How To to Build Stepfamily Traditions

Traditions tell a family’s stories. They are often associated with warm, happy memories of home, and repeated for generations.  Time spent together observing traditions helps to create a family culture.

Blended families often struggle with traditions. They can be dangerous minefields – everyone in the family already has them, they’re linked to separate pasts, and loaded with emotion.

Many traditions are linked to holidays or big milestones, adding to the complexity.  Holidays can be tough for people who’ve experienced loss – triggering happy memories and their fast-follower, grief.  Everyone in a blended family has experienced loss.  Milestones are tough for stepfamilies too – birthdays and graduations and weddings are loaded with expectations and coparenting challenges.  They can quickly become battlegrounds for power and affection.  Who’s hosting the party?  Who attends?  The big occasions that traditionally foster ritual and tradition are often loaded with difficult memories and challenging interactions for blended families.

Building ritual and tradition without triggering grief, devaluing what has come before, or becoming embroiled in conflict is complicated.  Like most stepfamily challenges, it isn’t a smooth process.

Nevertheless, the reward makes it well worth your time.  Traditions help define and shape families.  They create shared memory and experience. Our unique traditions have enabled the eight of us to create a family identity.  We have happy memories that belong only to us, and tell our story.

Here are the five things you can do to build your own blended stepfamily traditions:

Keep it simple

Our rituals aren’t four hours long.  They don’t involve elaborate preparations or require the kids to dress up.  They are simple, repeated actions that build memories.  For example, birthdays in this house are greeted with the same tablecloth on the kitchen table and tattered banner hung in our bay window.  Every birthday, every person, every year.  On your birthday, you’re measured on our family growth chart on the wall.  You pick your Sharpie color and sign your name.  I measure.  No matter if you’re eight and excited to see how much you’ve grown or if you’re 15 and would really rather the growth chart, and your mortifying mother, disappeared.

Honor what’s important from the past

Gabe’s children have their own Christmas ornament boxes they brought with them to our new family.  My children have ornaments jumbled in tubs in the attic.  When we decorate our tree, kids hang their own ornaments first.  We don’t force Sara, Amy and Jack to lump their ornaments together, nor Simon, Caden and Lottie to carefully separate and label theirs.  This was how they grew up trimming the tree, and we learned on our first decorating adventure that it is important to them. The tooth fairy delivers the same amount of money to our toothless crew, but brings dollar coins for Gabe’s crew. She always has, and she hasn’t changed that just because she’s sneaking in through a new window.  Tradition and ritual help teach who us we are, and eliminating that for a child devalues a part of them.  Keep what’s important.

Build something new

In honoring the past, it can sometimes feel like all your traditions were handed down from a former life, or jerry-rigged to fit your new situation. New rituals can help your family start telling its own story.  Our Christmas sibling tree played an early role in building our family culture.

Over the years, we’ve incorporated other rituals, big and small. When we’re camping, our first breakfast is scrambled eggs, cinnamon rolls, and sausage.  We are wild, unabashed fans of The Amazing Race, and commit to only watching episodes when the eight of us are together – cheering and talking and replaying what we’ve missed.  We participate in crazy 5Ks as a family.  We throw an annual summer party  and planning it is a month-long family affair.  At the luau this year, Sara chose the theme, Simon and I planned the pineapple-heavy menu, the Middles set up the craft station, Gabe carved watermelons and the Littles set up a “What’s your Hawaiian name?” station.  These are the things we do as a family, and the we resonates for all of us.

Be flexible

Holidays don’t have to happen on the day.  We have a First Thanksgiving on the years we don’t have the kids for Second (Real) Thanksgiving.  We don’t all have to be together – Gabe and his crew often spend time with his huge extended family around the holidays.  That time is filled with ritual and love and memory for them and itchy clothes and strangers and discomfort for my three. We’ve learned that it works best if Gabe attends those with Sara, Amy and Jack and I do something different with my three.  That’s okay, even if Aunt Mildred thinks it’s strange only half of us are there.   Even with perfect planning, some years you’ll forget to measure Lottie until a month after her birthday.  Here’s the secret:  once she’s measured, she won’t remember it wasn’t on the day. Details fade, happy memories don’t.

Be patient

This won’t work at first.  Sara will cry because Santa didn’t wrap the gifts this year.  Caden won’t want to participate in any tradition that he didn’t bring with him. Simon won’t show up for the family movie night and Jack will tell you that you’re doing it wrong.  You’ll want to give up.  You’ll forget your first family traditions took time too. You’ll feel constrained by old rituals and overwhelmed at the thought of creating something big and meaningful and stuck in between.  Have faith.  One day you’ll hear your overhear your teenage stepdaughter tell her friend “We always…” or your son say “In my family we…” and you’ll realize that “we” means this family you’ve created together.

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