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“Step-Gifting” – Are There Rules?

Are there rules about gifts for stepparents? Many of us are now “combined” families and are faced with this dilemma with our kids are in the middle. Our ex’s are still parts of our lives whether we like it or not. Then when we all add new spouses into the mix it gets even more complicated.

During my first marriage, I was the one that always made sure extended family had birthday cards, presents, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day ... etc. This habit continued even after the marriage ended, as our children were young and it had become I suppose routine. As the years passed it began to get to expensive and let’s face it—our lives move forward. Somehow sending some distant cousin a card that never sends one to you became a last priority and then ultimately the practice just stopped.

After remarrying, I reluctantly stepped into the “Step-Gifting” as I just found very little affirmation in buying a mother’s day card for a woman that only sees my kids only once a month. Sure, she is a great gal and I actually like her and appreciate her, but isn’t this a normal kind of weirdness? Why am I paying for this card or gift?  Gifts for step-kids—of course! They are family! So—is this really just about a mother’s day card? No. Of course it is more complicated.

My new husband was shocked to learn that I had continued buying Father’s Day and Mother’s Day cards for my ex’s parents for almost three years after we separated and then divorced. He had divorced when his son was tiny, so he never did this. My first reaction was perhaps it was a “guy” thing. Then I started asking around to discover that I was not the only one with this dilemma.

My husband left it up to the man that took his wife from him to buy her birthday presents, Mother’s Day cards and so forth. This worked until his son got old enough to want to buy his mom something special “just from him” and of course this meant that he’d be footing the bill. It is hard to look into those eyes and say “NO” because you realize that the kid really wants to do something nice for his mom and then you have to get over your anger and give in.

I suppose circumstances that cause a divorce can color the actual happenstance that evolves as a result. Me? I didn’t want to be the bad guy and I didn’t want my ex to look bad either. Our circumstances obviously were different. I wanted my kids to know their dad and form their own opinions of him, which they did over time. It was not long before they compared their lives to those of other children in divorce, realizing he was choosing to not be in their lives much. It was only a matter of time that I eventually tired of always financing the superficial love fest that occurred on father’s day or any other holiday.

My big Ah-Ha moment was when my oldest came in and demanded to know if Santa was real. I took a deep breath and asked her why she was asking. She said “Because every year I ask for what I want and instead of getting what I want I get lots of little things which are nice, but not that one special thing. I appreciate my presents but I just wonder about the fact that there can’t be a real Santa if he always gets it wrong.” Wow.

You are wondering how I handled it. I went with honesty. At that time I was a single, disabled mom with limited funds. Those limited funds had to cover presents from Santa, presents from me, presents “from” their dad, as well as the other way around to include presents to their dad and step mom. Spread so thin, this Santa couldn’t make that dream gift a reality.

She stood there with reality sinking in and then started crying because she was afraid that she had just offended THE gift-giver of all gifts. No—I was relieved. Now the secret was out of the bag. Now getting the one present she really wanted instead of little things other people “supposedly” gave her had new meaning. This was the year I finally told my ex that when it came to gifts- he was on his own. I had done it far longer than I should, and there are people that say I never should have done it at all.

Which brings me back to Mother’s Day and Father’s Day? My kids wanted to really show their appreciation for their new step-dad but were feeling a bit guilty about not feeling as enthusiastic about their own dad. I took them to buy Father’s Day cards for them both. My daughter stood there with an odd look on her face. Apparently her step-mom had expected a mother’s day card from them and didn’t get one (up to their dad now remember) and had said something to her.

I stood there and anger welled up—not because this woman wanted a card—but because she had hurt my kid by making her feel guilty about something out of her hands. My daughter appreciates this woman. I appreciate her too ... but she isn’t a mom. A mom does not parent only one weekend a month. But I guess this was really about the fact that her dad had made the choice to see them only one a month, which made it impossible to plan ahead. Okay I am making excuses for him—old habit—toss the responsibility of him buying an actual card in there somewhere ... okay, I am angry.

Calming myself and reassuring my daughter, I let her know that all people have expectations. She had expectations for her dad and he falls short. None of us are perfect. Her step-mom had expectations about a card, something her dad was responsible for, and find myself now wondering what harm it would be to buy the cards—an old habit revisiting itself—to “fix” it all again. My husband tells me to resist this urge or at least draw the line with a card but no gift.   

If a card will give my kids some peace and the feeling they aren’t hurting anyone somehow, then it looks like I will be buying cards again. But only cards. Gotta draw the line somewhere.

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