The Natural Order of Things: Stepfamilies add a layer of complexity to life’s transitions.

27 10 2008

When John and Emily Visher, the founders of the Stepfamily Association of America, now the National Stepfamily Resource Center, discovered in their research that successful stepfamilies are flexible, creative problem-solvers, they weren’t kidding. Problem solving is a survival skill we all need. Just because you’ve passed through the first years of chaos and into a family that feels more stable doesn’t mean you’re done working consciously to create a happy stepfamily.

With every natural life change, stepfamily dynamics are split wide open again as people decide how they will relate in this new phase – for instance, when a stepchild goes to college or gets married or has a child of his or her own. Of course, this happens in first families as well, but in stepfamilies transitions call into question the very nature and definition of the family, since some of the members are not related by blood.

We recently experienced a transition that revealed the fault lines in our family. I discovered I’m pregnant. When we told the kids, they reacted about as I expected they would. Two were happy, and one had a frown while we explained that their dad would always be their dad and love them. We talked about how this event could bring up all sorts of different emotions for them – excitement, worry, jealousy. We assured them that the baby would just bring more love into our family and wouldn’t take away love from anyone. They all started coming up with names for the baby and a list of must-have toys. We told the ex, and she congratulated us. Everything seemed picture-perfect.

Until I saw a picture of the baby in my belly and it became real to me.

Then the cracks in our family began to show. Most surprising of all? They came from me. I found myself less and less tolerant of my stepchildren. When they followed me around the house because they like being with me, I felt stalked and claustrophobic. I wanted them to leave me alone as I contemplated having my own flesh-and-blood child.

My first pregnancy meltdown was brutal on my poor husband. The words “No mother wants her innocent child born into a stepfamily” actually came out of my mouth. And I meant them, too. The grief that erupted after I said that was so deep it seemed to come from a molecular level. All I could think was that my child will have to cope with the dynamics of living in a stepfamily.

The lines suddenly cracked wide open in my heart. I could clearly see Us (my baby and me) and Them (my husband and his kids). Every time my husband was asked to spend more money, more time with his first children (and they suddenly became HIS children, not OUR family), I became more and more resentful as I imagined all of the resources my own child would not have because of the choices my husband made when he was young.

These feelings were all things I knew intellectually I might feel. I had heard other stepmoms talk about what it was like. I thought I was prepared to deal with the transition from stepmom to mom and stepmom. And yet…the power of my emotional response floored me.

If you’ve read A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom, you know that I am an action-oriented, let’s-DO-something-about-this kind of gal, but this time I don’t think there’s anything I can do but ride it out. The baby will come. Our family will react and settle into a new way of living together. The only thing to do is to be as open-hearted as possible. To allow the feelings to come. To acknowledge them and talk about them and let them be. Sometimes a good cry has amazing healing power.

And so do words. When I blurted that hurtful sentence to my husband, his response made everything suddenly seem bearable. “I’m so sorry that as a first-time mother you have to think about all these things.” I knew then we would be just fine.




One response

29 10 2009

Thank you for this. I am pregnant and had my first ultrasound 2 weeks ago. I have been blaming my moodiness and irritability on the hormones. But i had the exact same feeling about us (me and baby) and them (husband and SS). Its nice to know you’ve been there.
I’m new to the site, and its great. Keep up the great work!

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