She’s been going out with this man. She loves him, but he has two kids and she has one.  She’s always said she’d shoot herself before she’d hook up anyone who has kids!  She grew up in an unhappy stepfamily.

As time goes on however, she loves him more and more and can’t leave him.  Besides, his kids seem okay.

Then comes their first family vacation together. He wants to take his girlfriend and all the kids on a camping trip. He loves to camp. He plans the outing and makes all the arrangements. She and her daughter agree to come along because he wants to share this with her.

The first afternoon and evening go well.  Everyone is excited. They eat dinner and roast marshmallows.  Then bedtime. Two tents. His kids want Dad in their tent. Her daughter wants to sleep alone with her. The parents want to sleep with each other.  They’d been sleeping together when their kids were at their bio parents.  But not this night.  They comply with their kids’ wishes and sleep separately.

The rest of the weekend goes okay, but clearly the pressure and tension of being together builds. There’s a nasty fight the last day over something silly like “the scrambled eggs were over cooked and cold”. In the end, his kids complain that camping is more fun without them!  Her daughter says that camping isn’t fun at all and she doesn’t ever want to do it again!

This is not surprising.  Several issues common in stepcoupling were working against them.

First, it’s a new and different experience for all of them. No one likes change, especially children, parents and stepparents who have already experienced so much change. They like their old familiar ways of doing things with their own family and not outsiders. It’s an uncomfortable stretch.

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.  That obviously was threatened by the outsiders/newcomers. From the adults’ point of view, they were competing with the stepkids for tent time as a couple.

Third, these two families were strangers to each other.  The adult affair was being carried on when the kids weren’t around. Suddenly all of them were cajoled into togetherness, “It will be fun to go camping together.” It sounded good but…

Fourth is the hype and anxiety that’s involved in planning and carrying out stepfamily trips. It takes both money and emotional energy to make it happen.  It’s hard for kids and adults, who aren’t used to being together, to be in cramped quarters like this. And then for it to be disappointing, it’s hard on everyone.

There are always surprises.  But it’s the surprises that make the memories. For example, we all remember one of our kids throwing up all over the SF Airport.  How embarrassing!!

From years of experience, I’ve learned some things the hard way…

  • There’s no easy formula.  It varies every time and there are always surprises.  Stepfamily vacations demand patience and flexibility. You never know what’s going to happen next.  And when it happens, the adults have to be ready to act.
  • It’s good to involve the kids in the planning…whenever possible. Kids need to feel that they’re an important part of the group process and that their wishes count.  Of course, the adults have to ultimately decide according to purpose and practicality.
  • It’s impossible to make it perfect for everyone.  The kids are 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 and so can parents.I remember one special camping trip early on. It rained.  Our five kids spent hours pretending that the tent was an emergency hospital. They took care of their sick and injured siblings and parents and saved lives for the better part of a day…just like on TV.
  • Be the adult. Check your attitude along the way. As individual parents and as a couple, be ready to step in and put out the fires when necessary. There’ll be issues to iron out, glitches and disappointments. The best-laid plans can fail miserably, and sometimes the cheapest, most spontaneous outings are the best.
  • Enjoy the good times as they happen.  Appreciate and applaud them.  Remember to affirm the kids for special efforts, generosity, and patience.  Affirm their creativity to come up with stuff to do on their own. Commendations go a long way in family vacations. Incentives and bribes work too.
  • Use your sense of humor.  Laughter is sometimes the best medicine when people get tired and crabby.

I hope you have a happy summer vacation!

Susan Wisdom MA

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