The high piles of autumn leaves and the nip in the morning air casually remind us that the holidays are sneaking in. For me, winter’s return usually feels a little sad because the warm weather has gone away. The leafless skeletal trees stand starkly against the fading winter sky. It’s a cold, sinking emotion that reminds me of the feeling you get when your wife’s little brother Kevin comes to visit and attaches himself to the couch; insisting he’ll only be there “a week or so”.
Winter is here, there’s no escaping the truth. You have to deal with the fact that it’s going to be here a while—and so is Kevin. Don’t worry, it’s not all bad. Winter also brings the holidays! Halloween ushers in the season, moments before the month expires. November brings extended family to your doorstep. Loud, outgoing and ready for dinner, but at least they push Kevin off the couch for a while. Before long the Holiday season will become a consuming focus, which will last for months. We will be beaten down by its demands and exhausted by the intensified pace of life, as we struggle to have a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukah… or “Joyous Holiday Season.” Yeah, the holidays can be overwhelming, but there’s a bright side to the chaos.
The holiday season can be exhausting and leave us broke. In exchange it gives us unexpected memories. The greatest recollections of our lives are created in this three-month stretch of moments. The smell of fresh mulled cider, the sounds of trick-or-treaters and the crackle of wood in the fire become high points as the night arrives earlier each day. When we were children the holidays held a special magic. As adults it’s easy to feel more like the holidays are laying in wait. Stress levels increase and financial obligations start to build, as we stretch our budgets and empty our wallets to cover the cost of gifts, holiday feasts and family trips. Kevin stops by and inhabits the couch. There’s a generally accepted truth that the suicide rate goes up when the snow comes down. But don’t let it get you down, dads. This is your holiday season too!
Stepdads have it hard this time of year. Our perception of the word ‘family’ and our own memories of great holiday moments can become emotional obstacles. It’s easy to wonder where we belong when surrounded by a group of people who are all connected by the memories they share. The holidays are about family-and family seems to be about DNA. New stepdads sometimes have it hardest. The struggle can seem larger when the biological dad is still in the picture. Some might question: ‘If he’s their dad, then what am I?’ Some guys feel uneasy, unsure how the family sees them. In reality, it’s not as complicated as we make it. There’s a simple answer—and I’m here to clear it all up. You’re family too! Consider for a moment the people you grew up with: The favorite uncle, the cousin and the neighbor who treated you like one of his own kids. They were there when you made your great memories. They were family too.
My favorite uncle bought me my first bike because my single mom couldn’t afford presents for all four of her boys that year-so he made it happen. He was married to my mom’s sister, so not really my “blood” relative—but he was my Uncle Don. The grandfather that I spent the most time with I called “Uncle Earl” and he was an amazing guy—but he wasn’t related to me either. He was my cousin’s grandpa. He taught me a lot about life—and taught me plenty of off-colored jokes. My cousin Charlie was a kind, generous, mountain of a man. Much older than me, but treated me like an equal and always listened to my silly kid stories. I’ve rarely met a happier man. His positive nature was infectious. Charlie was married to my cousin Linda. Some would say he wasn’t my cousin at all, but I cried like baby at his funeral. He was family.
Family isn’t about DNA. Family is about shared memories. For most people, if we reach into our memories we find great family moments that were shared with people who weren’t even related to us. For stepdads there’s no reason our kids should be any different. The studies prove that bonding is the key to strengthening a family unit. They also show the fastest way to bond is to make shared memories. Creating family traditions, the way we celebrate birthdays and the times we share as a group are all part of bonding. There’s no better time than the holidays to etch moments into the granite of our family’s collective memories.
Yeah, we’re guys. By nature we avoid sharing tender feelings. It’s reflexive. Stepdads are especially shy when it comes to emotion. The holidays give us all an excuse to let those feelings show. Go for it, dads! Tell the little girl in your life what a beautiful Halloween princess she makes. Ask your wife’s teen son to carve the turkey. Give your new daughter a locket that was your mother’s, because you know your mom would have loved that. Make some memories and tell them you’re glad they’re your family! The holidays are the perfect excuse to let your feelings show—so do it.
If you have a moment when that voice inside makes you question who you are in your family, or how your step kids see you—tell it to pipe down. That’s just doubt-and the holidays aren’t about doubt. The holidays are about family. Look for opportunities to make new memories as a family. Go apple picking in the cold. Cut down a tree. Carve a pumpkin and make a big mess. Even if the kids don’t seem to want any part of it… keep smiling and keep laughing. They’re storing this memory too. Pretty soon the holidays will be over and the kids will have less reason to be indoors, where it’s warm. Enjoy them while you’ve got them. Spring is just around the corner. The air will warm, the leaves will return—and with any luck, Kevin will have finally moved off the couch.