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Stepfamily Vacations – Deal Breaker or Connection Maker?

She’s been dating this guy. She might even love him…but he has two kids and she has one. She always said she’d NEVER hook up with a man who has kids! Growing up, she had a stepmother she hated. Her dad was always with “her,” and she never got any one-on-one time with her father. She’d never be anyone’s STEPMOTHER and do that to another child—end of story.

As time goes on, however, she loves him more and more. She can’t break it off. Besides, his kids seem OK.

Then comes their first “family” vacation. He wants to take her and all their kids on a camping trip. He loves to camp. He plans the outing and makes all the arrangements.

The first evening goes well. They eat dinner and roast marshmallows. Then it’s bedtime and the first glitch: the tenting arrangement. His kids want Dad in their tent; her daughter wants Mom in her tent. The adults want to sleep with each other. They’d been sleeping together when their kids were staying with their other parents—every chance they could get. But not this night. They comply with their kids’ wishes and sleep separately.

The rest of the weekend, there are good and bad times. But clearly the tension of being together is building. There’s a nasty fight on the last day over something silly like the scrambled eggs being undercooked! In the end, his kids complain that camping is more fun without “them”. Her kid says that camping isn’t fun at all—too many bugs, too cold at night—and she doesn’t ever want to do it again!

This scenario isn’t surprising. Several issues common in stepcoupling and stepfamilies were working against them during this three-day “family” vacation.

First, it was a new and different experience for all of them. No one likes change, especially not children, parents, and stepparents—all of whom have already experienced too much change. They want their old familiar ways of doing things.

Second, it’s about competition. Kids don’t want to share their parents with anyone. The best part about camping is sharing a tent with the person you love the most, your parent.  And the newcomers/outsiders threatened this. From the adults’ perspective, they were competing with the “stepkids” for tent time as a couple.

Third, these two families were strangers to each other. The adults’ affair was being carried on when the kids weren’t around. Suddenly they were all thrown together on a camping “adventure.” It sounded like a good idea…but it wasn’t!

The hype and anxiety involved in planning and carrying out family trips is another problem factor. It takes a lot of emotional and physical energy, plus a fair amount of money to make a joint vacation happen. If it’s disappointing, it feels like a real bust.

It’s also hard for kids and adults, who aren’t used to being together, to be in cramped quarters with no boundaries. It makes everyone a little crazy at times.

And there are always surprises. But it’s the surprises that make the memories. For instance, everyone in our stepfamily remembers when one of our kids threw up all over the San Francisco airport! All seven of us were on a trip to celebrate Christmas with family. This was NOT a good start!

From years of experience, I’ve learned:

  • There’s no easy formula. It’s different every time and they’re always surprises.  Stepfamily vacations take HUGE amounts of patience and flexibility.
  • Involve the kids in the planning as much as possible. Listen to their ideas. Think about it and talk with your partner. Kids need to feel that they’re an important part of the group process. Of course, the adults have to consider time, purpose, and practicality. Expectations and sleeping arrangements should be discussed before hand—everyone must be willing to compromise.
  • It’s impossible to make it perfect for everyone. The kids may be different ages and genders and have different interests to consider. The binding force should be that it’s an opportunity for this stepfamily to do something together that transcends age, sex and interests. Kids can be flexible.I remember one special camping trip early on. Our five kids spent hours pretending that their tent was an emergency hospital—like the popular TV program, Mash. They took care of their sick and injured siblings and saved lives for the better part of a day.
  • Check your attitude along the way. Be the adult that you are. You won’t always get your way…nor will anyone else. There will be issues to iron out, glitches, and disappointments. The best-laid plans can fail miserably. And the cheapest, most casual trips are often the best.
  • Enjoy the good times as they happen. Appreciate them and applaud them. Remember to affirm the kids for special efforts, generosity, and patience. Commendations go a long way in family vacations. Incentives and bribes work, too.
  • Lighten up and use your sense of humor. Laughter is sometimes the best medicine when people get tired and crabby.

Best to everyone this summer vacation.  Stay cool.

Susan Wisdom MA

(Originally published June 2010 on Susan’s blog site and StepMom Magazine July 2010.)

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