Three tips for planning post-ceremony celebrations.
Over the past 16 years, I’ve celebrated four graduations and two bar mitzvahs with my husband’s ex-wife. This spring, we’re adding another to our roster – my youngest stepson’s college graduation. His school is located in Kansas, where I grew up, and we’re all meeting there for the ceremony. I realize how incredibly lucky I am that our family dynamic allows us to share milestones together, but I also admit that traveling to my hometown with my husband’s ex-wife is far from my idea of a dream vacation.
Nearly half of all women in America have a step relationship – either a stepparent, stepchild, or step or half sibling – which means many of you will be joining me in navigating our big fat families this month. I don’t know what qualifies a person to be an expert or coach, but 16 years of stepparenting should count for something, so today I’m sharing my advice on how to successfully celebrate graduation season as a blended family.
Remember, Graduation Is Not About You.
Treat graduation day the same as you would a wedding day. You’re an honored guest of your child, but it’s not about you. Do not use this day as an opportunity to prove your place within your family. The most important thing you can do is defuse disagreements as they arise and create a day of celebration centered around your child. I can tell you from experience that years from now, the details of the after-party won’t matter.
Inform Your Family Of Your Expectations.
The most surprising thing about our blended family dynamic is how others react to it. Most people are more comfortable when I’m at war with my husband’s ex than when we’re getting along. Media has taught us how to take our friend’s side in a bar brawl, but not how to co-exist with their exes when it matters the most.
Our past graduation celebrations have included my husband and myself, his ex, her parents, my parents, my close friends – even at the parties that were held in her home. I’m lucky that my parents have always shared my perspective that my stepsons have two homes, but only one family. I’ve never had to speak to them about how I hope they’ll act around my husband’s ex, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t faced other difficult conversations. My parents and extended family are Christian, and my stepsons and their mother are Jewish. Early in my marriage, I had to discuss with my family my expectations for how to they would respect my sons’ religious holidays and traditions. On the flip side, I had to express to my husband the importance of integrating my family’s traditions into our new home.
The key to happily blended families is communication. When it comes to graduation, don’t shy away from calling your parents (or fiercely loyal siblings) to discuss how you hope the day will unfold. I promise you that what they want more than anything is for you to know that they have your back, so tell them how best to support you — by keeping the peace, smiling big for photos, and mixing you a strong cocktail at the end of the day.
Function As One Family, But Two Households.
The last thing I want is for my stepsons to ever worry about how their parents will get along at their weddings, the births of their children, or any random family event. Over the last decade, I’ve had ups and downs with their mother, but I’m committed to never letting any tension between us disrupt a special occasion. For this year’s graduation, she booked reservations for a post-ceremony dinner and graciously included my entire family, which outnumbers hers by several seats. She also offered to include us in her dinner reservation the night before, but we declined.
When you’re meeting out of town, it can feel like you must make the most of every single moment with your kids. How dare they get more time with them than we do! But one on one time is important, and it’s absolutely okay for one set of parents to spend time with a child that doesn’t include the other set. They deserve it, and so do you.
Even if you’re in a situation where you truly feel that the other set of parents is getting more time, take a moment to reassess. Is it worth a fight to make sure you have dinner with your child on this day versus another? Can a battle be avoided by simply disregarding the calendar and celebrating a different day? Ten years from now, will the situation you’re stressed about even matter? My guess is that it won’t.
I never would suggest that you need to develop a close friendship with your spouse’s ex in order for your blended family to be successful. In many cases, success means managing not to scream at each other in public. It’s not about warm and fuzzy feelings but rather, civil and responsible interactions. It’s about each adult forgoing their egos in exchange for the child’s well-being.
My favorite advice for blended families was bestowed by my friend Halley: “If they are the rock, don’t be the hard place.”
Come to think of it, that’s the best advice, period.
Jessica Butler is the co-founder of Raise, stepmother of two, and adoptive mother of one. Prior to Raise, she was a writer on USA’s "In Plain Sight" and TNT’s "The Last Ship." She and her husband, writer/producer Warren Bell, co-created the Nick at Nite series "Instant Mom," based on her life as a stepmother. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and six-year-old son, Levon.