Two weeks into my new Stepfamily, my second Stepfamily to be exact. I planned to get up this morning, turn on my computer and, with a cup of coffee, have a luxurious morning to collect my thoughts before my workday begins. But, at 8 a.m., my pretty new stepdaughter flies into the house and announces, “My school day doesn’t start until 9:30 today!” and proceeds to set up her homework on the dining room table. I got into the shower and thought about how I got here, at this time in my life.
For the past five years, I have lived alone, learning about myself, my rituals, my routines. I had the luxury of having my own space, with no kids around, and I fit into it nicely. I enjoy my time with no interruptions, when I can “screen” calls and determine when and how I want to be interrupted.
I had spent 25 years with another Stepfamily; a family I put my whole heart and soul into. When I married Doug, I was 25. He was older then I, the father of two children and, like a lot of women, I loved the paternal part of him that was committed to raising his children. Shortly after we got together, he decided to go for custody of his children as their mother would often neglect them.
So, in essence, along with the daughter we had together, I raised them all. We made lots of mistakes developing a Stepfamily, Doug and I. He “assumed” I would fill the role of the mother, loving all the children equally. He “assumed” I would be happy with that role. I, of course, being like many women, a caretaker, took it on. So there I was, now 27 years old with a new baby, an 8-year-old, and a 10-year-old.
What did I know about kids? Nothing at all. With my new baby, I would learn to grow with her, nurture and care for her, and tune into her growing needs. With my Stepchildren, I was playing catch up with an assumption I had as well — that I should just “know.”
My Stepdaughter had a lot of anger about the whole situation and was good at temper tantrums, jealousy toward the baby, and frustration at me for not being her mother, while at the same time, resenting me for being there. I tried to talk about this with Doug, but he wouldn’t hear of it, instead telling me that he felt “caught in the middle.” If he was caught in the middle, where, I wondered, was I?
I sought help. Several therapists treated the issue between my Stepdaughter and myself as a mother/daughter problem. Of course, nothing got any better because that was the problem — we weren’t mother and daughter! We just tried to cope. I tried not to resent the responsibility of her. I tried to explain the problem to Doug, who couldn’t hear any of it. We went on this way for years, my trying to make it up to my Stepdaughter that I wasn’t her Mom, trying to be her Mom. It was all very confusing. Yet I thought we had made it through.
Years later, after I met a therapist who helped me understand more of the dynamics of the Stepfamily and, later, when I became a therapist myself, I began to learn about Stepfamily living. Our norms are not the norms of the nuclear family. As I realized all of our mistakes, I attempted some repair, but the marriage had far too much damage. Although the “kids” were in their late 20s at the time of the divorce, I was estranged from them by their anger at my leaving, and the years of my Stepdaughter’s unresolved anger became fully directed at me.
You can imagine that the thought of ever becoming part of a Stepfamily again was absolutely, I repeat, absolutely, not going to happen. Not ever!
But along comes Mr. Absolutely Right. He’s in his late 50s; what’s he doing with two teens? This won’t work. This just won’t work. Maybe I won’t like his kids. Maybe they’ll just annoy me. Nope, they’re great kids. We all have fun together. He and I talk about my sadness over the years spent with my prior family and my hurt at being ostracized. He understands and we both allow the relationship to progress, with no expectations.
The times spent with him and with his kids are easy though. My own daughter, now all grown up and terrific, who watched the pain of her half-siblings turn away from me, was glad to see me develop a new family, and we have talked through how she felt about my developing relationships with these kids. Her maturity amazes me; she felt it was “right” for me to have this family.
With her blessing and the blessing of his children, we have decided that living apart was not enough, so we both let go of our ability to control our alone time and now I am here, part of a family again. My Stepson, almost 14, is a delight. We are thrilled at the support of all of our children; even our animals are merging successfully!
But there are many changes I have made in this process; from what we did wrong in the first one, to reading and educating myself about Stepfamily life. So far, so good…and time will tell.
Here are some of the things I am doing differently this time:
- I don’t feel it is my job to take on the role of mother. This time the kids have an active mother. It was far more difficult last time when there was no active mother in their lives; yet, most of the parenting should have been left to their father. This time, I back off.
- I have a partner who is willing to learn about the Stepfamily and its development and who doesn’t take anything I say personally. He understands I care about his children and that I honor his relationship with his children. Our communication is excellent and something we nurture all of the time!
- Having raised three teenagers, their developmental stage is not new to me. I wish I had taken child development classes back then to learn about the developmental needs of my first Stepchildren so everything would not have been so foreign to me. So take classes, read books and learn; it will help you understand them more.
- I do not discipline his kids. I support my guy in raising his kids, offering some suggestions, my own experiences of what worked and what didn’t and commiserate with his frustrations, but he does it all. I also respect his decisions.
- I do not take sides. If the kids (my Stepson is great with this, the schemer) want to triangle me (“Dad is making me do this and I don’t think it’s fair”), I empathize with my Stepson’s frustrations and tell him that he should discuss it with his father. Or I simply say, “Honey, I’m not getting in the middle of this. This is between you and your Dad.”
- I never say anything negative to them about their mother, even if they complain about her. I allow them to talk about their time with her and I don’t act like she doesn’t exist. Photos are even OK.
- I expressed my expectations of the role I wanted my daughter to have with my guy and vice versa. With my daughter, “I don’t expect anything from you with regard to this relationship. You certainly don’t have to have any feelings for him. All I ask is that you respect how I feel about him and try to do with me what I do with you when you are interested in someone — understand what I might see in him and why I think he’s good with me and respect my choice and him.” With my guy it was, “Lily has a father and she isn’t looking for another parent. Just respect that I feel about her the way you feel about your kids. I love her and will do anything for her. Just honor that, that is all I ask.” It appears over the past several months that their relationship is developing nicely! She is welcome here anytime.
- I talked with him about realistic expectations with regard to his children. When he said once, “The kids love you,” I replied, “No, honey, they like me and I genuinely like them. In fact, I’m growing to care about them. But they do not need to love me and I don’t need to love them, just as I don’t expect you to love Lily. We can have a wonderful relationship without that expectation in the middle of it!” And these relationships are developing wonderfully as I truly want to be an adult in their life who cares about them. They feel it and I can feel their genuine warmth toward me and toward Lily.
This time, being a Stepmom will be a different role for me. I can be their friend, another grown-up who is there for them. We can be playful, serious and just talk or watch a movie. We spend dinners together when they stay with us and make our time with them important; and even more important, we honor our time alone when he and I can retain our coupleness, because that’s what brought us together and will keep us strong! We protect our “date night” just like we did when we were dating and I am feeling very excited about this life for us!!