You know that I have been blessed to have been a part of a truly blended family for decades. Holidays, birthdays, vacations have been spent with ex-spouses and their spouses. The children of my step-children have been raised with all their Grandparents together. Weddings have been planned together and vacations have been taken as one family. It’s been work. My husband and his spouse, whom I affectionately refer to as my wife-in-law, had to rise above their personal issues to try to make whole out of what had been fractured. After decades of the best of situations and many interviews with other step-parents over the last year, here is what I have learned….. and for the stepparent it isn’t pretty.
1. You chose them, they did not choose you.
This is the truth that underscores all others.
2. You need to make a greater commitment to them than to your spouse.
I made a commitment to my spouse, loving him totally and he felt the same way – not so much for the step-children. Universally step-children have an internal wall built by an angry failed marriage and the abandonment by a parent (come on naysayers, one has to leave and to a child it feels like abandonment, no matter what). In order to earn their love and trust, you are going to have to break down those walls. Walls that don’t want to come down. You better be sure that you are going to be there NO MATTER WHAT. Your spouses love is given, but theirs is won. Don’t try to win it if you aren’t serious, the cost for them is too dear.
3. Making that commitment means your heart will stretch and grow beyond what you ever thought.
You become their parent, but they aren’t your children and accepting this means that you will know what selfless love is. There will be times of bliss but may more times of bruising, and it won’t matter to anyone but you. They don’t have to love or even like you, but you need to love them, and you can and will. I am devoted to my step-family despite the next truth.
4. You are disposable.
OUCH!!! NO, NO, NO, THAT CAN’T BE TRUE.
But it is. Your step children have other parents, their allegiances are naturally for them. This shows up more and more as the step children age, whether or not you’ve been around for a long, long time. It’s counter-intuitive but true.
In the beginning, when they are young, you kiss their boo-boos, hold them through nightmares, and cheer them on during soccer games. However, as adults, they have full lives: jobs, children, friends, and hobbies. There is not a lot of time left over. As adults, there is a natural inclination to heal wounds with the original parent. As time becomes precious there is a reptilian pull for the adult child to gravitate toward the biological parent for whatever time is left.
The step-parent, no matter how wonderful the relationship, becomes the third wheel. It just happens. No malice meant.
Also, because of the abandonment issues caused by the divorce, there has/will be a teen tiny part in the minds of the children that expects you to leave. There is also a part that feels treasonous. The love given to you by your step-children by nature is conditional.
5. Holidays can just suck for the step-parent, but they are worse for the step-child. Holidays, with the Normal Rockwell painting to fuel our expectations, can be just tough, tough, tough. For our step-children, their hearts hurt. Gone is the safety of Santa and a warm Mother/Father family. Which house? Which parent? Don’t make it worse for them with your failed dreams and holiday hopes. Remember numbers 1 and 2. This is life you chose, they didn’t.
As the step-parent of adult children, remember number 4, it really shows up here. At broader family parties, you’ll be referred to by in-laws as the other, the fake grand-parent, and lots of derogatory names, always whispered with in earshot. You may not be introduced as the step-parent, because your step-children no longer need or want an extra parent. They may be confused over what to call you. Suddenly, you might be dropped from family status during introductions to the spouse of the parent; this is “my mother’s husband” or “my father’s wife” and you have become by introduction, an outsider. Worse still can be the spouses of your adult step-children for whom the introduction, the step-mother of my wife’s father, seems too long or awkward. After almost thirty years, I suddenly began to be introduced as a close family friend.
Because of number 4, you might find yourself, alone with your spouse. The children are with the other parent, or have traditions of their own to build. Plan for that time.
6. Your best life is hurting someone else.
During those wonderful times, when your family is cooking with gas and love is in the air; your step-children, spouse, and yourself are in love and the house is happy, means that another parent is being left out. No matter what you’re spouse says, in most cases, the “ex” is not that bad. He/she is just a person trying to get by, like you. Don’t ignore that his/her pain of watching their children love someone else isn’t gigantic.
7. You need to be tough as nails to be a good step-parent.
The other six points might be making you wonder, if it’s so hard why do it? Knowing what I know now, after almost 30 years, would I do it again– I don’t know. I would always suggest that people stay away from step-parenting, even in the best of blendings there can be far more pain than not. Getting the best has been so much work and hurt and love and delight and sadness., that I occasionally wonder what my life would have been like. That’s not to say that I don’t have a happy life and a good marriage, I do. But being a step-parent has made me grow tougher on the outside and softer on the inside, more so than I ever wanted.
I can’t indulge in what ifs, because what is has to be good enough, and despite complications it is. The love and devotion I have for my step-family is a gift.
If you are a step-parent let me know where I’ve gotten it wrong.
Beth Wishes Always,
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