everyone to be together at one time, and it went well. This was a great relief and simplified matters when it came time to begin celebrating the birthdays of her own son.
“Being a parent is the biggest challenge and greatest reward. I always want the best for my kids. When my son’s first birthday approached, I didn’t think twice about inviting both sides,” Boswell says.
As a stepmom, Leigh Hunt enjoys time spent with her stepdaughter, Hannah. “Being step-mom, or “Mama-Leigh” as she calls me, to Hannah is such a special blessing. She’s my only little girl! I don’t find myself being concerned with any type of competition with her mom. She only has one mom and she only has one stepmom. Both are important roles. A kid can’t be loved too much.”
Hunt says the families usually alternate years for birthdays. “If it’s not “our year,” we just celebrate the weekend before or after. We don’t really worry about duplicating gifts. After all, she has two homes.”
As an adoptive mom, I sometimes face similar decisions. Including the birth family is not always a viable solution in our case, for a variety of reasons. Most of my seven adopted children did not come to me as newborns. Some of them have no baby pictures at all. I can’t tell them much about the day they were born.
What I find is best for us is to do is to focus on what we can do. We have birth certificates with the time of day they were born, their weight and length, and even the location. We can search the internet to learn what the weather was on that day in history. Perhaps we can even visit the area where they were born or the hospital. But most important is that we choose to celebrate the present day and the life of our child rather than the particulars of a day from the past.
Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. When traditional ways of celebrating aren’t possible, create new traditions. In my house, we treat the birthday boy or girl with special privileges. They have no chores, they get to choose the menu for the whole day (even if it is Pop-Tarts for breakfast). They choose the movie we will watch together as a family. They are king or queen for the day, and they take great delight in being so.
I believe that families are living, breathing, and constantly growing. I believe that because of this, sometimes they can experience growing pains. I believe that families can become unsettled and uncomfortable. But they don’t have to stay that way.
We can choose to celebrate the uniqueness of our families and focus on the child that we are celebrating. We can be flexible, refuse to be competitive, and keep stress levels down on a day where joy should rule. What better way to say Happy Birthday?