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

Stepfamily connections (and loyalty issues)

Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash
Every October, my husband travels interstate for a major sporting event where he has been involved on the chaplaincy team for many years. Since we've been married, I've mostly gone along too. Well, what I mean is that HE goes to the sporting event, and I usually enjoy some relaxing "down time", either by the beach nearby, or staying with family in the city. But that's just a side note.......

As it's an annual event and takes place in Victoria, just over the ditch from Tasmania (my home state), we usually combine the trip with a quick visit to see my family. It seems a shame to go all the way across our vast continent and not go that little bit further, since we're already so close. Our first year of marriage was the first time I'd been to the event, and we took my stepdaughter with us. For a couple of reasons.

Awkward stepfamily logistics
Being our first year of marriage, we were still a little uncomfortable with some of the awkward logistics around the children's shared care schedule. This trip would mean a longer-than-usual time away from home, and away from the children. We'd done that once already, earlier in the year for our honeymoon. To do so again would mean asking my husband's ex-wife to commit to another extended time of having all three of the children without a break. We were all new to this stepfamily gig and it felt like a "big ask" to go away again so soon. But if we took my stepdaughter with us, life would not be quite so complicated for the children's mum.

Secondly, we thought it could be a really nice opportunity for my stepdaughter to learn a little more about me by meeting my family, who of course was now her extended stepfamily even though she'd never met any of them!

Putting the puzzle pieces together
She was excited about the trip, and at 12 years of age was intrigued by the family connections, and thoroughly enjoyed working out who these people now are to her (because of who I am to her and who they are to me) and putting it all together in her head.

The first connections came when she and I spent three nights with my sister and brother-in-law, while my husband went early to the sporting event. They both warmly engaged with my stepdaughter and found her delightful, and she thoroughly enjoyed her time in their home. She and I did some sight-seeing together in Melbourne and that, too, was a fun time.

After the sporting event, we travelled to Hobart and spent a few nights with my father and my own stepmum, who had planned some fun activities for us all, and enjoyed interacting with my stepdaughter and getting to know her.

Lastly, we spent a few days with my mum, who welcomed us all warmly and inclusively, and it was lovely to see the rest of my family responding to my stepdaughter as though she was one of us, which of course she now is.

In all, she met about 10 members of my family, and along the way she found that she had gained:

one step-grandmother

one step-grandfather

one step-step-grandmother

one step-uncle

one step-defacto-auntie (yep, try getting your head around that one)

one step-half-auntie

one step-half-uncle

three step-cousins

She didn't get to meet everyone on this trip. Had she done so, there would have been a few more "steps", "step-steps" and even a "step-step-step" to round out the clan!

And then the loyalty struggles
After this holiday she went through a time of noticeable withdrawal and distancing from me, which lasted for several months. Not drastic, or even in a way that was rude or disrespectful, and neither my husband nor I could really put a finger on why or what this was, but we could see it happening. We strongly suspected that the holiday had triggered a kind of loyalty conflict within her.

Not only had she gone away with us and had a great time (guilt), but suddenly she had connections to all these new people (guilt) who had embraced her into their fold (guilt). However, she was the only one of her siblings who had met them (guilt), and of course this embrace did not, and would likely never, include her mother (guilt).

It's understandable how this may have felt like a betrayal, that she should connect with and enjoy new extended family - connections that she was not sharing with her mum (with whom she's very close). Not only that, but she was observing her dad making happy connections with his new family-in-law, instead of her mum's family of which he used to be a part. To top it off, these people were all linked to me (a new stepmother that she kinda didn't actually ask for..........).

It reminded me of the first time we celebrated my husband's birthday, the year we were courting. We had friends over to his place for Sunday lunch, and I asked my (not yet) stepdaughter to help me make the birthday cake. She willingly pitched in and enjoyed being a part of everything that day, but later in the afternoon we noticed her fiddling in the kitchen and then sneaking something into her bedroom. My husband followed her to gently ask what she was doing, to which she sheepishly confessed that she had wrapped up a large piece of leftover birthday cake to take to her mum. It broke my heart, firstly that she'd thought she couldn't ask, but mostly that her tender heart keenly felt the exclusion of her mum from these birthday celebrations at her dad's. That was really my first encounter with such an obvious loyalty conflict and it alerted me to the potential for more of this in the future.

