More than a decade ago, when I was working as a family therapist, I hadn’t yet become part of a blended family. I looked into the faces of thirty stepparents gathered for my workshop on step-parenting, all of them leaning forward on folding chairs, eager for the new insights that I would surely offer to help them in their family relationships.
At the time, my book on parenting styles had recently been released. I was confident my information on setting appropriate expectations, improving communication skills, and utilizing effective problem-solving tools would help them. After all, I’d keynoted a regional early childhood conference a few weeks earlier, and I’d previously presented numerous workshops on parenting topics. True, this was the first workshop targeted to stepparents, but I wasn’t expecting it to be that different from the others.
I was so wrong.
As I taped large sheets of butcher paper to the walls, I asked the participants to call out the issues they most wanted to discuss. The words flew at me from every part of the room: loyalty, jealousy, displacement, grief, guilt. How to deal with biological parents, visitation schedules, multiple parents at holidays, different surnames? What to do about expectations from a spouse, the kids, society, and oneself? How to set boundaries with children one wants desperately to win over?
When I listened to the fears and heartache of these parents, I began to understand the unique difficulties they faced. Part of every stepfamily member’s memories and even his or her heart is often in another home. The words stepfather, stepmother, and stepchild exist in Old English forms related to the word Ã¡stieped, meaning “bereaved.” Visitation is not the same as having the mother or father a child bonded with in infancy living with him or her on a daily basis, tucking them in at night, and sharing a story or secret. When a parent passes away, all possibility of playing ball or making Christmas cookies together is gone. So despite a tremendous desire to please, a stepparent can come off as a poor second to a beloved birth parent.
A stepparent can also become the target of a stepchild’s displaced anger with a mother or father. Unfair? Of course. A difficulty that can be overcome? Sometimes, but not always. The stepparent has usually done nothing except stand in the line of fire.
And then there is the power of the mythology about evil stepmothers and wicked stepfathers that has existed since before the Brothers Grimm. Family problems feel clammy on stepparents’ skin and they aren’t sure what they’ve done wrong or how to proceed, but they must somehow prove themselves the good guy over and over.
Every step situation is different. The family may have a traditional or nontraditional configuration. A child’s age and experience with a biological parent will bring a unique perspective of the stepparent. Irrational as it seems, a child may choose to like or dislike a stepparent before ever meeting him or her.
Until I taught that workshop for stepparents, I envisioned stepfamilies as bigger and better. Complicated, sure, but worth it. I had wanted to be part of a large family since the spring break of fifth grade when I stayed on my cousins’ farm. I could still picture those mornings when I joined my ten cousins, ages three to twenty-two, forming a line down the hall outside the farmhouse’s single bathroom, toothbrushes in hand, everyone cracking jokes as we waited. My stomach had ached from laughing so much.
Years later, when I became a stepmom, I learned that more is not always merrier. A patchwork family needs extra effort and care, and even then there is no guarantee of happily ever after. Today I have more wisdom and less advice.
As a stepmother to six adult children, I care passionately about the challenges and successes of stepfamilies. More than half the families in America are living in step. Some work beautifully, but more than 60 percent are torn with conflict and will end in dissolution. Parents and children currently living in stepfamilies, or coming from them and making their way in their own families, have stories that will entertain, inform, perhaps trouble, but ultimately inspire us.
When I met and fell in love with my husband Ray, I asked the officiate for our wedding if I could plan a ceremony that united not only Ray and me, but also my three grown children and his six, three each from his two former marriages. I assumed that although we wouldn’t all live under the same roof, our new family would be a big, bustling, jovial brood like my cousins. I arranged for all our children to precede me down the aisle, except his oldest son who couldn’t be with us because of health issues. Each of my children was on the arm of one of Ray’s, with a daughter from his first family on the arm of the son from his second. Tears of happiness washed down my face at the celebration of our marriage and blending of our families. I hadn’t a clue what challenges we would face.
My first hint came when Ray and I bought a house together and showed his youngest daughter and my youngest son, home from college for the summer, the two bedrooms they could use. One bedroom had a double closet and both our kids wanted it.
“Let’s flip for it,” my son suggested, taking a quarter from his pocket.
“I’m sorry, but I want it.” My stepdaughter flashed a smile of self-reproach, but her tone of voice was firm.
“I’ll pay extra on the mortgage,” Ray offered.
My breath caught in my chest. Would this stepdaughter always insist on her way, and would her father always jump to her defense, ignoring what my children and I might want?
