Monday, December 17, 2012

Why mental health care and child welfare reform matter in a post-Newtown world

My heart could not have been heavier when I heard about the Newtown shootings from a coworker on Friday. As I read the stories, I cried at my desk and had the undeniable urge to go pick up the Younger Belles from school, even though I logically knew they were fine. My thoughts and prayers are with the children's families and friends, along with the family and friends of the brave women in the school who also perished. I cannot imagine that community's grief.

But I'm also a problem solver by nature. So I had to ask, where do we go from here? How can I feel comfortable letting the belles go back to school? How can I avoid another scenario where I have to look my 9 year old belle in the eye and tell her I can't say for certain that it could never happen in her school?

The gun debate is already going in full force, so I won't address that here. Besides, I think the larger problem is what have we done to our children?

"...we come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours, that we’re all parents, that they are all our children." - President Barack Obama

Yes, we are all parents. If this tragedy has taught us anything, it is that we are all parents - stewards of children - in some way. I have seen on social media my childless friends grieve, my childfree friends grieve, everyone from my friends who are elementary school teachers to my friends who are single with no children.

It's because this tragedy goes beyond biology. I didn't have to give birth to feel the undeniable pain and anger at the thought of, "What if it were me? What if I were one of those poor parents?" The brave women who literally laid down their lives for these children did not have to birth these children to give their lives for them. At least one was a stepmother like me, and a few did not have children of their own.

As the custodial stepmother to two children who have mental health concerns, and as someone who works with children in the child welfare system, I have been screaming for years for serious child welfare reform. The harsh reality is that even if you're middle class, employed, considerably educated and more or less financially stable with health insurance, if you have a child who has any type of developmental, neurological or behavioral issue, you may think your health insurance will be enough. It won't be. You will face an uphill battle on finding professionals who will work with you and are qualified and willing to listen to your concerns and take them seriously. Then, if you're fortunate to even get that far, you will have to convince your insurance company that if you don't deal with this now, they are sentencing you to life with a ticking time bomb also known as puberty and its onset of hormones. If you can even get that far, you will continue to struggle and pay dearly for quality care. Then, it's a guessing game as to whether or not any of it will even work.

This is all of course assuming that you don't suffer from any mental health issues of your own and that you have enough education and background to know how to navigate any of this properly. What happens to those who don't?

I can tell you exactly what happens. They wind up in my office. They are the children who don't have mental health issues but who are in the foster care system because their parents are drug addicts. He is the teenager who haunts my memory all the time because he came and told me goodbye less than a week before he put a bullet through his head as a final message to the caseworker, judge and parents who failed him. They are the countless children I have encountered whose parents chose abusive partners and drugs and/or alcohol over being a parent.

Do you know what happens to these children? With any luck, they get adopted by people who love them and have been waiting for them. Many transition into independent living and become successful adults. Some go home eventually to a rehabilitated parent. But many, many others wind up on the streets. Homeless, desperate, with little resources. They turn to drugs and violence. They get pregnant or get their equally unstable partners pregnant. And the cycle starts again.

I have for the most part gotten over my initial anger at the younger belles' bio-mom. I'm not a perfect human being, and I'm protective of my girls, so some anger is still there. But after working in child welfare, I have a different perspective on her than I once did. Coming from a family wrought with addiction and mental illness with no good examples of responsible parenting, how could I have expected her to be a responsible mother? How could I honestly think she could step up and be a mother when she had no example to follow?

It starts with adequate funding. Paying social workers their true worth, ensuring the system and its partner agencies have enough funding to where decisions are made based on what's in the child's best interest rather than what will cost the state the least amount of dollars. It starts with proactivity rather than reactivity. Understanding that poverty does not equal bad parenting, but that poverty can lead to bad decisions which can lead to bad parenting. It starts with making funding for children with mental health issues across socioeconomic boundaries a priority, and with making children who are in the state's care a priority. It starts with understanding that in times of economic crisis when funding is slashed for mental health care and child welfare is when we need that funding the most.

