My stepmother (who has no children of her own) outrageously favors my brother at holiday time. Last year, he got an expensive set of skis while I received a set of discounted pyjamas worth $20 (I know this because the tag was left on). Saying "thank you" for such a gift is very painful for me (of course I still do it). I should add that there is no history between us that would justify this type of favouritism. Worst, my dad seems utterly oblivious to what's going on, and if I raise it with him I'm sure he'll brush it off, as he does with any other of our concerns relating to her. I'm dreading going to see them over the holidays this year, and going through this annual humiliating present ritual. How do I handle this?
Being myself the eldest girl of a stepfamily, I found myself somewhere between the Brady Bunch and Cinderella. I fantasized about the blended harmony of the Bradys and at times felt like I was the only one doing chores while my siblings and stepsiblings got to play. With six kids and two dogs, our blended family was a novelty in 1976. Today, there are more than half a million stepfamilies in Canada and there are probably more than a few readers that are, just like you, dreading the imbalance of gifts this holiday season.
It is already challenging enough accepting our natural family's habits and biases, add a newcomer to the mix, one that you did not choose and who did not receive your family's policies and procedures manual, and you've got Sticky Situations all around.
As an Etiquette Expert, I commend you for your grace under pressure. You are already handling this well. All gifts should be acknowledged with gratitude, no matter what the value is. A gift should not be compared with that of others but at times, we may be hurt by their inequality.
Not being completely in the loop about your family's dynamics an outsider may suspect that your stepmother may have her own justifiable reasons for offering more to your brother. He could be younger, still living dependently at home and therefore more in need, according to her. This may not stop your feelings of unfairness but may seem justifiable. The value of gifts to siblings should not be dependent on age or needs, but sometimes it is. The fact that your stepmother is not buying you a big gift could also mean that she is acknowledging your success as an independent woman. Really...that could be it.
On the surface, one would think that your situation is one of sibling favouritism. The fact that your dad seems utterly oblivious to what's going on suggests that there may also be a lack of communication.
Start by speaking with your father. Let him in on your feelings. Talk from your heart using 'I' sentences and stay clear of accusations with the word 'She.' If needed use specific examples. Your father may not have realised how hurt you felt. If that's the case and he recognizes your feelings, he most probably will share them with your stepmother and next year you should receive a gift of equal value as that of your brother's.
After your talk, if your father still seems disconnected and does not recognize the need to speak to his wife about the situation, you could decide to simply move on and continue to be annually gracious, especially if your relationship is otherwise fine when you visit and, as you stated, there is no history.
As a grown up, I have to admit that the feelings of the little girl in me occasionally still get hurt at gift exchanging times. When they do, I remind myself of all the good times that I have with the giver. In the end, the holidays are not about what you get, they are about acknowledging relationships and building memories with the ones we love. Build memories and enjoy the lack of history with your stepmom. That is a great gift in itself, in all families, let alone in a stepfamily!
Ask Julie your business etiquette or international protocol questions on www.etiquettejulie.com, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter (@etiquettejulie).