Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Stepfamilies Are Different

The other day whilst I was speaking to a new step-parent I realized, yet again, the trap false expectations represent in the lives of stepfamilies. Expecting your stepfamily to function like a nuclear one (as so many new step-parents do) is an expectation doomed to certain failure. The quicker you come to terms with the realization that your stepfamily cannot ever be like a nuclear one, the faster you’ll be able to get on with creating a new (and equally valid) family structure. So, why do we fall into this trap?

It could be that you’ve been subjected to statements like:

  • “Don’t worry about his/her kids, soon enough it’ll just feel like they are your own”,
  • “So what if he/she has kids, they’ll hardly be around, you’ll barely notice them.”
  • “As soon as you have your own baby, it’ll be like one big happy family and no-one will ever know the difference.”

Statements such as these are usually made by well-meaning relatives or friends. Whilst they may be designed to help you feel more comfortable about making a (difficult) decision, they are clearly uttered by someone who has no understanding of the reality of step-parenting. Unfortunately this type of statement also has the potential to fill you with some very unrealistic expectations.

So, why is it that a stepfamily cannot be like a nuclear one?

BECAUSE nuclear families start out with two individuals – a couple with hopes, dreams, expectations, ideas and visions for their future. The only person that has to be considered in this relationship is the partner. Stepfamilies, however, from the very start are made up of more than just the couple – there is always at least one child involved in the equation. Whether this child is a permanent member of your household or not, you cannot forge into the future unencumbered. Your decisions, dreams and plans have to incorporate one or a number of extra bodies. So, stepfamilies, unlike nuclear families have one thing in common – one or any number of stepchild/ren. This reality creates the following issues:

a. Your stepchild only has blood ties with your partner

b. Unless your stepchild’s biological parent is deceased or permanently absent, the parenting job has to be shared with your partner’s ex.

c. Stepfamilies come about as a consequence of loss.

d. You stepchild has a any number of relatives who are not related to you.

e. Your stepchild may have different values and beliefs.

f. If you decide to have a biological child with your partner, this child will never be your partner’s 1st child.

Let’s have a look at these (which are only a sprinkling of the whole ‘kit and caboodle’) in a little more detail.

a. Your stepchild only has blood-ties with your partner:

Whilst many stepparents grow to like, appreciate and even love their stepchildren over time, the feelings they have for their stepchild are quite different to those they have towards their biological child. Why is this so?

Pregnancy and birth are (usually) very strong bonding experiences that connect mother and child in a powerful way. Nurturing a tiny infant who is 100% dependent on you calls to life a protective instinct that you never knew you had. Sharing your baby’s first smile, first word, first steps all ensure that your connection with your child is deepened. Naturally these are not the experiences you have with your stepchild. Usually your stepchild comes to you at a much later stage, no longer helpless, cute, pliable…in fact more often than not they are confused, unsettled, miserable and unsure as to what to make of you – the step-parent. Although you may be totally committed to doing the best you can for your stepchild, if the child isn’t a willing recipient your good-will may receive quite a battering. Reality is that you do not have blood ties with this child whereas you partner does. Whilst connecting with your biological child is automatic, creating connection with your stepchild can be hard work.

b. The parenting job has to be shared with the ex-partner:

This can (and often does) bring its on set of problems. If you are not prepared for this reality, you will be in for a rude shock the first day your stepchild lands on your doorstep, sleep-over bag in hand.

In stepfamilies, stepchildren are part and parcel of the life on which you have embarked.

In the best of circumstances, where your partner and his/her ex are on reasonable terms and whose actions are motivated by their child’s well-being your chances of co-parenting, enjoying access visits, access holidays or any time you spend with your stepchild are greatly increased.

If the partner’s ex has not come to terms with the state of affairs, has any feelings of hostility, anger, jealousy etc, chances are that your stepchild will be caught in a double bind. Even if he or she may wish to connect with you and allows you into his/her life, they will be plagued by intolerable loyalty conflicts. “If I like my step mum, my real mum will never forgive me” or “if I connect with Bob (step dad), my real dad might think I don’t love him any more”. Under such circumstances sharing the parenting job, can be very difficult and trying in the extreme.

Please tune in next week for the rest of this article.


Alexandra said...

I have been a stepfamily for 6 months. Although we have managed the routine, the idea of recreating the nuclear family is what is most difficult for me. To me, it is like a grieving process and I find it very difficult to accept that me and my man will never share the bond of parenting the same way he does with his ex.

I'll keep on reading. Hopefully it gets better!

Sonja Ridden said...