It starts with you. That old cliche saying has some truth right now, because if it doesn't start with you, then where does it? We must stop passing the responsibility onto the next person's shoulders and realize that if we don't fix this now with our children, it will only get worse.

Don't let these babies in Newtown's deaths be in vain, nor the deaths of the children I have met who have passed on whether by their own hand or someone else's, nor the deaths of the hundreds of youth we lose each year to gang violence. The cycle stops now. Because they are all our children.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Ann Romney: Does addressing mothers count as addressing stepmothers too?

I try to leave politics off my blog because I realize that it’s a polarizing topic and I strive to not alienate my readers. However, the Republican National Convention last week in Tampa unknowingly gave an interesting view into how many people in this country view alternative forms of parenting, and it deserves to be addressed.

I shouldn’t go any further without being honest – much to Ashley’s dismay, I am a registered Democrat. I don’t always vote within party lines or agree with every portion of the party platform. However, I am a liberal, especially on social issues, so my view of the current GOP and their policies toward women is not very positive to begin with.

With that being said, Ann Romney’s speech piqued my interest. I have nothing against the woman personally, other than I think she is a bit na├»ve and out of touch regarding how most women in this country live. I think she’s very admirable, especially with all of her medical battles, and I don’t begrudge her for being a stay-at-home parent. Because she comes across as genuine to me, I wanted to hear her speech in the hopes of seeing a different side of Mitt Romney.

But what I got out of it was what I like to call “Mommy Superiority Syndrome.” Some of the gems of her speech:

“I want to talk to you about that love so deep, only a mother can fathom it. The love that we have for our children and our children's children.”

“And if you listen carefully, you'll hear the women sighing a little bit more than the men. It's how it is, isn't it? It's the moms who have always had to work a little harder to make everything right. It's the moms of this nation, single, married, widowed, who really hold the country together. We're the mothers. We're the wives. We're the grandmothers. We're the big sisters. We're the little sisters and we are the daughters.”

“You are the best of America. You are the hope of America. There would not be an America without you. Tonight, we salute you and sing your praises!”

Hmmm….so according to Ann – and this is a statement I have heard from many people, not just her – only a mother can fathom the deepest love there is. It’s similar to the statement, “You don’t know true love until you have a child.” According to Ann, it’s the moms of the United States who keep America together. The single mothers, the married mothers, the widowed mothers. The grandmothers. The wives. The sisters.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? You might recall my Mother’s Day reflections that in an aisle full of cards acknowledging Mother’s Day for mothers, for grandmothers, for mothers-in-law, for wives, for sisters, for aunts….. there was not one card for a stepmother.

You might say – as some have on Facebook on mutual friends’ postings, “Oh Southern Stepmom, why are you getting so upset about this? She was trying to be positive! She probably meant stepmothers too – stepmothers are like mothers, and you can’t break down every type of mother there possibly is so as not to offend anyone! Here she is – trying to make positive statements about women, and you’re just tearing her down, you big mean liberal!”

If Ann had meant to include stepmothers or to infer that mother applies to all women who take care of children, she could have easily said stepmothers when she referred to many types of mothers in the second quote. She could have not broken down the types of mothers at all. Or she could have not blatantly said – only a mother understands; because of mothers, there is an America.

Do I think Ann Romney hates stepmothers? No. Do I think she, like most people in America, thinks that in order to be a mother, you have to physically bring a child into this world? Yes, I do.

You may say I’m thin skinned. You may say I’m a liberal who hates Mitt Romney and wouldn’t have voted for him anyway no matter what his wife said. You may say everyone’s too concerned about being PC these days and I need to stop being such an angry woman.

