This is a holiday tale about every other holiday. Stepparents have to think in terms of “every other”: if your children have ten more years under your roof that means only five more Thanksgivings, which elevates a seven-year-old to the ranks of “have you started to consider your options for college yet?” and points out with harsh lighting and no makeup how quickly all of life passes by.
Except for the Thanksgiving when your children are with their other parents. That day, that four-day weekend drags endlessly, each hour bloated and exhausting. This surprised me. I had anticipated that a respite every other year from family, travel, too much food ill-prepared, would be a guilty pleasure. The first year my husband and I were together, before we married, our children were each with our exes for Thanksgiving and he and I, in the excited flush of a new relationship, booked tickets to New Orleans, ate burgers for Thanksgiving dinner, wandered the city, listened to music, stayed out dancing till 4:00 a.m. and slept till noon. It was spectacular.
Our New Orleans adventure was pre-Hurricane Katrina, making the trip even more marvelous in retrospect, and turned it into a gem in our memories, this moment in time captured before forces of nature made it impossible to have such innocent fun in the city again. New Orleans has become the perfect metaphor for all the every other Thanksgivings that have followed.
I know holidays are very emotionally tricky for children of divorce. There is a lot of good advice from psychologists and social workers about techniques to help children cope with the sadness or anger or confusion they might feel, and I recommend following all of it. This, however, is not an advice column. Instead of advice, I’d like to extend an offer to every stepparent reading this piece. If you don’t have the children this Thanksgiving and find yourself once again disappointed because the anticipated sense of freedom and joy you expect doesn’t materialize on this day; when everyone else you know is tucked away in some cozy house with family, family you’d even crave fighting with because that would at least be human connection; when the phone doesn’t ring because nobody calls on a holiday and the stores are all closed and you haven’t cooked because there’s no point in cooking for nobody and your spouse is depressed because he misses his children and you are depressed because you miss yours and because your spouse is depressed—then join me in a selfish, self-pitying moment, let’s say at noon, when we all pick up something highly breakable and smash it against the wall because having a family of our own was supposed to mean we’d never feel this lonely again.
The sound of shattering glass will help. Plus then we can look on the bright side and realize that with no children in the house we don’t risk someone running in with bare feet and necessitating a holiday trip to the local emergency room for stitches.
Once we get out the broom and dustpan and sweep up the shards (after all, we’re still parents even when the kids are away), our self-pity will be done and we can clear-headedly reflect on the true nature of holiday depression—an experience so pervasive of course that entire entertainment genres are based around it. We know we are not alone when it comes to hating the holidays.
Tolstoy’s oft-quoted first line of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” allows me to pivot from talking about all of us and our trash cans full of broken glass (since collectively this smashing has made us a kind of virtual, if momentary, happy family) to my own private experience of this new and real sadness in my life.
Before my first marriage, I was the classic holiday denier: the self-styled outsider who pish-poshed holiday tradition as an empty, meaningless ritual designed to leave no room for truth or independence. I continued this stance more or less even as a young married woman with a small child, conceding though, that with a baby I could understand the pull to see family more regularly, and even begrudgingly let myself enjoy the fawning over my adorable infant and my new role as progenitor/adult/fully-vested member of this society of relatives. Not until my divorce and remarriage and the ever-more complicated entanglements that have ensued do I realize that acting like an outsider in my old life wasn’t actually sad. Only a real insider, someone who knows she is accepted unconditionally, can risk declaring her outsider status and still know that a slice of pumpkin pie waits for her on the dessert table. As a stepparent, I know what being an outsider truly means.
But New Orleans didn’t die after Katrina, and on a much smaller scale, I won’t die because some days make me sad. Maybe my husband and I can put some loud music on the stereo and dance around our kitchen until four in the morning. And every other year, after all, we have the children.
Read last month’s column: The Hydra on the Field
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