"....... for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust" Psalm 103:14

I am a stepdaughter, I have a stepmother. I am a stepmother, I have a stepdaughter.

Okay, probably not quite a stepfamily but oh so cute!
I'm not kidding. All of those things are true. And yet, sometimes it seems just as hard for me to be part of a stepfamily as it would if I'd never experienced stepfamily life in any capacity, ever, in my entire life.

My own stepdaughter experience
I've been a stepdaughter, and I've had a stepmother, for well over 30 years. It's been a rocky journey at times, there's no disputing that. In the early years I resented my stepmother for her part in the demise of my parents' marriage. I was convinced she'd seduced my father, drawing him away from my mother, and from us (as only a grieving daughter can think when it's just too emotionally risky to contemplate that her beloved father made choices too). Because of this, in the beginning I didn't really want to know her, and I didn't care that I didn't particularly like her. I felt intensely loyal to my mother (and strangely repulsed by her grief at the same time - a truly confusing time for an 18 year old). But it made life harder when I held onto this bitterness towards my stepmother. Eventually, a few years later, particularly for the sake of my relationship with my dad, and for the sake of my children to whom I wanted to be an example of forgiveness, I actively sought to repair my relationship with my stepmum. That was many years ago now, and today I consider her a friend and a great support.

And my original stepfamily
As far as being part of a stepfamily goes, you'd think that from those more-than-30 years I'd be able to draw on at least some first-hand experience in understanding the complexities of stepfamily life, particularly the unique aspects of stepmother/stepdaughter relationships. But the reality is that although I've been part of a stepfamily for a long time, before I married my husband I had exactly zero experience of actually living in a stepfamily.

By the time my father remarried, I'd flown the nest and was living independently - in fact I was living in another state, attending university, making a life for myself far away from both my biological family and my stepfamily. So really I've always felt more like a visitor in my stepfamily than a fully-fledged member. My relationships with my stepsiblings vary enormously - some I know fairly well and have spent time with over the years, some not so much. It's now rare for us all to be together in one place as we're scattered all over the country. We usually can't even all manage to make it to significant birthdays or Christmas gatherings - someone will be missing every time.

What's a "happy" stepfamily anyway?
I probably wouldn't say I come from a "happy" stepfamily. There is definitely plenty of pain and loss in our history, and sadly some of it has never been acknowledged, let alone healthily addressed. There has always been a sense of protectiveness for me (and perhaps my brothers too) when I think about our mother who was abandoned so that our stepfamily could be formed. As a large (and continually growing) family of diverse personalities, we can enjoy each other's company to varying degrees, depending on the mix. But when I think about my new stepfamily composition, it's hard for me to draw on my first stepfamily experience as a positive example of healthy stepfamily life.

"I don't want a stepmother!"
When Richard and I had been courting for about 11 months, when it was starting to look as though we might actually end up getting married in the not-too-distant future, one day, as we drove somewhere together, just his 11-year-old daughter and me, chatting somehow about my own stepfamily history - out of the blue she said to me "Well I don't mind dad having friends like you, but I don't want a stepmother". Uh-oh.

Well, I've now been her stepmother (and her brothers') for a little over 5 years, and I freely admit I've made loads of mistakes in this brief time. There have been many times I've struggled particularly with being stepmum to a teenage girl (not my favourite species at the best of times). But really, I couldn't have asked for an easier stepdaughter. I'm sure I'll write more about this in future posts, she really is a sweet girl.

Wrecking ball? Me?
A couple of years ago I read a blog post from a fellow stepmother who said she "came in like a wrecking ball" when she became a stepmum. I'm pretty sure my stepkids might throw me a knowing look or two if they heard that expression. But they would do it ever-so-sheepishly because that's the kind of sweet-natured don't-want-to-hurt-anyone's-feelings kind of kids that they are. When I think back to those early months I wonder what they must have been feeling, I was so consumed with my own adjustment and discomfort.

Getting some things right
Now that our stepfamily life has changed, and we're almost all adults these days, I can look back on those early days and be thankful for the steps I did manage to take in the right direction. Because I didn't JUST make mistakes. I also got a few things right along the way.
  • I made a habit of always speaking positively to my stepchildren about their mother, or else I said nothing. There were enough reasons for us all to struggle, without me adding that kind of angst into the equation.
  • I didn't try to be a parent figure to them unless it was understood that the baton had been passed to me. Mostly I tried to leave the discipline and parenting to my husband (even when that was REALLY hard).
  • I prayed for them and for our marriage. Sometimes desperately!
  • I devoured resources on healthy stepfamily life. I love to find out everything I can possibly know about a new situation that I'm navigating, and so this was a helpful thing to do.
  • I learned to relax more, especially about my stepchildren needing time alone with their dad, and over time I felt less and less like I had to compete with this.
  • We built a family culture of having fun together. It's not unusual for there to be lots of laughter in our home when our kids are here. We regularly had all 5 of our kids over for dinner once a fortnight, and enjoyed conversation and playing games together after dinner. Fun times and relationship-building.
  • I nurtured my marriage. In fact, my marriage was a top priority from the start, and even though it was challenging at times to keep going in to bat for "us" in the midst of the demands of our stepfamily life, I doggedly persisted. We've always wanted to provide a strong, healthy example of Christian marriage for our children, all of whom now, sadly, have divorce as part of the fabric of their lives.
  • I didn't neglect time for me. It was crucial. I would go for a walk, catch up with a girlfriend, go shopping, have a massage, call in to see my own sons, watch a girlie movie, or even just retreat to a quiet part of the house to read, write or knit while after-school chaos reigned. My husband says "happy wife, happy life". He's so right!
So how are we tracking?
My stepchildren are really great young people, I like them and I enjoy their company, and I hope they feel the same about me. A couple of years in, we asked the kids how they thought we were tracking. My stepdaughter immediately said "Good!!" She didn't umm and aahh, just came straight out with it.  Then, as if she thought she may have overdone the enthusiasm, she said "Well, we don't complain about our stepfamily like some of my friends do. That's a good sign".

I'll take that!

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