Changing traditions

December 17, 1998

Brenda Johnson & sonBy KATE COLEMAN / Staff Writer

Financial strains make it hard for Brenda Johnson to focus on Christmas the way she believes it should be.

"I've been real tense about it," the Frederick, Md., resident says. She is a single parent to 11-year-old Jake Johnson and his 21-year-old sister, Lisa Lahm. Jake will wake up Christmas morning at his mom's house and then spend part of the day with his father.

He understands that his mother can't afford to buy a huge pile of presents for under the tree.

[cont. from lifestyle]

"That's not what Christmas is all about," he told her.

The greeting-card image of the American family holiday - children, parents and grandparents gathered together around a golden, roasted turkey - doesn't describe every American family.

Sixty percent of first marriages end in divorce, about 75 percent of divorced persons eventually remarry and one out of three Americans is a member of a step family, according to information on the Web site of the Stepfamily Association of America.


Each family has its own holiday traditions. Those traditions change when the family changes. How do changed families cope?

Former couples have to put aside animosity and focus on what's best for the kids, says Kathryn Marks, a pastoral counselor in Hagerstown.

"It's the responsibility of the initial couple to try to swallow really hard and set boundaries for the extended families," Marks says.

There's often the temptation to overload children with gifts or to tell them not to cry. Especially when the divorce is recent, they need to cry, Marks says.

She advises parents to watch for changes in the kids' behavior and to try to get them to talk about their feelings. Get the help of someone the child trusts or a professional counselor.

Shari & Kyle MorganShari Morgan and her son Kyle, now 13, moved to Hagerstown from Iowa when her marriage ended. This year, Kyle was with his father in Iowa for Thanksgiving; he'll be in Hagerstown with his mother and grandmother, Betty Hessong, for Christmas.

Most of the Hagerstown family's holiday traditions focus on decorating, Morgan says. When Kyle is here, the family tries to go "all out."

Next year, Kyle will spend Christmas with his father. Morgan and her mother have resolved themselves to the arrangement. They try to keep busy, but Christmas Day is always tough, Morgan says. They are involved in their church and do volunteer work, including wrapping presents at the mall.

Compromise is important so children are not pulled in different directions, says Patricia Robinson, associate chaplain at Brook Lane Health Services.

When children are younger, parents have to work out the arrangements, says Robinson, a pastoral counselor and certified professional counselor. "Older children have a right to have some input," she adds.

Cindy Ruark and sonHagerstown resident Cindy Ruark works a couple of part-time jobs to accommodate her 11-year-old-son Ben's school schedule. She copes with tight finances by accepting help - a holiday turkey, extra toys.

"We always do the Christmas tree thing," Ruark says. She and Ben try to make Christmas cookies together.

"I'm a Christian, and you have to keep your spirits up," Ruark says. She believes it's important for her and Ben to be in church on Sunday.

Involvement in her church also is important to Johnson. She believes it has helped her family's situation more than anything.


top left: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

mid right: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

bottom left: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer

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