Hi Alexandra,

Managing the routine is a great first step. The rest will come in time.

Trying to recreate a nuclear family when it's a stepfamily often is what gets people into trouble because it cannot be done. There simply are too many, and very significant, differences between one and the other - which you will discover as you keep on reading the next few installments. Grieving, for instance, is very much part and parcel of the stepfamily - in fact, for every member of a stepfamily - because this family form always involves loss. The details of this will also appear in one of the future blog entries, so I won't go into them now but you may rest assured that this is a very normal component of stepfamily life...and like all grief does get easier as time goes by - provided you understand what it's all about and work at it. Acceptance is the ultimate key to success and to future happiness. Acceptance, however, doesn't happen overnight either, it usually is a process that can rarely be rushed. So, just be patient with YOURSELF, YOUR PARTNER AND YOUR STEPFAMILY, keep on learning all about the dynamics of this type of family and keep on working at it....and, in time, things will get a lot easier and feel far more normal than they do right now.

Best of luck,

Anonymous said...

any woman rooted in true reality would never take on the role as a stepmother. Relationships themselves push your limits of compromise.... but throw another drummer into the picture and you can kiss your entire self-directed
life goodbye.... if you are still in the decision making process... DON'T DO IT! Anyways.... I wish that was the advice I had taken in before embarking on this path.

Anonymous said...

One thing I noticed about stepfamilies is that everyone is severely compromised..... nobody is actually getting what they want.... is there anyone out there who had actually made this work? Who feels their life is truly unfolding in it's predestined vital way? (who hasn't talked their partner into moving far away ;)). I have moments of blissful ignorance and them huge slaps in the face of reality... I planned a quiet night in with a movie for a saturday night and my partner invited his daughter over to watch the hockey game! Not only was I not notified of the invitation but I don't like hockey... so i was written out of the script.... That sums up being a stepmom.... going from lead lady to 'extra' on the set... often with no warning at all.
one more example.... we planned a trip out west with our son... and he invited his daughter WITHOUT asking me!!!! He claims it is a natural gear for him.... he will have to work on this (no doubt).... now I don't even want to go on the trip... why would I pay airfare for our son and I to go on a trip as an 'extra' when I agreed to the trip as a 'lead lady'. Anyways... thanks for listening.... I am trapped in this reality and find that visible suffering is the only way to let my partner know that his actions hurt me! He doesn't understand at all.... and perhaps I don't understand him? or his daughter? I am hurt... that's all I know

Anonymous said...

one more thing.... he thinks I am so angered by his actions because I don't have enough of my own life.... so a change in plans (where he invites his daughter over on our night together) should not affect me so much.... i should just be able to "roll with it"... little does he know that the reason i do not hop powerfully into my driver seat is because I have given way for his kids!!!! The last time we had this discussion I decided to run an experiment where I developed my life according to my drummer... and low and behold the prenatal class that i was most resonant with fell on a wed night (the same night his kids come over for dinner--- one of the 2 nights).... well the prenatal class is for couples of course.... he ended up coming to 2 of the classes but for the rest of the 6 weeks was on my own (watching the other couples massage and care for eachother as they prepare for birth)... he thought i chose wed night intentionally to be difficult.... but THAT prenatal class turned into my mothers group and my MAIN support group... so I don't believe this to be true. Anyways.... when labour started... my water broke right away and I was excited and sleeping was not an option! My partner (who this was baby number 4) said to get some sleep and rolled over.... he obviously did not share my level of excitement :( I labored well into the next day when he and his daughter had planned to play some street hockey---- it didn't occur to me that i had to specify where I wanted him to be while I was in labor!!!!!!! But sure enough he asked if it was ok if he went to go play hockey with his daughter since he thought it was going to be a while! I was mortified and didn't want my mother to know I had chosen such a person for a partner so I made it seem as though i was totally fine with that.... after all.... if he is even asking me--- it meant that being with me through the labour OF OUR SON was not the most important thing to him... because if it was he would have told this to his daughter and omitted even asking me!!!!! anyways... needless to say my labour stopped... no further dilation... the ground was no longer safe for me to deliver.... I was abandoned.... emergency c-section after 54 hours of labour..... and a failed home birth :( anyways..... now a second wave is coming where I feel like building my life without thinking about his 3 other kids (which would actually mean moving west... but I will limit my dreams to at least staying in the city where his kids live)....this was preceeded by a dream where my partner told his daughter she could drive the car and I was FURIOUS at him and stuck in the back seat..... I just want to go swimming and take violin lessons.... that's all.... I'll let you know how it goes....