Settling and reconnecting
We eventually moved through that uncomfortable distancing stage after our holiday, and emerged out the other side, where things slowly became much more settled and connected. In fact, a couple of years ago my stepdaughter joined me at a 4-day camp for kids with disabilities and their families, where we both served as volunteers. I wouldn't have thought that possible a couple of years earlier. Not only that, but when she returned to her mum's after this camp, she proudly showed her certificate, wore her volunteer t-shirt, and generously shared her volunteer "thank you" gifts.

Things are even more settled these days, however I remain aware of the potential for loyalty conflicts, for my stepdaughter in particular, because of her tender heart, and also because she has yet to fully understand the permanent ramifications of the choice her mother made all those years ago.

Age-old stepfamily loyalty conflicts
I've felt these same loyalty conflicts within my own original stepfamily over many years, even as an adult, so it's not surprising to find them here in my new stepfamily. In fact, God says in His Word that stepfamily loyalty conflicts have been around since the time of Abraham and Sarah! So my Heavenly Father is more than able to help me sort through these issues.

I hope I can remember always to trust Him for wisdom, understanding, and grace at these times.

18 comments

  1. This is such a touching story Sue. Your step-daughter no doubt has a tender heart and a large capacity for love. You've done well to recognise the loyalty conflicts in her - I'm sure it helps with your ability to show kindness and understanding. Family life certainly can be messy but I agree that God is the best one to give us wisdom in dealing with it.

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    1. Thanks WoTW ;) She definitely does have a tender heart and is full of love for others. She's a pretty sweet almost-17-year-old really (I know, sounds like an oxymoron) xx

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  2. You can see why divorce isn't God's ideal plan can't you Sue? It's a part of our life and (if handled well) can lead to a more settled and happy future, but there are always consequences and ramifications - especially for those caught up in the process. Your stepdaughter sounds like a beautiful soul and I love that she was willing to include you in her life, and at the same time she wanted to reassure her own mum that she was important too. Life is so complicated at times isn't it? Glad this had a happy ending.

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    1. Life certainly is complicated Leanne, and stepfamily life particularly so! I'm learning that God is not so interested in my happiness as much as He's concerned with my holiness, and stepmothering has certainly been a refiner's fire for me! xx

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  3. This was so beautiful to read Sue. You exude thoughtfulness and kindness. Your stepdaughter is a very lucky girl. #TeamLovinLife

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    1. Min thank you for your kind words. I have definitely struggled as a stepmother over the years, and I'm not sure I'd consider my stepdaughter to be lucky so much as I'm blessed to have her in my life (though I haven't always acted like I am). I plan to write more on my stepmothering challenges in the future! xx

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  4. What a lovely and loving story. It is so so hard even for me as I was a step-grandmother for a while and did all I could to include the 2 kids. However the relationship fell through and then it was over. For me too. Life these days has many challenges. Good on you for keeping on keeping on as they say!
    Denyse

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    1. Thank you Denyse, I appreciate your kind comment. That must have been very hard for you, and I can imagine your grief at losing two bonus grandchildren. Stepfamily life is full of these kinds of challenges, and plenty of others too. God is showing me my heart (the good and the not so good) through all of it xx

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  5. What a lovely and touching story! Greetings from Sydney and have a beautiful day!

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    1. Thanks Shantana, hope you have a great day too! xx

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  6. Gorgeous to read. I'm a step mum so I can relate! #teamlovinlife

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    1. Thank you! Lovely to find a fellow blogging stepmum xx

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  7. It sounds like you have handled these potential step children conflicts with sensitivity and awareness. So many families are not able to do this and things become very contentious. Families are fluid these days, and that can be difficult.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words. This time I may have gotten things right, but trust me when I say there have been plenty of times I've handled our stepfamily difficulties with anything BUT sensitivity and awareness!! I'm a work in progress............ xx

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  8. Thank you for sharing. What a beautiful job you are doing in blending your family.

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    1. Thank you Eveliina, being a stepmum has definitely been one of the most challenging things I've done. It's so nice to be encouraged xx

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  9. Oh wow, so complicated. One of my close friends has separated from a partner of 5 years and he was basically like a dad to her 6yr old son. However... he isn't his dad (and the boy is in contact with his dad) and now the question is whether they try to maintain that connection when it's likely they'll both move on to new partners.... So complicated. #teamlovinlife

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    1. It definitely can be complicated Deb, and so much grief involved for all. I hope your friend is able to find a workable solution for everyone!! xx

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