If I were thin skinned, I would not have survived almost six years of being a stepmother. There is little that would have convinced me to vote for Mitt Romney, but if his wife had acknowledged me and the other 14 million stepmothers to minor children in this country, I would have definitely gained a lot of respect for him. I probably am an angry woman, but I’m an angry woman for a reason.

I have had many people praise me for my sacrifices and how I have reared my two younger belles. I don’t do it for the praise. I do it because those two kids need me. They needed a mother in their lives because their bio-mother couldn’t do it/chose not to do it herself. Yes, there are days when I want to tear my hair out. There are days when I wish the burden was a little easier, or that my husband and I could enjoy more than 3 overnight trips away by ourselves in six years. There are days when I wonder if they will ever appreciate anything that I have done for them.

But, I don’t expect you to feel sorry for me, as one person suggested. I don’t want a glowing review of my parenting. A simple thanks from my girls, or even perhaps their bio-mother one day, would be nice. But I don’t expect people to bow down at me for what I have done. It was my choice, not my obligation.

But what I would really like is for my relationship with the two girls I have raised to mean something to a school or to a doctor’s office without requiring a legal paper trail or a lengthy and expensive adoption process. I would like for my role as a de facto parent to be acknowledged in the eyes of the law, not to be considered the legal stranger to them that I am considered to be now.

That’s right, folks. My only connection to those girls that I have loved as my own and have been expected to love as my own is through my husband. I am Dad’s wife. If something were to – heaven forbid – happen to my husband tomorrow, the only connection I have to them would be severed. The state could take them from me. I would have to file for guardianship, which could be contested by the state or by any relative. If we were to – heaven forbid – divorce, I would be facing an uphill legal battle for visitation, and most states don’t even allow stepparents to petition for visitation, much less grant it.

The ugly assumptions people make about stepmothers, the ridiculous assertions people make about us – that’s all relative, but not really even the point. The point is that if Ann Romney didn’t have to specify stepmothers because stepmothers are considered valuable women in America, if motherhood wasn’t defined by biology, then there would be cards for stepmothers on Mother’s Day. There would be features on national news outlets about inspiring stepmothers on Mother’s Day, just as there are about stepfathers on Father’s Day. And most importantly – I would have legal protection for the role I play every day. I wouldn’t be “just the stepmother.” It would be me that was holding the country together too.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Happy Stepmother's Day!

Today is Stepmother's Day, a legally recognized holiday established in 2000 when a young girl requested for a special day for stepmothers around the United States. This holiday is always celebrated the Sunday after Mother's Day.

While I think it is extremely important for stepmothers to be recognized for the tremendous sacrifices they make and the love they bestow upon children they didn't give birth to, I always have mixed feelings about Stepmother's Day. To me, if stepmothers were truly honored and revered in society, there would be no need for a separate day - stepmothers could be honored alongside mothers on Mother's Day. But, I know every family and their preferences are different. I wouldn't want dear Ashley to honor me on Stepmother's Day with the younger belles because I'm not really their stepmother anymore. I mean, technically I am, but I have been raising them for so long, it seems silly to still refer to myself as their stepmother unless it's important for legal purposes. Most people in our daily lives now aren't even aware that I'm their stepmother.

However, I am still a stepmother to Oldest Belle. And in that spirit, I think it's important to address today why I'm not an active stepparent anymore to her.

Once upon a time, Oldest Belle's mother followed the visitation plan pretty well. We had Oldest Belle in our home every other weekend, some holidays and for the summer. Things were never perfect between her mother and Ashley, but it seemed that the tense years after their split had finally died down. Oldest Belle's mom was never too happy with my role in her life. Actually, if you had asked her, she would say I never had a role at all. She preferred to think of me and Ashley as glorified babysitters rather than active parents. The problem was the closer that Oldest Belle and I got, the harder her mom would make our relationship. Never mind that I had zero interest in replacing her, but I was a Capital T Threat.

