Celebrating Xmas With All the Exes
Remarriages Expand Guest Lists for Holiday Gatherings
By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 25, 2004; Page A01
This year, when Vienna novelist Diane Chamberlain circulated her family's
Secret Santa list, she added her boyfriend's name to the expanding roster of
relations at their Christmas gathering: her ex-husband and his wife, her
former mother-in-law, her three ex-stepdaughters and their partners, and a
brand-new ex-stepgrandson, 9-month-old Nolan.
For the past four years, Chamberlain's extended family has celebrated
Christmas with a turkey dinner at her home, where it has sometimes been harder
to keep track of which guests are vegetarian or lactose intolerant than of the
complicated relationships binding the brood.
David Heagy and ex-wife Diane Chamberlain get his grandson,
Nolan, ready to go out. At right is John Pagliuca, Chamberlain's boyfriend. (Katherine
Frey -- The Washington Post)
"Everybody is amazingly good," Chamberlain said. "I'm
Therapists and family experts say that as divorce and remarriage rates rise,
holiday gatherings such as Chamberlain's -- in which divorced spouses reunite
for the day to celebrate with new partners, children and stepchildren -- are
becoming more common.
But the phenomenon is still rare enough that no catchphrase has been coined for
it. A blended-family Christmas? Mingled Day? All-inclusive holiday?
"My partner calls it the 'Ex-Spouses-Only Party,' " joked Lisa Cohn,
co-author of "One Family, Two Family, New Family: Stories and Advice for
Margorie Engel, president of the Stepfamily Association of America, said more
divorced parents are choosing to reunite with their exes over the Thanksgiving
turkey or the yule log for the sake of their children. Having one event is a lot
easier on youngsters than requiring them to sit through a succession of
split-family celebrations. Engel attributes the trend to the increasing number
of states that require divorcing couples to take parenting classes and to the
"critical mass" of divorced and remarried families in the United
States. She estimates that 47 percent of all marriages today are remarriages and
that 65 percent of those create stepfamilies.
But such gatherings generally are successful only if the divorces are amicable,
"It takes a couple who have recognized their marriage was not going to work
but are still reasonable people and loving parents to the children," she
said. "When you've got people who are still throwing spitballs or using the
children to communicate . . . these aren't the couples who are going to do this
Planning -- including discussing the idea of a blended gathering with the
children and setting price limits for presents when the number of people
proliferates -- is key, Engel said. But awkward moments are virtually
California divorce mediator Jann Blackstone-Ford recently heard from one
stepmother who was embarrassed during a family celebration with her husband and
"He said, 'Honey, will you please pass the potatoes?' -- and two women
reached for the potatoes," recounted Blackstone-Ford, who recently co-wrote
a book -- with her husband's ex-wife -- about her extended family experiences,
"Ex-Etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After a Divorce or
Cohn said her first mingled Christmas -- with her current partner, his ex-wife,
Cohn's ex-husband and his new wife and four of their children -- was such a
success six years ago that the family has celebrated together ever since. But it
was not without its dicey moments early on, particularly after the ex-wife
walked in wearing a ballerina lapel pin that matched a set of earrings Cohn
owned. Both had been gifts, at one time or another, from Cohn's partner.
"I felt like I was sweating bullets, but after the initial moments of
discomfort, it was nice. At one point, everybody was singing Christmas songs and
loosened up. . . . I remember at that moment, they actually felt like family and
friends. It took an hour to get there," Cohn recalled.
Lawyer David Boies, of Microsoft antitrust and 2000 presidential election
recount fame, celebrates Christmas at his Westchester, N.Y., home with his wife,
His six children from three marriages, their spouses and the grandchildren and
at least one of his ex-wives are there, according to Mary Boies. This year, his
second wife, Judith, will join them for Christmas, and first wife Caryl will
join them on a beach vacation, Mary Boies said.
"When people first hear about it, they say, 'What, are you crazy?' "
Mary Boies said. "I say, 'No, I'm normal. Everybody else is crazy.' . . . A
father wants to be with his children on Christmas, and a mother wants to be with
her children on Christmas, and who am I as a stepmother to stop them? I think
this is normal. It's just the family getting together. It's just that
Chamberlain's blended family Christmas was born of necessity: She split amicably
from her second husband five years ago but wanted to remain close to his three
daughters from his previous marriage. This year, her ex, David Heagy, 58, a
satellite imagery engineer, is throwing the family Christmas party at his home
with his wife, Lily. The group will include Chamberlain and her boyfriend of 10
months, photographer John Pagliuca.
"This family is pretty unusual," she admitted. "But my ex-husband
was really good about doing what he could to make sure it was easy for me to
stay part of the family. The girls have been wonderful to me. It's worked out
really, really well."
Staff writer John Kelly contributed to this report.