Stepfamilies: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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When I got married, at twenty-three, I became a stepmother to a seven-year-old-boy. I'd known Jonah since he was four, and his parents had divorced when he was still a baby, so he'd never really known what it was like to live together with his family under one roof. Which was the same experience I'd had --my own parents divorced when I was a baby and I grew up with a complicated web of step parents and step and half-siblings, all of whom I resented to varying degrees.

You'd think I would have felt sympathy for this little boy, a boy who got shuttled between Washington, DC and Manhattan every third weekend, whose Dad lived in another state. You'd think that I would know intimately his discomfort, and try to help him in whatever way I could.

At first, when I was twenty and just dating his Dad, I thought Jonah was cute. It was a novelty for me to be in a mom-role of any kind, and I'd had plenty of teenage babysitting experience, so how hard could this be? I read to him, tickled him, made him chicken nuggets, gave him baths.

And then, as Peter and I got more serious, and decided to get married, the relationship with Jonah got more complicated. I grew aware that my role would always be peripheral, that this kid had his own mother, and family customs, that had nothing to do with me. That I would never have any decision-making role, that I'd always be in the back seat. I realized I would want children of my own one day soon, and then came the regret that I could never be Peter's first experience of pregnancy, and labor, and delivery, that we could never share a completely beginner's experience of parenthood. Of course we couldn't, because Jonah had been there first.

I got pregnant on our honeymoon and we were both delighted, but it had that slight sting-- how would Jonah feel? Would he resent the baby? Would it be hard for him? And then for me there was the always slightly nagging feeling of "this is my first time at this and my husband's done it all before." Not the worst thing, but a tiny, disappointing pull. The tug of the young and naïve, selfish and childish.

As those early years of marriage wore on, the disparity between "our" family (me, Peter, and our new daughter) and "his" family (Peter, Jonah, the ex-wife) grew, however much of it was in my head. Because actually, the ex-wife was easy, as far as these things go, but she was still my precursor, and she had still established her own maternal culture, and I was still the second wife. And the more it sunk in that Jonah came first in a way that I never would, the harder it became for me to deal with him. That he, this innocent child, had the unconditional love of his father, made me sometimes feel extraneous, out in the cold.

I was jealous on two fronts: the first, the more obvious, was that I wanted that unconditional devotion from my husband, and I quickly became aware that I could test that love, and that I could lose. Our fights were volatile, and Peter turned his back on me easily. There were no guarantees for me here. The second, even more primal jealousy, was that Jonah was getting the kind of unconditional fatherlove that I'd never gotten from my own father, and staring that loss in the face -- my own loss -- admitting that lack, was too painful for me. Much easier to look outside and resent the child.

So that's what I did. It was never child abuse, but I was cold. I never loved Jonah, and we all felt it. Sometimes he made me really angry, like when he would come for visits and just hole up on the computer, sullen, unwilling or unable to empty the dishwasher, or change his sheets, or engage in a conversation. I didn't think he was cute, or clever, or take pleasure in him in any way, the way we usually do with the children in our midst.

I look back on this piece of my history with mortification; without a doubt, my relationship with Jonah is the one in my life I most regret. To explain it, much less justify it, I can try to point to my youth, my inexperience, my unresolved childhood pain, my lack of sophistication, or I can just throw up my hands and say I'm a horrible person.

But it's not quite that simple, not quite one thing or the other. For years my husband, now my ex, silently made me feel like I was Cruella de Ville, like my behavior was inexplicably unjust. But the truth is, we were both inept at handling the feelings--we didn't talk about it well, he always told me I didn't need to have a relationship with his son, that that was just fine with him, when it clearly wasn't.

Now, in my 40s and divorced, I have a serious boyfriend, Joe, and Joe has a teenage daughter, Emily. So I have to forge a relationship with Emily and Joe's got to find his way with my now four children. Watching us all fumble along through this process, I realize how inherently fraught the step relationship is, how impossible it's got to feel to almost everyone, even the most therapized among us.

Having made such a mess of it the first time around, I'm much more careful now. I try to see Emily as her own person and not react to her based on what she represents, or at least, if I do feel myself reacting to those old issues, I'm better at keeping it to myself. Being all together can be pleasant, and even fun at times, but I'm not sure it'll ever feel totally natural. Sometimes out of the corner of my eye, I catch Emily looking at me like a deer in the headlights, as if I come from another planet, and I realize, that to her, I do! She's being raised differently from the way I raise my kids; with divergent rules and expectations, and when she's at my house she's in foreign domestic territory. We eat differently, we talk differently, we probably even smell different! Our mothers shape the way we see the world, and this, here in my domain, is not her mother's culture. To be a kid plunged into another mother's universe has got to make everything feel upside down.

One of my kids "hates" Joe right now, and it's so obviously not about Joe, but about the divorce and jealousy over me, and about rage at things not being what they "should" be. But it's hard on Joe, hard to be confronted by a hostile teen, day in and day out. It can be difficult to like that child, I'm sure. Joe and I have a relationship, and that relationship encompasses our previous marriages, our children, all the various homes we all live in, the past, the failures, the unknown future. It's complicated.

Even Peter, who was so hurt by my indifference (at best) to his son, has now had his own experience of dating someone and not liking her kids. It happens to other people! You have no idea what a relief that was to me.

The truth is, that each and every family, no matter how short-lived, how dysfunctional, how splintered, has its own culture. A mother, a father, and their kids, they are a unit, connected by DNA and by a code of communication and rituals and understanding--by threads of something almost impossible to articulate--that no outsider can probably ever fully penetrate. By that logic, the blended family thing is always, to some extent, going to be like wedging the wrong shapes into a puzzle.

I see this now when I sit down with my father for our annual lunch. We both live in New York City, but we've had a painful, difficult relationship my whole life, and since my mid-twenties I've really stepped away. We now talk on the phone a few times a year, and he calls me every summer and asks to take me out to lunch for my birthday. I go, and it always hurts a bit, because we're not close, because I lost so much not having a father in my life. But what really kills me, every time, is that no matter how infrequently I see him, no matter how neglected I may feel, there is an undeniable understanding there, a deep recognition of each other. He's my father. There's a shorthand in the way I experience his voice and gestures and sense of humor, in the way he's as familiar to me as my own body is. I could never in a million years have that sort of visceral connection with a stepfather or a stepchild, and that's the crux of it.