The change was noticeable. Oldest Belle started backtalking me more. She began being outright rude to my family at various family functions, people who had loved her and embraced her as another family member without question. When Ashley sat Oldest Belle down to talk to her about her unacceptable behavior and told her she was not going to disrespect me - her stepmother who loved her dearly - she replied that "Southern Step/Mom isn't my stepmother!" as we weren't married at that time. This coming from a child who had been calling me her stepmother for years at this point. It was then that I realized that there was a lot of bashing of me and Ashley going on at her mother's house, more than we had previously realized.

Shortly after this, we found out that Oldest Belle's mother had been plotting to bring Ashley back to court again, for the umpteenth time over 11 years by then. She also had convinced Oldest Belle that she should testify against Ashley in court, fabricating whatever necessary in order to prove her loyalty to her mother. Ashley and her mother did go back to court over Oldest Belle one last time, and the judge refused to change anything in regards to custody. Oldest Belle's mother made it clear to Ashley then that she would not cooperate with visitation any longer, and Ashley had already brought her back to court several times by then to charge her with contempt for violating the parenting plan, only for the judges to do nothing. Her punishments were nothing more than a "slap on the wrist," a "Don't do it again" warning.

So at that point, what do you do? Most people say to continue fighting, to not give up. But what damage does that continue to do to the child when there's a parent who is unrelenting in her quest to destroy the relationship between the other parent and the child? Do you continue bringing the other parent to court, giving her more ammunition against you? Or do you back off and hope that when the child gets older, they'll understand that you backed off in hopes that the other parent would stop psychologically abusing them for simply loving you?

For more information about Parental Alienation Sydrome, here is a great introductory article. (
"Any attempt at alienating the children from the other parent should be seen as a direct and willful violation of one of the prime duties of parenthood...It is our feeling that when attempted PAS has been identified, successful or not, it must be dealt with swiftly by the court. If it is not, it will contaminate and quietly control all other parenting issues and then lead only to unhappiness, frustration, and, lastly, parental estrangement."

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A letter to my girls on Mother's Day

"Once there were two women who never knew each other. One you do not remember, the other you call Mother...The first one gave you life, and the second taught you to live it. The first gave you a need for love, the second was there to give it." - Unknown

This is the sixth Mother's Day we've now shared together, and I hope you know how each year, you make it more special for me. I know as you get older, you'll probably have some more questions about our family and about you and me. I feel like today is a good day for me to explain why the special things you and Daddy do for me on Mother's Day mean so much, so that maybe when you are older, you'll understand better.

See, I don't know what you looked like when you were born. I mean, I DO, but not from memory, just from pictures I've seen. I don't remember the feeling of you kicking inside me that everyone says is pretty cool, but I have no first hand knowledge of. I can't tell you what your first word was, or when you took your first step. I don't know when you got your first tooth, and I don't remember your first cry. I don't know any of these things because when I met you, you were two towheaded toddlers.

And I didn't have a clue about parenting. I was terrified, actually. I didn't do much babysitting growing up, and I didn't have any siblings, so I didn't know what I was doing. I'm pretty sure I had only changed a diaper twice in my life before I met you. I'd never really been responsible for anyone other than myself before, so I didn't really know what to do, and I made a lot of mistakes. See, when people have babies the "traditional" way, they at least get nine months to prepare. There's also lots of books on how to be a good parent that you usually get time to read before you become a parent. But with you two, I didn't get any prep time. So as Daddy and I were trying to work our way into our relationship, you girls needed a mom pronto, so I had to learn along the way. Actually, I'm still learning!

But yes, I can't tell you any of those things you did before I met you. I haven't a clue what you were like as babies. But I do remember the look of pride on your face as you graduated from Pre-K. I remember the first time you called me Mom. I remember how much I cried after I put you on the bus to Kindergarten. I remember when you lost your first tooth and how terrified I was that you'd see me sneaking into your room to play Tooth Fairy. I remember you telling me "I'm OK, Mom! Bye!" when I dropped you off at your new class. I can sing every Disney Channel theme song from the past five years. I took you on your first plane ride and remember how you beamed with excitement when you got your pilot wings. I remember holding you as you cried the first time a friend broke your heart and trying to keep my own tears at bay. All of these things I remember, and I carry with me in my heart, because you are important to me. I didn't have to give birth to you to care about you and to remember all of the little milestones of your life.

