Christmas is an emotional strain even in the best circumstances. For the new groupings created by divorce and remarriage, it can be hell. Jerome Burne offers advice for those who find themselves in unfamiliar roles
For Caroline, it was the Christmas cards. She and her husband had just separated and for the first time in 10 years she and their two children were spending Christmas without Daddy. "I was trying to be brave and get everything done when I came to the list of the people we send cards to. Signing them just from me seemed odd, and putting both of us seemed false. I just burst into tears and never sent any at all."

For the recently separated or divorced, and especially those with children, Christmas can seem the worst of times. Everyone is caught in a maelstrom of painful emotions - guilt, grief, blame, anger, confusion - and at the same time as heart-strings are being plucked by all those potent Christmas images: the excited faces, soaring voices, present-stuffed stockings. Any one of them can spiral you down into a pit of hopelessness.

How on earth do you get through it? How do you make it all right for the children? "I baked, I cooked, I decorated and, most of all, I bought," says Caroline. "I was determined everything would be just as it always had been. Except, of course, it wasn't."

Caroline may have become a member of the fastest-growing family grouping in the West, that will include 50 per cent of all families by the year 2000, but to make the new arrangements work, certain rules must be followed. Although at times it may all seem impossible, there is in fact a lot that can be done to create something bearable out of the upheaval.

"Don't have too high expectations," says Mary Corbett, chief executive of Marriage Care. "To begin with, settle for arrangements that give everyone a bit of what they want." In fact, although there may be a bitter contrast between the warm glow of Christmas and your own misery, the perennial message of peace and goodwill is precisely what is needed.

However complex the seemingly endless Christmas lists and arrangements appeared in your once-tight nuclear family, you had better get used to the fact that from now on they are going to be a leisurely memory. The very first requirement is that you are talking to your ex. "Even if you only pretend to have a Christmas truce and write out all the horrid angry things you are feeling in a diary," says Ms Corbett, "that can be the start of a working relationship."

For instance, don't use the children as a football. You may be dying to let them know what a bastard Daddy is, or to stick the knife into your ex-wife by keeping the children for all of Christmas Day, but resist the temptation. Even if you agree on nothing else, you should agree to put the children first.

And that leads to another point: keep your word. If you say you are going to pick the children up at 6pm, do it. Don't change plans at the last moment. When you've made an arrangement, the other person has handed you control, and if you abuse it the next negotiation will be tougher.

And there will be a next one, and a next one, and hundreds more after that. For while you may have just divorced, you have also started a relationship that will probably last longer than most marriages. "Getting divorced with kids is worse than having your mate die," says one divorcee. "At least when they are dead they don't turn up every Saturday."

But without being Panglossian about it, the challenge of building a stepfamily that works also brings a host of opportunities. Caroline had an epiphany after her children went off with her ex on Christmas Day, leaving her alone amid the debris of lunch and wrapping paper. Instead of collapsing, she began to think about how to do things differently. "I had to face the fact that it was time to stop trying to re-create memories. We've since developed new traditions: we go to see the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square; we go ice-skating the day before Christmas; we make Christmas breakfast a big deal, since the children now have dinner with their father."

If this sounds as if you have acquired a whole new set of logistical problems, comfort yourself with the thought that things could be worse. Writing in last month's American Cosmopolitan, Caroline Cheevers describes how, after 30 years, her extended family consists of three ex-husbands who initially brought with them a total of five stepchildren and four ex-wives.

But even a simple stepfamily can easily involve five major roles. Here are some suggestions for how to play them - not just at Christmas, but in the longer term.

The angry wife at home with the kids

Does this sound familiar? Four years after the break-up, the new wife comes on the phone and you say: "Give me my husband, you bitch." If you've been left, the hardest thing is to let go, but if you are still plotting revenge even a year later you are not helping anyone, least of all yourself or your children.

Generally, the more the children see of their father, even if that does mean hearing glowing reports of the new wife's cooking, the happier they will be. Use time on your own, even on Christmas Day, to luxuriate in a rare moment of solitude and to plan rebuilding your own life.

The ex-husband with a new girlfriend

Everyone thinks you've got it easy, but you haven't. You're riddled with guilt, missing your children and a lot poorer. You need to keep in touch with your ex, be flexible over arrangements and stick to them (see above).

Most important, give your ex time - the quitter always wants to sort everything out quickly, but the abandoned one needs time to grieve. But you also needs to nourish your new relationship (see below), which has a 70 per cent chance of failing within 10 years. Make time for just the two of you, keep checking how she's feeling and that arrangements are OK with her too. With both ex and current partner, present a united front to the children.

The new wife/girlfriend

Can be the hardest role of all. You will have to put up with indifference at best, and probably hostility, from the children, especially older female ones. If you do things worse than mummy you will be told, if you do things better you will be resented for causing a conflict of loyalties. If the kids stay with you all the time you will be seen as an interloper, and if it's only weekends there's not enough time to make a relationship. Don't try to discipline the children, but encourage your partner to have a good relationship with them, however jealous you may feel at times. Never slag off the ex-wife, however tempting it may be. Your main strategy has to be long-term - it takes between three and seven years for any stepfamily to bond fully. You may eventually win the kids round if you are fun to be with and can share an interest. Further down the line you may want to try a "parenting coalition", the latest idea from the States: you join in discussions about the children with Mum and Dad and all make joint decisions. In some families, all three of you also go on holiday together. Meanwhile, keep your own interests and friends.

Children

They don't have to do anything. They still wish none of this had happened.

Keep changes to a minimum. Keep them in the same house and school, if possible. Explain clearly what is happening, and let them know that it's OK to be sad or angry. Involve them in decisions as much as you can. Put yourself in their shoes. This can help you to understand most of the inevitable "bad" behaviour.

Sort out a common line on topics such as discipline, why you broke up, pocket money, etc, and then stick to it.

Grandparents and close relatives

They can play a vital role in supporting the husband and the wife in the early days, and they can provide valuable continuity for the kids and give the wife time to reassess and the ex-husband time to nurture his new relationship.

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