WASHINGTON — When Jennifer Magnus' husband died 15 years ago, she had no idea how tough her next few Christmases would be. "Everything about the holidays reminded me of his absence."
Signing Christmas cards without her husband's name was upsetting. Going alone to her children's school pageants was "a real downer." Family traditions disappeared. Their live Christmas tree was replaced by an artificial one that is stored--partly trimmed--from year to year. The children, then 11 and 13, noticed fewer gifts.
"I stopped making Christmas cookies," says Magnus, 55, of Takoma Park, Md. "We haven't had a whole turkey in the house since I became single."
The Holiday Blues
Most of us have experienced, to some degree, the holiday blues and personal turmoil of schedule hassles, unfulfilled expectations, longings for Christmases past.
The dramatic increase, however, in numbers of single and divorced parents and stepfamilies in America has made the usual holiday dilemmas even more complex.
"Parents facing the first few holidays without their spouses suffer a profound loss of family," says Herbert Freudenberger, a New York psychologist who examines the issues of holiday stress in his book "Situational Anxiety: How to Overcome Your Everyday Anxious Moments" (Quality Paperbacks: $8.95).
"Simply by watching TV and listening to other people at work, they figure everybody is happy and in the holiday spirit--except them. A holiday can become a special trauma for kids of divorced or single parents. They once expected to visit certain grandparents, and now that may not be possible. Traumatic shifts like that point out to them, all the more, the disruptive changes in their lives."
Similar problems confront reconstituted families where "time-sharing" of the children can be particularly painful during the holidays.
"The logistics become a lot more complicated, and so do the emotions," says Emily Visher, a Los Altos Hills, Calif., psychologist and co-founder of the Stepfamily Assn. of America. When she and her husband John Visher were married in 1959, they each brought four children from previous marriages into the new family.
"The children were at the other households Christmas Eve and then came back for Christmas Day. These holidays carry so much emotional weight. Children and adults all have strong needs and expectations around the same date. It's difficult to work it all out."
One reason that holiday dilemmas are particularly difficult, say mental health experts, is because they often center on year-round issues suddenly magnified by the season. For instance, money problems. Psychologists say the added complexities of disrupted family life can turn a simple case of holiday doldrums into an emotional maze. But, they add, a few assertive steps can help simplify, and even prevent, many of the problems.
Living on Less
"If you're a single parent, especially a woman, you usually have less to live on than before," says Abby Sternberg, coordinator of Prevention Services for Children and Youth at the Mount Vernon Center of Community Mental Health in Alexandria, Va.
"If you're a stepparent, you may be supporting two families. Come the holidays, you probably can't afford the gifts you want for your kids."
Pressure builds if the parent without custody turns into Santa Claus and tries to "buy the kids" with expensive presents. "Divorced kids," says Sternberg, may complain that the non-custodial parent doesn't know them well enough to buy them gifts they want. "It's hard for a parent who isn't with the kids every day to shop.
"And to make it harder, they feel that if they don't buy their child that Transformer or Cabbage Patch doll, that very special gift, it'll be a negative mark on the holiday."
The logistics of juggling schedules and a new roster of relatives also takes their toll. "Dad gets you on Christmas Eve and Mom gets you at 10 a.m. Christmas Day--it can make children feel like they're not really wanted," says Sternberg. "Just pawns moved from here to there because it's expected, not because they're loved."
Getting used to new family members, such as a new spouse for a mother or father, multiplies problems for children and adults. It can be, says Sternberg, like spending the holiday among strangers.
"The parent is often occupied with other relationships, and that makes the child feel neglected--and angry. On top of it all, the parent who doesn't get to see the kids from a previous marriage has a really bad time of it."
Fewer--or new--hands in the family also mean a change in the way a holiday is celebrated, which can undermine the security of traditions. "There are all sorts of little family rituals that aren't going to be observed," says Emily M. Brown, a family therapist and director of the Divorce and Marital Stress Clinic in Rosslyn, Va.
As in the case of Jennifer Magnus, some rituals lose their meaning when the family loses one member. Others simply require too much time for a single parent.