The days between October 31 and January 1 are my favorite days of the year. I stop short of naming holidays, because there is so much going on at this time that these days mesh into one great big season of smiles. This is the most exciting time of the year, and yet it can also be the most stressful. But cool heads can prevail, especially in our current society where blended families are more the norm.
I remember being a kid growing up in a big “blended” household with all the comings and goings of family and friends. Mom referred to our Brooklyn home as “Grand Central Station.” We lived in a three-story Queen Anne in Flatbush, NY with Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt Jo, Aunt Ellie, Uncle Charlie, siblings Kathy, Ken, (me), Mike and Jean, plus a boxer named Hansel. We were crowded in the beginning, but as time moved on and people moved out, we gained some elbow room.
During holiday dinner celebrations, we all squeezed in around the table—somehow. Yes, we had a kids’ table, which at times was in my grandmother’s bedroom. I say, “blended” because my older sister and brother are my half-siblings, but there is nothing half about them in our eyes. Because they are 10 and 12 years older, there was a big “idol” factor in our minds when it came to Kathy and Ken.
I remember being a snot-nosed 10-year-old, getting the crap beat out of me by “Lumpy” in the schoolyard. Then some kid said, “Hey, that’s Orbsie’s little brother!”Suddenly “Lumpy” picked me up by my collar and asked, “Are you his little brother? And if so, why yous got different last names?”
“’Cause his dad died, and my dad married his mom,” I blurted out, spitting the dust from my lips. He brushed me off and told me to tell my brother Ken, “This was a big mistake.” (Yes, Ken had a reputation in the schoolyard that saved my butt that day.)
I hate the term “step” brother, sister, son or daughter—mother and father for that matter, too. There is a connotation to that term “step” that makes me feel as if we are illegitimate. Fast forward 40 years, I have a “blended” family of my own, and I still struggle with the term. Our kids have used the term, “brother by another mother,” which about sums it up and puts a smile on our faces. I once had a “discussion” with the youngest, who reminded me, “you’re not my dad,” to which I agreed and reminded him he had a perfectly good dad, and would he like me to call him?
Raising a family is never easy. With the bumps in the road comes the joy of seeing everyone grow into his or her own.
Christmas in particular is my favorite holiday, and it’s because of the kid in me and the joy of having kids around me. After my first marriage ended and Evelyn and I married, it became clear early on that to keep the peace there would be compromises. The “every-other-holiday rule” eventually morphed into a realization that Christmas Day would be celebrated on the day the kids found their way back to our home. We supplement the holiday season now with traditions like “Cookie Pallooza,” a weekend of making cookies to share with friends and the other parent as well.
It is really important to validate the other parent. Once the “War of the Roses” is over, there needs to be peace in the home. Validating the other parent is key in my book; these gestures are the “ties that bind.” They reinforce to the kids that if parents can get along, they are still loved. Today’s kids know the reality of divorce more than we realize, and the more normal we adults can make it the better. Heck, there will be plenty of graduations, soccer games, plays, funerals, more graduations, throw in a wedding or two, and you get my point. From the kids’ perspective, they want Mom and Dad—period. They will tolerate the significant others as long as it’s Mom and Dad first, which is not all that bad if you think about it.
Sometimes it’s appropriate for the significant other to step back and let the “nuclear” family be, without fear or jealousy, remembering it’s about the kids. Don’t get me wrong, I am speaking from my experience here, and I am no expert by far, just another guy trying to figure this all out.
On a few occasions, Evelyn and I decided to reach out and invite everyone from each family to our celebrations. It seems the barbeques worked the best, when there was plenty of room to walk about. We also did have a “blended” Thanksgiving dinner one year, and I must say it went well. If the discussions revolve around the kids (or pets) it seems that things roll smoothly. This single event helped to smooth the feathers for future gatherings of the kids’ celebrations.
There are issues to be considered, and there are plenty of suggestions online for how to pull this off. Here are a few tips from me: Don’t take the bait when comments are made; don’t forget to breathe; and before you make a comment, look into the eyes of your child—they will be looking into yours.
I will leave you with a quote from Mrs. Doubtfire:
“Oh, my Dear. You know, some parents get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time, and they can become better people. Much better mommies and daddies for you. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don’t, Dear. And if they don’t... don’t blame yourself. Just because they don’t love each other doesn’t mean that they don’t love you.
“There are all sorts of different families. Some families have one mommy, some families have one daddy, or two families. Some children live with their uncle or aunt. Some live with their grandparents, and some children live with foster parents. Some live in separate homes and neighborhoods, in different areas of the country.
“They may not see each other for days, weeks, months or even years at a time. But if there’s love, Dear, those are the ties that bind. And you’ll have a family in your heart forever. All my love to you, Poppet. You’re going to be all right.