Tag Archives: stepfamily

The messy blending of a family

(This story will publish in the Press Democrat on June 1, 2012)

A friend and I were recently in a classroom at the Santa Rosa Junior College, sharing stories of our separate blended families with Sociology students as they studied remarriage and stepfamilies. We came there with a stepmother’s point of view, and told these stories as openly and honestly as we could. However, we never knew just how raw such a conversation could be, especially when it was part of an open dialogue with students who had extremely great questions for us.

“Are you ever affectionate with your stepson?” one student asked in the back of the room.

I had to pause for a second before I answered, even asking him to repeat himself just to stall for time. How do I answer this question? I thought about my fiancé’s 16-year old son, how untouchable the kid had seemed over the years. Just a few months ago we weren’t even speaking to each other, unsure how to even communicate anything with the other person. But recently a positive shift started to take place. We developed a mutual interest for running, and that served as the catalyst for a better relationship between the two of us. Now he’s using my name, striking up conversations with me, and the communication between us is easy and effortless.

But affection?

“In the almost 4 years I have known my stepson, I have hugged him only once,” I admitted to the boy. “That was two Christmases ago, and I can still remember how it felt because he’s actually a really great hugger.” They all laughed.

Probably the most poignant moment of the discussion, however, was when one girl in the classroom shared what it felt like to be a stepchild caught up between homes. Her father had remarried a woman who started out trying to get close to this girl. But this stepmom’s mistake was never getting to know her stepdaughter as an individual with separate tastes and interests than her own. She would buy her new clothes that she thought were nice, but weren’t really the girl’s style. She redecorated the girl’s room, but never conferred with her stepdaughter on how she would actually like it to be decorated. The stepmother insisted that none of the clothes or belongings from their house were allowed to go to the ex-wife’s house, despite the fact that this girl’s mother was barely scraping by and could afford very little for her children on her single income. This girl would miss out on family vacations when her dad, stepmom, and new brother would travel during her visits at her mom’s house. But the biggest message she received regarding her place in the family was seeing family pictures with her stepbrother all over the house, but none of her. Feeling pushed out of her father’s new family, this student eventually moved in with her mom full time.

“When we moved into our house, one of the first things I did was put a few pictures up on the mantel,” a reader named Christina recently wrote to me after reading about this student’s story at my blog, The Village, on SantaRosaMom.com. This mom put up the pictures she had in her possession: a few of her son Jake, and a few of the two of them together. That night, her stepson Sam took notice. “You only put pictures up of Jake and you,” he pointed out, clearly hurt. Christina immediately searched the house for photos, printing out and framing some new pictures from a recent vacation that included all of them as a family. “I’m so grateful Sam said something because when I put those pictures up, I wasn’t even thinking I was being inconsiderate.”

Christina also told about how painful blending her family had been in the early years, particularly between her son and stepson. One son divided his time between households while the other was able to stay fulltime in the house. The result was a constant competition between the two of them. However, what once seemed like a hopeless situation eventually evolved into a brotherly friendship between the two and a bond within their family of four.

“I think I would define our family as a strong, loving blended family at this point. I think we all like each other for the most part and we have fun when we’re together. The household runs pretty smoothly when everyone is home. The boys know that Neil and I are totally supportive of one another, and that we’re supportive of them. If you had told me when Neil and I first met that it would take four years for me to feel this way, I probably would have cried.”

Blended families consist of two differently raised units that fit, at times, messily together. It’s not always easy, and obviously there will be mistakes. But with time, patience, and dedication, comes strength in a family that fits together beautifully.

Tiny waterfalls

Vintage Wine Country Mom: DQ was only 9 in this picture at the waterfalls in Sugarloaf in 2008.

We were watching American Idol and Coldplay was on singing “Every teardrop is a waterfall”.  My 16-year old stepson, who is normally holed up in his room, has lately been making it a habit to hang out with us in the evening.  My 14-year old daughter was in the kitchen struggling with a science project for school where she had to create a rocket out of a soda bottle.