I hope when you are older, you will know how much I cried from joy and relief the day the judge said I could adopt you. It was one of the best days of my life. See, I think there is something special about being chosen. I may not have given birth to you, but I have chosen to be your mom. Because I want to, because I love you. You are so special that God led me right to you. That is something to truly cherish, especially when you have doubts about me or us or our family.

I know you will have questions about your biological mom one day. I don't know why things happened the way they did, and I can't answer that because I wasn't there and I don't know her. But I will say this - sometimes, some people know the best thing they can do for their children is to have someone else be their parent. It doesn't mean you are not a good kid or that you are not loved - it means that you are so special that you deserve parents who can take care of you. I can only guess that she must have known that Daddy and I were the best parents to do that.

Our family will probably change as the two of you get older. Daddy and I would like to have a baby in a few years, but I hope you understand that it doesn't mean I will love you any less. If anything, I will love you more because you've taught me how to be a mom. I have the two of you to thank for that. And I wouldn't change any of it for the world.

I love you both,

"Not flesh of my flesh, nor bone of my bone, but still miraculously my own. Never forget for a single minute, you didn't grow under my heart - but in it." - Fleur Conkling Heylinger

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Who am I? Making sure step/life doesn't consume you.

It's getting close to the five-year mark over here at Tara. Yes, that's right - I've been a Step/Mom for almost five years now. However, I'm thoroughly convinced that Step/Mom Years are like dog years, so that means I've been a Step/Mom for 35 years, right?

Being a stepmother is definitely not for the faint of heart, but I can say with absolute certainty that it's been an overall rewarding experience so far. A question I get often is, "How do you do it? How do you have such PEACE about it? How do you not let it overwhelm you?"

Well, there were definitely times where it DID overwhelm me. There were times when I did not fully understand the magnitude of the responsibility I hold. There were times when I wanted to lock myself in my room with a bottle of wine, a fluffy blanket and Alanis Morrissette on repeat. There were times when Ashley and I both had questions as to whether our relationship could survive every awful test that was thrown at us. There were times - and STILL ARE - that I question if I'm a good parent. But, there are some keys to not only surviving, but thriving through these times. I'm very thankful to be blessed with a wonderful husband and a great life, and I'm excited to see what the many years ahead bring us. I joke sometimes about how I should be a saint for surviving step/life, but the truth is I really love my life and wouldn't change it. Here's what has worked for me in thriving through step/life.

1) A solid relationship with my husband. Let's face it. You're going to have enough issues with a step-situation; the key is to minimize drama with your partner as much as possible. As a Southern belle, I am prone to dramatics, so sometimes I have to remind myself that picking a fight with my husband because I'm aggravated with the kids, with work, with school, whatever is not going to solve anything. I also have to remind myself that sometimes even when I know best (which is most of the time), I have to keep my mouth shut and let him figure it out on his own (he usually does).

There are two main components to our marriage working, and I personally feel that a lot of the responsibility in a relationship or marriage where there's a step-situation relies with the bio-parent - We put our marriage first. The belles know that they are important to us obviously, but the best way we can show the girls the importance of a healthy relationship is to demonstrate one. If we are not meeting our duties as a spouse, it can cause a lot of resentment and tension that affects the entire family. He has always respected and demanded respect of my role. Whether it's been with the belles, the bio-moms, or the in-laws, Ashley has never wavered in making sure everyone involved understood that I have a valid, important role in the girls' lives and that I was not to be treated otherwise. Now, whether or not I have always been treated that way by the others in the step-situation....I'm sure you can guess as to how that turned out. But, his disapproval of any disrespect toward me was duly noted!

