Do you have friends, family or in-laws who mean well but just don’t get it about your remarriage or repartnership with children? As I’ve spent time during the past several years researching the social and emotional reality of women with stepchildren of all ages, I have learned the holidays are especially stressful for you.

The holidays are a pressure cooker of expectations, leaving you believing they have to be perfect and “first family like.” This can put a damper on the holiday spirit, especially when you combine kids and adult kids in loyalty binds, an ex-wife who attempts to undermine your husband’s holiday plans with his children and husbands or partners who may feel guilty or sad about less-than-ideal relationships with their children.

Throughout my career, I have received hundreds of emails from women with stepchildren writing to me that while they love the holidays, they hate the step family drama and acting out that sometimes comes along with it.

Take heart and be of good cheer! An abundance of research shows us that social support—yes, that’s friends and family—can make a huge difference in our adjustment to step-motherhood in general and our holiday happiness in particular. Here’s what many of you have told me you would like for the holidays. Show this holiday wish list, or your own version of it, to your friends, family or even your in-laws—anyone who is open to being supportive of you and your marriage or partnership.

What I’d Like from You This Holiday Season:
A Struggling Stepmother’s Holiday Wish List

Educate yourself. Read a book or two—good ones—about the experiences of women with stepchildren and couples in remarriage with children. This way, you will understand what I’m going through and be able to listen and speak to me in new ways.

Please don’t ask, “Why aren’t his kids coming?” The answer is: “It’s complicated!” If they are coming, don’t be surprised if I have mixed feelings about it or if I’m stressed. Re-partnership with children is not a simple thing. I might have a great holiday, but I’m not necessarily going to be having a Norman Rockwell all-together-now experience with my husband and his kids! One of the greatest gifts you can give me this holiday season is to understand that we’re not a first family, so we’re not necessarily supposed to look, act or feel like one.

Ask what I need over the holidays. Sometimes women with stepchildren feel overwhelmed by Barnacle Syndrome—the feeling that we just got stuck onto our husband’s previous life and are always being required to adapt and change to his traditions, rituals and ways of doing things with his kids. So, during this season, I may need to be around people who help me feel like an “insider.” When you know his kids are going to be around, resist the impulse to just leave us alone. Call and invite me out for coffee or a drink. If I know what’s good for me, I’ll take a break when I need it and recharge with you. Don’t be surprised if I ask you to come over. Having my own friends and family around can help me feel at home and relaxed or take away the sense of pressure the kids might feel that it’s “all about them.”

Help me remember who I am. Sometimes, women partnered with divorced dads subsume themselves to the role of stepmother in ways that ultimately don’t serve us or our partnerships. Please help me snap out of it by reminding me that in addition to be an occasionally overwhelmed stepmother, I’m also X, Y and Z—a loyal co-worker, a great dancer or whatever it is that you know me as other than a stepmother.

Try to listen without judging. And please cast off the idea that all I have to do is be nice and this holiday season will be a snap for me. Understand that it is way more complicated than that, and you’ve given me a gift I’ll treasure for years!

This article was written by Wednesday Martin, Ph.D.
Author of “Stepmonster” and frequent contributor to StepMom Magazine