Several months after I began dating the man I married in 1987, we decided it was time for me to spend the night. When his two sons woke up the next morning, the younger one—then age 4—wandered into the bedroom, took one look at me, and shouted in abject dismay, “Don’t you have your own bed to sleep in?”
We laughed, of course. But that was my first clue that if I became a stepmom, the road ahead would include bumps, curves, and the occasional black hole of emotional angst. Thankfully, I also came to know the flip side: the moments of joy and connection that bind us as a family.
And I am clearly not alone or unusual. In fact, Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience, an anthology of 30 essays about all aspects of stepfamily life to be released Tuesday from Seal Press, notes that 95 million adults in the United States—a whopping 42 percent of the population—have either a stepparent, a step- or half-sibling, or a stepchild.
To its credit, the book does not gloss over the difficulties involved with these relationships. Some of the included essays are raw and pain-filled. Others rely on abundant humor—a necessity for every family—and overflow with genuine affection between stepparents and -children, between stepsiblings, and between other relatives. Overall, Blended is a stunning, insightful, and poignant collection.
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Editor Samantha Waltz, a former family therapist, sets the stage for this wide-ranging coverage in an introductory “Note from the Editor.” Harkening back more than a decade to the first workshop on stepfamily relationships that she conducted, she recalls asking the participants to list the topics they wanted to discuss. The answers—displacement, grief, guilt, loyalty, and jealousy—surprised her, as did additional themes that came to the forefront, such as conflict with biological parents, visitation schedules, holidays, different surnames, and how best to juggle the expectations of current partners, ex-partners, kids, society, and oneself. Her previous work as a family therapist had included none of these issues. Instead, she writes, they had typically touched on more conventional parenting problems such as discipline and communication difficulties. She admits to being somewhat flummoxed.
“When I listened to the fears and heartache of these parents I began to understand the unique difficulties they faced,” she writes. At the end of the workshop, Waltz concluded that there were no simple approaches to the issues raised. In fact, while most stepfamilies confront similar conundrums, their solutions to them run the gamut. But Blended eschews easy answers or anything close to facile self-help. Instead, each essay speaks honestly, openly, and directly, and the end result is sure to help members of stepfamilies who feel lonely or alien in their situations.
One of the most beautiful pieces in the collection, “Who Will This Be To Me,” introduces the loss of a biological parent and illustrates how painful it can be for a still-grieving child when the surviving parent brings a new partner into the mix. In it, award-winning writer Betsy Graziani Fasbinder introduces Max, her 7-year-old stepson. Max’s mom had died two years earlier and Fasbinder recounts an incident that occurred shortly after she moved in with him and his dad. At first, she admits, she indulged in a TV sitcom-style fantasy about their idyllic lives: “I was suddenly flooded with a heart-swell for which I had no name. The son of the man I loved was becoming my son. We’d have family Christmas cards and school art stuck with magnets to the fridge. I’d make goodie bags at birthday parties, snap pictures at graduations.”
The fantasy began to dissipate, however, when Max seemed to express confusion over the new household arrangement:
“I’ll be your second mom,” I said.
“I’m sorry your first mom died. I liked her.”
“What should I call you?” he asked.
“You can call me mom, or mama. You can also call me Betsy. Whatever feels okay to you.”
He stood there a moment and I waited, expecting a pronouncement of my new title.
“What’s for dinner? he asked, picking up his ball.
“Sweet,” he said, tossing the ball as he walked out of the room.
Ten months passed, and eventually, Max’s dad, Tom, and Betsy got married. A few weeks later, Max announced his decision—he’d call his stepmom by her name. But he added an addendum: “When I say Betsy I mean mom. Moms die, you know. I think it’s maybe safer if you’re just Betsy.”
Needless to say, dealing with a single kid is far different from dealing with several, or with converting what once was “his-and-hers,” “hers-and-hers,” or “his-and-his,” into “theirs.” Rebecca Payne’s “Stepfamily Honeymoon”—yes, she and her new spouse brought three children along on their honeymoon—is a horrifying glimpse into what can happen when very different personalities are catapulted into close proximity. In this account, Payne describes the fireworks that erupted when her two “rambunctious and loud” kids became siblings to a shy, pampered, 12-year-old who had heretofore been an only child.
