By Jennifer DeFrates

The holiday survival guide for blended military families
Photo: DVIDS, Lance Cpl. Ashley D. Gomez

It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, but take it from a woman who married into the military and became an instant stepmother two weeks before the holiday season began: Learning to navigate the holidays as a blended family can take more planning than a small invasion.

Trying to split time between my parents and his would be hard enough five hours away, but when I married my military man, we also began the cycle of moving every few years, seemingly further and further from family each time.

He has two nearly adult boys who live half the country away, and we have an adopted daughter. Our individual nuclear families are literally spread from Texas to Wisconsin, from California to Ohio and a few places in between.

Packing for Christmas feels a little like preparing to storm the beaches. We have lists and back-up lists for every contingency. We are shaking from caffeine consumption after a 12-hour drive and descend upon some unsuspecting relative with a van bursting at the seams.

But we didn’t always know how to juggle all the important things. We’d end up sacrificing our relationship for the sake of trying to do everything, and instead, just making ourselves crazy.

It took some trial and error, but we’ve finally learned how to survive the holidays as a blended military family.

Communication is key

Communication. from Flickr via Wylio
© 2007 Delwin Steven Campbell, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

First, we’ve learned to communicate openly with each other. Listening to my husband’s vision for our holidays has been crucial. Sometimes, I’m ready to pack up the car and traipse all over creation and he wants a quiet holiday at home. We need to be sensitive to the needs of both sides of our family, but to each other first.

Communicating with family is important, too. Military life isn’t always flexible. While he often has block leave for Christmas in his current position, other years, he was on duty over the holidays and could not travel.

Make sure your family understands that traveling isn’t always an option. And when you can take leave, there is only so much you can do, and lastly, that your nuclear unit comes first.

Establish family boundaries

Family from Flickr via Wylio
© 2008 Bill Hails, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

We had to establish that our whole family is our first priority and guarding that time together was our main goal. All plans center around being home together when the five of us get to have our holidays. People are invited to our home, but we don’t want to waste any of our too few precious days of our visit cramped in another car.

Be as flexible as possible

gumby sunrise from Flickr via Wylio
© 2009 Jeff, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

Whether you’re in the Marines or not, you’ve likely heard  the phrase Semper Gumby before. Always be flexible. It holds true for the holiday season. Celebrating together is always more important than where or when we do it. Maybe Christmas with your parents is the day after Thanksgiving or the first weekend in December. Maybe Santa Claus comes to your house twice so the stepchildren get a Christmas morning with you. Perhaps you meet somewhere special for a weekend.

We’ve learned holidays happen when we make them happen which is not dependent on a calendar. The date doesn’t matter as much as the time together does.

Make the most of your time together

Clocks from Flickr via Wylio
© 2014 Andrew Seaman, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

Wanting every second possible with the shared kids goes both ways. Make the most of the time you have instead of worrying about what you don’t get.

Focusing on quality over quantity as the non-custodial parent is worth its weight in gold. As the custodial parent, remember the other side only gets these too few days during the holiday. Do your best to help them go smoothly. Treat the other parents the way you want to be treated yourself.

Be willing to give a little more in making arrangements. Being generous, gracious, and kind goes a long way to help heal the complicated dynamics of a blended family. It’s not always easy to feel like you’re giving up something to an ex, but I’ve learned that when we give a little, they give a little, and we can build bridges instead of burn them. I only wish I had learned that so much sooner.

Be kinder than you need to be

Flower from Flickr via Wylio
© 2012 Flower’s.Lover, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Being kind to your kids’ other parents is literally the best gift you can offer your children. Going back and forth between two families is hard enough. Make it easier on them as much as possible. Be willing to share the holidays or major events with your children’s other parents.

Getting along may not be up to you, but as much as it is, do it. Both sides should have a willingness to compromise their idea of perfect or their own convenience for the greater good of the entire family unit. Discord with your children’s other parents is so destructive to your relationship with your children and spouse. Nothing gained through bickering is worth what is lost.

Swallow your pride, quit worrying about the past, and be kind going forward.

Treat all children the same

Child from Flickr via Wylio
© 2013 Jay, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Try to keep gift-giving as fair as possible. Use a dollar amount or something objective to make it fair. While the boys have two Christmases and our daughter only has one, we do our best to make sure all the kids have some “wow” gifts as  well as a similar number of gifts to open together.

As much as possible, include all the kids in the family traditions: save some cookie decorating, hang a few last ornaments together, save the Christmas light tour for when you’re all together.

Make sure to include the traditions important to the stepchildren. Their other family may do some things differently than you do, but this is about creating Christmas joy and sweet memories, not bickering over non-essentials. Make their favorite foods and play their favorite games. Give them a second home this holiday season. We’ve written notes to the boys from their other elf and kept their Santa traditions alive. It costs us nothing to add a few traditions that are meaningful to them and the rewards are priceless.

Flexibility and resilience are unique gifts of a military family. In the end, joyfully surviving the holidays, strengthening all of your relationships is the goal.

Jennifer DeFrates is a decade-long veteran military spouse and former high school teacher turned work-at-home mom. She is fueled by coffee and a passion for people. Jennifer blogs about her adventures in homeschooling, parenting, adoption, marriage, and army wife life through her faith-based perspective on her blog Heaven Not Harvard.