Mostly, however, we make sure that our life doesn't revolve around the step-situation. This is of course much easier now that we are (hopefully! *knocks on the closest piece of wood*) done with the trials and tribulations of Family Court. But our life revolves around doing activities and outings with the kids, taking vacations and spending time with each other, discussing sports, politics and religion (all of which we argue about), and enjoying each other's company. We don't discuss the step-situation that often anymore, usually only when necessary, and that allows our relationship to be about us and not being comrades in battle. There's a definite peace and sense of normalcy that comes with that, and it's very freeing.

2) I genuinely like the belles and enjoy my role in their lives. I know this one isn't always easy, and I don't think it's a requirement, but it definitely makes step/life easier if you can achieve it. Even with Oldest Belle, with whom my relationship with has changed dramatically in the past 2.5 years, I try to remind myself of the good times and her positive attributes (of which she has many). As for the younger belles, well now that I'm Mom for all intents and purposes, it's made it a lot easier for me to be a Step/Mom. In fact, I often forget I am "just" Step/Mom, seeing as I've been raising them for so long. This doesn't mean that we're always happy with each other or that I always get along with them. It does mean there's an overall solidity to our relationship, and that's important.

I more than anyone know that sometimes it can be difficult to enjoy your role in your stepkids' lives. I wish I had the opportunity to still be the involved Step/Mom I once was to Oldest Belle before PAS took over (PAS is a deeply involved topic that will be discussed in a separate post). Sometimes, no matter how hard you try however, it simply isn't that way. Which leads me to my next topic.....

3) Accepting it for what it is. This is something that has taken me a L-O-N-G time to get to. I still have my struggles with acceptance every once in a while. But it is so important and a key to your sanity. I have come to realize that acceptance is not allowing yourself to be a doormat and letting everyone else have a say in your life. It is having conviction that you are doing the best you can in the situation you've been given, and the understanding that the only person you have the power to change is yourself.

I cannot change the negative feelings others have about me and my role as a Step/Mom when they do not understand the full situation. I cannot go back in time and make the younger belles' bio-mom care enough about her unborn children to not abuse drugs during her pregnancy. I cannot force Oldest Belle's bio-mom to recognize the important and crucial role my husband holds as their daughter's father, especially during these teenage years. I cannot make my Oldest Belle appreciate her father's contributions to her life. I cannot force other people to understand the importance of fathers and equal parenting. I cannot change the broken and corrupt family court system in this country. I cannot make my in-laws sane. AMEN!

BUT, I can change myself. I can accept those things that I cannot change, and I can try my hardest to enact good out of the bad. I can educate others about step-situations, I can offer support and guidance to others in similar situations, I can donate to causes I believe in that may change these situations for families like ours in the future. I can't change everything, but I can appreciate the lessons the challenges have taught me and I can use these lessons to make myself a better wife and parent.

4) Having a solid support system. I have been immensely blessed with a strong support system of other women who are also Step/Moms. These women have offered prayers, hugs, guidance and a cheering section when I needed one the most. There have been times when no one else could understand how I felt, but they did because they had been through it themselves. Knowing others who "get it" is something that cannot be understated. It's sustained me when I didn't think things could get any worse. It's rewarded me when I had people to share the wonderful positives with. Their friendship and love has been so crucial to me that I can't begin to fathom how other women go through step-life without such a support system.

5) Not defining myself as only a Step/Mom. Being a Step/Mom takes up a LOT of my time, but I've always tried to ensure it doesn't take up ALL of my time. I'll be honest - I'm not a huge fan of women who only define themselves as "Mommy." Being a Mom is definitely one of the most important roles I'll ever have, but I didn't stop being Southern Step/Mom just because I became a parent. I'm a wife, a daughter, a granddaughter, a cousin, a friend. I'm a sorority sister, a coworker, a graduate student. I'm a dancer, a writer, a reader, a singer. You get the idea. I've continually pursued other interests throughout my step/life that have nothing to do with being a Step/Mom because it's important. I want my girls to know that there is so much more to being a woman than being a parent.

