Ten years ago, I experienced my first Christmas as a stepmom. It was difficult for everyone involved and my then-five-year-old stepson wound up with the biggest pile of gifts I've ever seen—yet he still shed tears because he'd never experienced a Christmas without both his parents before. Since then, we've accepted that something as simple as a gift with good intentions has the potential to create hurt feelings and misunderstandings. So, we forged our own protocol for holiday gift-giving:
1. Remember: material gifts don't eliminate the pain of divorce. If both sets of parents don't work together to establish some ground rules in advance, the kids will end up with an erroneous sense of entitlement. It's far healthier to try to negotiate an amicable agreement with your ex in one of the following ways: a) Set a reasonable budget for everyone—and stick to it! b) Use one wishlist from your kid and divide the items between you. This doesn't mean every single gift on your kid's list needs to be purchased, it simply helps you avoid doubling up on the same present.
2. Parents should never try to one-up a kid's stepfamily. Here's a scenario: Stepfather Michael Jones* revealed that he and his wife purchased his stepdaughter Trina* a nice point-and-shoot camera when she was 10. Trina's dad called on Christmas Day and she excitedly told him about her "grown-up" gift. He called again the next day to ask her for all the details of the camera and, when Trina went to visit her dad, he gave her a very expensive and age-inappropriate DLSR camera as his gift to her. Trina felt obligated to downplay the more-expensive gift to her mom and stepdad, while upselling the virtues of the gift to her dad, who became frustrated that his more opulent gift didn't earn him the extra favour he thought it would. Confused, Trina gave up using both cameras for a long time.
3. Parents should get a token of appreciation from their stepkids. Similarly, parents should ensure their kids remember a gift for their stepparent. Whether you like your ex's partner or not is irrelevant; in many cases, that stepparent does a good job caring for your kid and a parent giving a gift to the stepparent lets everyone know it's OK to love an additional parental figure in their lives.
4. Keep it simple. Nobody should be forced to give gifts to anyone. Extended family and close friends should not be expected to provide a present for the stepkid. My stepson's mom's side of the family gives him presents, and we obviously don't force them to give gifts to my daughter to equalize it all. Some conversation may be required in advance just to avoid any hurt or disappointed feelings.
5. Prepare for Christmas morning. My stepson only spends Christmas morning with us every other year and, before we had our daughter, we would wait until he arrived later in the day to open our presents together with him. However, the arrival of our daughter meant that she (understandably) wanted her presents from Santa as soon as she awoke at the crack of dawn. My solution? Keep at least one unopened gift for everyone to unwrap when my stepson arrives, so he still feels as though we're doing it as a family. It's no fun for anyone to watch one person open a pile of gifts alone!
Clearly these suggestions take a certain amount of planning, compromise, maturity and goodwill towards ex-partners, but avoiding hurt feelings and having a happy holiday with your loved ones is truly worth the effort.
*Name has been changed
Jackie Gillard is a Toronto-area freelance writer with plenty to write about as the second wife to her second husband, mother to the daughter they adopted in South Africa and stepmother to a teenage boy. Check out her other Today’s Parent articles or tweet her at @PapayaJambalaya.