I sat drinking coffee with a small group of moms. We chatted about the various struggles each of us has with our children.
“Suzie has started telling fibs,” One mom confessed. “Oh, we’ve been there,” another empathized, “We had to really crack down hard. Be consistent; you’ll figure it out.”
“Johnnie just won’t potty train,” lamented a third mom. We all took a sip of coffee and agreed she should be patient; after all no one sends their kids to college in diapers.
Round and round the circle we went. Venting, laughing, telling stories, offering advice. When suddenly, a newer friend, bouncing a young baby on her lap, jumped in, “I really don’t like my step-son right now,” She confided. “He’s kind of a brat. He’s disrespectful, rude, he refuses to do his chores. He’s ten but he acts like he’s four. To be honest, I really dread when he comes over; he throws the whole family into chaos.”
The group went silent. Someone offered an uncomfortable, “I’m so sorry. I’ve heard blending families can be very difficult.” Everyone nodded.
My heart seized.
I have no idea what it is like to be a step-mom—to invite and accept another woman’s child into my home and heart. I don’t know what it is like to try to parent a child who already has two parents. I don’t know what is like to have all the responsibility of parenting without any of the authority. I imagine it is very difficult. I imagine it can be very painful.
While I don’t know what it is to be a step-parent, I do know what it is to be a step-child. I know what it is to lose a family and then try to piece together a new one with strangers. I know what it is to feel like a guest at home. I know what it is to have the sense that you are a disruption and interruption. I know what is to sometimes have your worst and most vulnerable moments on display in front of someone who is an outsider.
It is exhausting. It is excruciating. It is maddening. It is frightening. It is awkward.
As I listen to my friend vent, I empathize less with her and more with him. “Of course,” I want to scream, “he’s acting like a four-year old. Think how hard it is for you to figure out your place in this new family, and you’re an adult; can’t you imagine how difficult it is for him?” But I stay silent because I know she’s agonizing over this; I know learning to be step-parent has been difficult on her, and she deserves support too.
As I take the downward slide toward 40, I seem to know and meet more and more blended families. I hear the gripes and tales of weary step-mothers mixed with the gripes and tales of the mothers. Always, I think, their complaints and frustrations are valid; but, as I listen I can’t help wondering what they thought they were getting into, what they expected. I can’t help wondering what they did before the wedding to prepare for the blending.
Right now I have another friend who is engaged to man with a daughter. Not long ago, over plates of eggs, she asked for my advice. What, she wanted to know, should she do to make this little girl feel welcome.
We talked about the obvious: my friend and her fiancé need to have long detailed conversations about discipline, values, and responsibilities. The girl should have a room in their home, her space and belongings. My friend should work to become a trusted mentor. The girl should get alone time with her dad. They should establish family rituals, traditions and routines. But as we chatted another need bubbled to the surface in the form of a difficult memory.
It was Christmas and we were visiting my step-mother’s family a few towns over. It was obvious when they opened the door that they were not expecting my sister and me. The look on my step-aunts face was a mix of confusion and horror. The tree brimmed with gifts for my step-brother, the family’s biological grandson and nephew, but not one gift was there for us. Not even a small one meant to be sent on later.
I watched my step-mom and her sister disappear and return a few moments later with two small packages which they snuck under the tree. I was old enough, a young teenager, to understand when I opened the gift and found makeup and perfume samples—the kind you get for free at department store counters—that we had been forgotten. We were not expected at the party, so we did not exist to them.
Over the years there would be other unwelcoming moments, and each of these moments, these family omissions, led to feelings of isolation, bitterness and resentment, and not just for me. The lack of acceptance by my step-mom’s family also led to many disagreements and hard feelings between my father and his wife. Which I’m sure had no small impact on the ultimate failing of their marriage.
I looked across the breakfast table at my happily engaged friend and felt the need to add to my advice. Don’t, I implored her, get married unless YOUR family is willing to take on his daughter too. Blending a family is about more than a wedding and some kids. It’s about more than an agreement on how involved you can be in discipline or whether you’ll go to parent-teacher conferences. Children need a family. A whole family. They need to feel welcomed, safe, protected, enjoyed. And if you can’t offer them that; if your parents and siblings refuse to offer them that, you should really rethink getting married. Kids don’t deserve in-laws, especially the difficult kind– they deserve family. And if you’re going to marry into kids, you have to be willing and able to give them that.
Just my two cents.