These days, more and more families are blended – many people I know are becoming or have become stepparents. While I don’t know what it’s like to be a stepparent, I do know it’s incredibly tough. Because I was the kid who made it that way.
I want to say upfront that I love my family. I wouldn’t change what we have for the world. We like to say that we put the “fun” in “dysfunction.” Being part of a stepfamily has given me some wonderful relationships and a support system that I couldn’t live without.
But getting there was hard and at times, incredibly painful.
I can remember my dad telling me that he would no longer be living with us. I was close to six years old, and it was the first time I can remember seeing him cry. I didn’t fully understand what was happening or why, but I knew that the happy go-lucky life I was living would never be the same.
After that, my parents did the best they could to keep my sister and I in a routine, but instability became our norm. For the next 12 years, we moved probably seven times. Each week we would packed our bags to shuffle back and forth between houses, basically living out of our suitcases. Mondays and Wednesdays with our mom. Tuesdays and Thursdays with our dad alternating between parents on Fridays, weekends and holidays.
A few years after the divorce, both of my parents remarried people with kids. In what seemed like overnight, my sister and I had two, brand new families. Two families with two different dynamics and sets of rules – what would be ok in one house wasn’t always ok in another house. We were in a state of conflicting expectations with our parents’ attention divided among all the kids now in our family.
To be honest, I often felt like an outsider, never quite feeling like I fully belonged in either family, even though my parents did their best. I tried to find ways to feel like I had control over my life – from doing little things like dying my blonde hair black to other more destructive, self-harm behavior.
But mostly, I retreated, buried my feelings and refused to let people in. I was angry, rude and unforgiving, especially to my stepparents.
This wasn’t a conscious choice. It was my defense mechanism for the life I didn’t ask for or want, at first. I wasn’t in a place to see it the situation from my parents’ or stepparents’ perspectives. I was a kid who’s world was turned upside down, and I had to protect myself from more hurt.
Suggestions, not advice
I’m not an expert, and everyone’s situation is unique so I hesitate to offer any how-to advice.
But what I would suggest to those who are stepparents is to not take things personally, as hard as that can be. Our behavior is not about you, even when it’s directed at you.
Try not to forget that our lives have been changed in a way that we don’t understand or know how to deal with.
In our eyes, you represent that change. You are competition for our parent’s attention. And no matter how you feel, it can be hard for us to believe that you love us unconditionally and accept us for who we are. So you will have to prove yourself to us – prove that you love us no matter what we do or say — and trust me, we will test you.
I’d also suggest letting go of what you think the relationship should be, what you want it to be, and let it turn into what it’s meant to be.
The best thing my stepdad ever said to me was, “I don’t know how this relationship is supposed to work, but I’m willing to figure it out with you. Let’s just start by being respectful of each other.” It took time – years actually – but eventually, we respected, trusted and loved each other.
Being part of a blended family takes time, work and patience, but I can promise that it’s worth it.