Ray’s oldest son Mark moved into the large bonus room in our daylight basement. Having used drugs from the age of twelve, he was now clean and waiting for a kidney transplant. I enjoyed his quick humor and his eagerness to help as we set up the house. He filled us all with his optimism, assuring us that he would enroll in college after his transplant and pursue a career. I was with him when he got the call that there was a kidney available, and I rushed him to the hospital.
I hadn’t counted on the power of addiction.
A few months after his successful transplant, Mark began using again. His personality changed dramatically. Grunts or hostile silence met my efforts to talk with him. Ray couldn’t express his anger toward his son, so he buffeted me with it. When the tension in the house grew unbearable, I saw that I had two choices: I could leave or I could ask Mark to leave. I was afraid if I asked Mark to leave, my stepfamily, reluctant to acknowledge his using again, would be furious with me. And indeed, when I did have him leave, some of them hardly spoke to me for months, even though Mark moved in with an uncle around the corner from us.
And then there were the step-grandchildren. I’d never been any kind of grandma, and the name hung on me like a garment that doesn’t quite fit. Did these five children, ages three to nine, want another grandmother? Did the young ones want to sit in my lap and read books, or whisper what happened during their day? Did the older ones’ parents push them to wrap their arms around my waist in quick hugs? How important was it to them that I attend their soccer and baseball games and their birthday parties? Could I sometimes go on a bike ride with friends or work on a writing project instead and still be loved?
I struggled to feel part of a large family with a common history, but more often felt excluded. I was the new kid on the team and the rest had been holding practice for decades. At every family gathering I smiled bravely through story after story from the life they shared before I arrived on the scene. Frequent talk of exes especially hurt. Sometimes I tried to join in the conversation. Other times I slipped out of the room, blinking back tears. No one seemed to notice.
Gradually I built a relationship with each member of our combined family. Ray’s four daughters consistently touched my heart with warm hugs, thank-you notes for family gatherings, and gifts on my birthday. One became a virtual daughter when she moved to another city and we kept in touch through a flurry of emails. The stepdaughter who had demanded the bedroom with double closets became a true daughter to me, sharing confidences and dreams. I spent her wedding day by her side, her own mother distracted with personal concerns, and smoothed her dark hair from her damp face when she was in labor with her son, and again with her daughter. Ray’s youngest son offered assistance with anything we needed, from planning family reunions to brokering the sale of our car. He was the first one we called when Mark’s kidney failure and heart problems threatened his life. He called Ray’s other children who immediately joined us to mourn Mark’s passing.
I am fortunate. Everyone in our family works hard to keep lines of communication open—even when feelings run high and hot—to make time for each other, to treat each other with respect, to grieve each other’s disappointments, and to celebrate each other’s successes.
Ray and I had imagined our children becoming best friends. That hasn’t happened. They simply don’t have much in common. But they like each other and some of them keep in touch on Facebook or through email. The stepdaughters in town attend my daughter-in-law’s fashion shows. Everyone makes a determined effort to attend family events.
We are one of thousands of stepfamilies facing enormous challenges. In the following pages, thirty stepparents and stepchildren, some prominent writers, some new, share their experiences.
Blended takes readers from the first blush of a new relationship, through the often intense experiences that buffet family members as they struggle to meet the challenges unique to stepfamilies, to a place where stepparents and stepchildren can look back and celebrate or grieve their stepfamily journeys.
When organizing these poignant stories, it became clear that there are natural progressions members of blended families go through. The stories seem to organize themselves around the part of the journey that the story’s writer is sharing.
In “Coming Together” the authors take us from first meetings through a stepfamily marriage and honeymoon. In “Self-Discovery” they share their honest insights as they relinquish myths of what families should be and embrace their new realities. In “Evolution” writers reveal the difficult process of building step-relationships. In “Acceptance” they rise above what could be crushing circumstances to find resolution. In “Reflections” they look back at their experiences and celebrate or mourn the influence of stepfamilies on their lives.
From these writers who have given us their deeply personal stories with honesty, candor, and even humor, we can gather insights and inspiration, and know we are not alone on our own stepfamily journeys.
Some stories in this book offer a model for creating order and peace out of a tangle of step-relationships, and others let us know it isn’t always possible. Some warm your heart and make you smile. Others spark tears of empathy. All of them will broaden your understanding of stepfamilies and offer guidance, compassion, and hope.