“Do you need any help?” my stepson asked her.

“No, I think I got it.  I’m just not sure what to do with the nose,” she said.  And as she explained what her idea was, he got up to help her anyways – this from two kids who could barely look at each other just a few months ago.

And as they worked together, a tiny, secret waterfall may have made a trickle in our living room.

The wicked stepmother, part 1

There was an elephant in the room, and ignoring it wasn't going to make it go away.

Frizz, my (future) stepson, milled around the kitchen putting his lunch together for the school day. We were both moving around each other, doing our best not to disturb the other in the dance we did every morning. He moved like I wasn’t even there. I just tried to stay out of his way. Neither one of us spoke more than an obligatory “good morning” greeting to each other. And even though I wished him a good day before he left, he said nothing back as he rushed out the door for school.

I wasn’t sure how to act around this teenage kid. First and foremost, I was sensitive to his place in the house. He had lived here all his life, most of it with his mom and dad together under the same roof. Me, I was the intruder, the one who took his mother’s place in the house – even when I made every effort not to take his mother’s role in his life. He already had a mom. And I was hoping to take on the part of “friend” rather than parent.

But I didn’t even know how to talk with him, and he felt more like a stranger than someone I had gotten to know over the past 3 years.

I genuinely liked the kid. He was smart and slow to anger. When my 10-year-old Taz was bouncing off the walls and both Mr. W and I were ready to throttle him, Frizz would just look at him and calmly say “Chill out, dude.” It was way more effective than anything I could ever say.

But there were things about this teenager that drove me nuts. He had no concept that after 11pm he should move around a bit more quietly. Flushing toilets seemed a foreign concept to him. His favorite music was a pounding beat with no melody whatsoever played at ear-splitting volumes and on a loop. Random moments of jumping jacks weren’t uncommon from his second story room. His videogaming slowed down the rest of our Internet usage. He claimed we were (and I quote) “robbing him of his childhood” by expecting him to do chores and help out around the house. He slept in on weekends till the afternoon after staying up till the early hours of the morning….

And then there was his habit of blatantly ignoring all of us.

“I just don’t feel like talking,” Frizz eventually explained to his dad when Mr. W tried to get a response out of him repeatedly, only to be met with silence. It was infuriating, his silent way of giving us the finger just because he knew it would piss us off. He didn’t talk back (unlike my 13-year-old daughter DQ was famous for) or say anything that could be held against him. He just didn’t speak when spoken to.

I was concerned over my growing feelings of resentment coming out of the lacking relationship Frizz and I shared. I took all his teenageness personally, as if it were a direct attack on me. And I worried that neither one of us would be able to move past this awkward phase we were stuck in. I longed to be able to joke around with him the way I could with my own kids. And I was jealous that I never got to see the funny, insightful, sarcastic kid that Mr. W kept bragging about in Frizz.

I had always hoped that I could be that cool stepmom, like the awesome non-judgy stepmom in the movie Juno, or something reminiscent of Kim Rosenthal-Doonesbury, that hip young thing Mike Doonesbury married in the infamous comic strip.

I wanted to be the one Frizz would go to for dating advice since no teen can actually talk to their parents about the opposite sex. I was hoping we could have regular hangout time when we could talk about how teenage years suck and share some of our favorite MP3s. Being more than a decade younger than Mr. W, I was hoping Frizz would find me a welcome addition to the household.

What the heck was I smoking?

To be fair, I had no idea what the kid thought of me. Most of my energy was spent trying to not piss him off or step on his toes, and the rest was spent resenting the fact that we weren’t bosom buddies and I couldn’t joke around with him the same way I could with my own kids. However, I didn’t know him. And he didn’t know me. Never once did he express dislike for me, but he also never expressed any kind of feeling about me whatsoever. Overwhelming every emotion I had involving this kid, the biggest was a hope that we could overcome this sense of distance.

Something needed to change.

To be continued…