As a divorce and coparenting author, I write often about our blended family is different from first families. I write about stepparent boundaries and loyalty binds and managing grief. I highlight all the ways our eight person tribe is different to begin a public conversation about blended families and parenting after divorce. Talking about our differences matters.
Up until now, I’ve left something out of my writing. The truth is, blended families, while different in may ways, often look and sound like traditional first families. And as cheesy as it sounds, in my heart our tribe is a family first, even if we aren’t a first family. We share noisy dinners and work on homework until much too close to bedtime, and search for misplaced shoes.
It was the search for a missing item, over and over, that prompted me to write this letter to my sweet stepdaughter Sara. She gave me her permission to share it, as a window into our relationship.
Please stop taking down the picture of you hanging on our refrigerator.
You and I have been locked in this game for several weeks now: I put the picture up, and you take it down. I find it, put it back up, and the next day it’s gone again. To your credit, you’ve gotten creative about hiding it. At first I found it under the papers littering the fridge, but lately it’s been traveling to other parts of the kitchen: buried in the junk mail or slipped between the pages of a magazine on the counter.
This needs to stop, Sweetheart.
I know you’re not a big fan of pictures. You study every photo taken of you, silently scowling. I watch you pose into your phone, capturing the moment, and then, almost instantly deleting, retaking, filtering the face you see staring back at you. I can only imagine what you’re saying to yourself about how you look.
You’re concerned about your new metal-mouthed smile. Your long hair curls rebelliously when it’s damp out, and you wish you weren’t so tall. Pictures capture all those terrible flaws. I remember; I used to worry my bangs weren’t big enough to hide the endless expanse of my shiny forehead and my straight hair hung limply no matter how hot the curling iron got. At fourteen, pictures were my enemy too.
You know better than to talk negatively about yourself aloud. The resulting lecture on that topic is long and boring, and none of it means anything anyway because I am supposed to love you and tell you you’re pretty. You tune me out quickly. I expect that’s why you haven’t simply asked me to take the picture down: you think you know what comes next.
I don’t keep putting the picture on the fridge because I want you to like how you look in it. That would be ideal, but you’re talking to the woman who had more than 25 proofs of her high school graduation portrait and rejected all of them. I know that expecting a teenage girl to like a photo of herself is a high bar.
I put the picture back because in it, you are sitting next to your older brother and laughing aloud. Neither of you noticed when I took it, and you are wholly yourselves. You’re playing with a light-up ball, of all things, picked up as you watched television together. The snapshot reminds me of the little girl you were not long ago, happy and playful, unconcerned by what others thought of her.
I chose that picture for the fridge because it captures who you’re becoming. You’re comfortably sitting tall on the couch, no hunch to your shoulders. You’re calm and confident, independent of the swirl of the rest of our large family. I see the girl who offers to help clean up the kitchen, and remembers to say thank you without prompting and learns voraciously. I see the girl who now lingers at Sunday family dinners with the adults long after the other children have gone off to play.
That picture speaks to who you are today, somewhere in the middle of girl and woman. The days are passing quickly, and my view of you is often clouded by where we’re scheduled to be when and what’s for dinner. Your brothers and your sisters compete for my attention, and when I look back at you and see you, really see you, it sometimes feels like months have passed. I can see you clearly in that photo.
I put the picture back because without you, the fridge feels off. I notice you’re missing every time I grab the milk. It distracts me and I set about finding my baby, like that mother bunny in the tattered picture book upstairs. More than once, I’ve had to quiet the anxious, grasping thought that one day soon you won’t be stomping through the halls in your soccer cleats and stealing my hair ties.
That picture helps me hold you here.
Here, stuck between your brothers and your sisters and your dad and me and all the places we’ve been and years we’ve seen. Our story isn’t the same without you.
So, knock it off. Leave the pictures alone.
PS: And you’re beautiful. And smart and funny and strong and so wildly important to me I can’t catch my breath. But I’ll stop now, because I am embarrassing you and you’ve already tuned me out.
My role as a stepmother is important to me. The prefix is important, and I honor the unique composition of our tribe, including our children’s other parents. I understand that how we came together requires care and feeding that is different from a first family.
It’s just that sometimes my heart sometimes forgets to add the step.
Part of this post was originally published on Scary Mommy as “A Letter to My Teenage Daughter.”
Kate Chapman is a mom and stepmom to six children, ages 8-15. She writes about her modern-day Brady Bunch adventures at This Life in Progress. Drawing on her extensive experience as a coach and a background in psychology and sociology, Kate addresses the tricky topics of divorce, coparenting and blended families. Follow Kate on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for the latest on her blended stepfamily adventures.