‘I spend Christmas with my ex-husband and current husband
Christine Brooks, 57, lives in Stanley, Co. Durham with her partner Paul and their 22-year-old stepson. On Christmas Day, this family unit of three is joined by Christine’s daughter Hollie-Ann and her partner, as well as Christine’s ex-husband Garry. Despite the separation over 20 years ago, the ex-husbands decided that December 25th should continue to be spent in each other’s company.
When Garry became single, Christine decided to invite him over. “I couldn’t bear to imagine him sitting alone with a microwave meal,” she says. Their Christmas now begins with a Bucks Fizz while they make a bacon sandwich for breakfast, and they all help cook lunch. “It’s fun that way,” she says.
Even if their daughter, Hollie-Ann, isn’t there, Garry will come anyway. “Garry and I always got along and were there for each other, I see him as a brother,” she explains. “He gets along great with Paul which is a blessing. Hollie-Anne can barely speak [they] come together, it’s always football talk. I am proud to see my extended family happy.”
Christine says others are surprised they all get along so well. “I couldn’t have had our blended family otherwise,” she says. “I’m proud of our closeness – it enriches my life.” Christine’s parents died relatively young and she is aware that life is too short not to spend it together.
One in three families across the UK is mixed race and for many this type of arrangement is something unimaginable – with broken relationships or estrangement and discord to contend with. Christmas parties can revolve around a nimble, diplomatic dance between parents, new partners, and bonus kids. But for families like Christine’s, it’s a joy to bring together different branches of the family on an unusual – but joyous – day and to welcome the growing number of people who love them and are loved by them.
Ayesha Vardag, 54, lives between London and Monaco with her husband Stephen, their daughter Helena and their two young sons, Orfeo, four, and Apollo, two. Christmas is also usually joined by Ayesha’s eldest sons Jasper, 27, and Felix, 25, and Stephen’s children, Edward and Susanna, both 19. She has been with Stephen for 12 years and they have worked hard to integrate the families.
On Christmas Eve, each of the adult children prepares a meal for the festive lunch – under Stephen’s supervision. “If there’s ever a year when all of our kids can’t be there – because they’re spending Christmas with their other parents – then as a family we have what we call a ‘fake Christmas’, a day we have before or after spend together, ‘real Christmas’,” says Ayesha. Although she doesn’t spend time with her ex-partner at Christmas, she would never mind. “We’re never in the same country at the relevant time, but it’s a really nice thing when you can. It’s a huge gift for the kids as long as it’s not tense.”
While as a parent it has helped her to see families fall apart and re-integrate, her job as a divorce attorney has also worked hard over time to ensure her family is close by.
“You have to be absolutely consistent and straightforward, without distinguishing between your own children and your partner’s children,” she says. “For a blended family to work, everyone needs to feel that the relationship is stable and worth investing in.”
She says the blended bonds developed over time and she spends a lot of time with Susanna talking about mutual loves like makeup, clothes, theater and film, while Jasper and her stepson Edward go running together and Helena and Susanna miss each other when they are apart. “I don’t think my kids have ever had any concerns about feeling unequal. We all have our special bonds and special relationships, and we know we’re family,” she says.
If this sounds like idealistic fiction to many families dealing with divorce and new partners, that’s understandable.
In that case, a Christmas in a blended family is likely to feel like an impossible dream, so take the pressure off, says Ali Ross, psychotherapist and spokesman for the UK Council for Psychotherapy.
“A amicable family Christmas is not something that a single person can orchestrate or control. Take responsibility for making sure everyone understands from your shoulders. That’s not humanly possible and will only add to your stress and tension if you try to somehow not make an uncomfortable situation uncomfortable,” she explains.
“Allowing the awkwardness, perhaps even openly acknowledging it, could ease tensions in the family.”
Another family making it work are the Copes-Stepneys in Essex. Yolanda Copes-Stepney, a 41-year-old photographer, will celebrate Christmas with a celebratory sleepover at her sister’s house. Also present are her partner and two sisters (with their partners and children) as well as her mother, stepfather, father and stepmother – her parents separated when she was a baby. The family not only spends Christmas together, but also on all family occasions.
“Breakups are tough, I can’t imagine what it must be like when you have kids and you have to deal with injuries to be able to function for them and you’re forced to be in each other’s lives,” she says.
“It’s tricky but worth it for the kids. My biological parents had me, then separated, married and had more children. I admire them and am grateful that they solved their problems so I can enjoy being with them and all my siblings.”
She says her grandparents were hugely important in helping her parents maintain strong, lasting relationships.
“They were all buddies and would call each other, hang out and send gifts,” she recalls. “Now my siblings all love each other even though they’re not related. My birth parents love my stepparents – my birth father keeps telling me how much he loves my stepfather because to me my stepfather is a great father. He said he would do anything for him because he couldn’t give him enough to show how grateful he is.”
Tips for a Merry Christmas
Don’t force it
“We all know that finding a way to put family tensions aside to make everyone have a good day would be ideal,” said Ryan Lowe, child and adolescent psychotherapist and spokesman for the Association of Child Psychotherapists. “However, this has to be balanced in that there isn’t really a forced day where everyone pretends to be happy for the sake of the kids. In this situation, children will pick up on the feelings beneath the surface, no matter how hard we try to hide them.”
Lowe suggests taking time before Christmas to agree on the format of the day between all the adults involved. This includes when people arrive, what the schedule is, right down to arranging what gifts the kids get so there aren’t any surprises on the day that can confuse things and create friction.
“One of the things that can shake up step-sibling relationships is a sense of imbalance,” says Lowe. “This must be carefully considered when buying or giving gifts, for example. Help avoid this by talking to the children beforehand about who gets what and involving them in thinking about everyone’s gifts, so they feel like they own the gifts that others are getting, and not just to be jealous.”
Make room for traditions
Many families have longstanding and important traditions, so Lowe recommends making room for everyone’s family traditions by having adults plan and talking to children.
“It’s important for husbands, wives and partners to be really aware of how hard it can be for their partner to have their ex-boyfriends around and face the intimacy that used to be, and possibly still is, between two people.” who have children together,” says Lowe. “Overall, there are always a million unspoken, unconscious tensions and delicate balances in blended families, and it takes a combination of generosity in letting small things slide and taking time to think carefully about larger issues. When there is significant discord in a blended family, seeking help from a child psychotherapist can really help to find ways to address tension and bring everyone together to focus on the children’s needs.”
Yolanda loves coming from a big family. “More family to love and family to love is great,” she says. “I realize how lucky I am.”