6) My faith. I'll admit. I'm not the type of person you'll find screaming praises everywhere. I'm the first to say I'm not anywhere close to being the perfect Christian. There have definitely been times where I've lapsed, where I've shaken my fist in anger at God for the situations we've been thrown in. However, I can't discount the significant peace I've gotten from quiet reflection, prayer and mediation. Sometimes when I can't get a handle on the acceptance I preached about earlier, I turn it over to a higher power because I can't handle it by myself. I don't think a particular faith is a prerequisite for surviving and thriving in step/life, but I do think that having some type of faith or moral code to turn to is important.

Are there some tips from the pros you'd like to share? Things you agree or disagree with? Feel free to let me know!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Didn't survive the holidays? Tips for next year!

I think it goes without saying that getting through the holidays as a Step/Mom can be one of the most draining, dramatic facts of steplife you'll ever encounter.  Most of the time, getting through the holidays (and endless custody exchanges) is enough to send any sensible woman running and least to the nearest bottle of wine.  How do you fit in time with the kids and your families while also making sure everyone is supposed to be when they're supposed to be there?  Will the bio-mom follow the custody order, or will she make a last-minute attempt to change the game plan?  Can you and your husband or significant other make it through the holidays without killing each other?  These are all important, valid questions in steplife.

The first step - as with almost any step-situation - is to ensure you have a workable custody order that is painfully specific.  So many times, attorneys and/or judges will throw in vague language such as "The father is entitled to reasonable holiday visitation."  What is reasonable?  Who defines it?  I can almost guarantee that most people get divorced or break up because neither one can agree on what is reasonable in any situation.  Why then would you assume that you can both agree on reasonable after a divorce?

I'll give Ashley and Oldest Belle's bio-mom credit where credit is due.  They have a pretty solidly defined and reasonable custody order when it come to holiday visitation.  The issue has always been getting Oldest Belle's bio-mom to actually follow the custody order, but bless her heart, she tries.  That's what I tell myself in my finer Christian woman moments at least.  But, the idea for the parents to "swap" holidays every year is a pretty good one in my opinion.  Basically one parent gets Christmas, for example, with the child every even year, and the other parent gets the child on the odd years.  This plan ensures no day of the holiday custody exchanges.  This is good for two reasons - everyone gets to enjoy the full holiday without being in a car all day, and you don't have to see your ex (or your husband's ex) on a holiday.  You have to see the goodness in the little things, right?

The second step is to stick to the plan.  I will admit that in some step-situations, both sets of parents (the bio-parents and their spouses or partners) get along wonderfully and can easily deviate from the custody plan without too much commotion.  However, if you are in a step-situation where one party does not want to work with the other or takes advantage of the situation (e.g. always asking to change the schedule but never agreeing to changes the other party proposes), it is simply best to stick to the plan.  You may think you're being reasonable and you're showing the child or children involved that Mom and Dad can work together.  Well, that's good in theory.  But, in practice, it's not always the best approach.  I am a huge believer in boundaries.  Boundaries are so critical in any step-situation (I promise this is a topic you will get sick of me discussing, but it's because it is so very important).  The court order is there for a reason - follow it!  It serves everyone's best interests because it ensures the child or children involved are getting the time they deserve with both of their parents.  When you deviate from the plan, it opens the door for more deviation in the future, usually on an increasingly larger scale.  At what point do you say no?  Don't let yourself get into that situation - say no from the beginning, and you'll never have to worry about your good nature being taken advantage of.

It really can be a peaceful and happy holiday season.  You just have to plan in advance.  And if plans still fall apart......well, in my opinion, there's nothing a nice bottle of Moscato can't fix.