“I was madly in love,” she begins. “But kids understand fair. They challenge adults on fairness all the time.” Why, her kids wondered, did their new big sister get to sleep in a bed alone, while they had to share? Why did her dad—their stepfather—spend so much money on his daughter, essentially buying her whatever she asked for, while they were repeatedly told, “no”?
The ensuing conflict led to Payne’s first marital fight, and she is forthright in reporting that, “a mere week ago I’d believed that we were going to live out a fairy-tale life! Blending these two families and maintaining our love and respect for each other, I now realized, was going to take hard work, fast reflexes, and tough skins.”
In other words, TV’s Modern Family—with its stepfamily conflicts that are always easily resolved every week—these situations are not.
Couple Kerry Cohen and James Bernard Frost, in two consecutive essays, note the potential volatility that comes when one of the children has special needs—in their case, autism. Cohen, like Payne and Fasbinder, confesses her naïveté about the potential clash between their parenting methods, and the stress both families would endure:
I hadn’t thought about having to help him raise the children from his former marriage. I hadn’t thought about the fact that my own children would have to navigate relationships with two other children and an adult they hadn’t asked for. I hadn’t thought about the fact that Jim and I would have radically different parenting styles, his based on having raised two typically developing children, mine on having raised a child on the autism spectrum … The point is, I hadn’t thought about a lot.
For Frost, the shock was equally pronounced. Without the background Cohen had with her children, he found himself inadequately prepared for the new complications that were suddenly part of everyday life. Furthermore, he had to decide whether he could be monogamous in their marriage—certainly not an issue specific to stepfamilies, but one all couples need to negotiate, and another topic the pair seemingly left unaddressed before joining forces. Their essays can easily be read as cautionary tales about the necessity of communication—whether it takes place pre- or post-nuptially.
And it isn’t just the adults getting married who must navigate new challenges. Blended goes beyond the viewpoints of stepparents and calls upon adult children reared in stepfamilies to reflect on their experiences as they came of age.
Especially poignant is “Finding My Family.” Here, Alaina Smith recounts the upheaval she went through before her 13th birthday: Her parents divorced, her mom remarried and relocated, and her dad remarried and started a second family.
“I transitioned from only child to sibling,” she begins. At the same time, she and her baby brother were separated “by nine states, 13 years, and my own confusion … Whether I was in Oregon with my mom and stepdad, or in New York with my dad, stepmom, and brother, I often felt out of place and misunderstood. I didn’t fit anymore … I cut myself off from everything but my lifeline—the beige, spiral-corded, landline telephone that connected me to the family who fit me best: my friends. Friendships were my true home.”
Kezia Willingham’s “The Best and Hardest Things” adds another wrinkle to the stepfamily experience, exploring the all-too-common dilemma that results when a parent badmouths their ex, putting the child in the untenable position of having to choose between mom or dad. Gigi Rosenberg’s “My Secret Father” beautifully describes this situation, too: “My mother didn’t want me to love him,” she writes. “She wanted me to be rid of him, the bad man, my father.”
It’s emotionally complex material, and the contributors’ truth-telling is refreshing and important.
In addition, the collection takes great pains to contest the “evil stepmother” trope, while at the same time calling out the callous behavior some stepparents exhibit. Jennifer Margulis’ “Cindy and Me,” for example, recalls the abuse she endured from a stepmother who belittled her and made her feel worthless and ugly. Sallie Wagner Brown’s “Epiphany,” meanwhile, looks at the impact of having a cold and overtly disinterested stepmom. For Brown, however, the key rested with stepping back and realistically assessing what her stepmother was capable of: “Pat was almost 40 with an established career as a university administrator when she married a man with a 19-year-old daughter… She based her whole life on her own needs and wants.” It was only after Brown came to terms with this that she gave up the dream of Pat-as-nurturing-mother. Not surprisingly, their relationship subsequently improved.
Sadly, such growth is not always possible, as Stephanie Cassatly’s gut-wrenching “Tapestry of Grace” makes clear. Here, the author touches upon having to depend on an unreliable stepparent after her biological father’s almost-total abandonment. Her fury with the situation is palpable.
All told, Blended includes tales of both successful bonding and missed connections. It’s a true smorgasbord, sometimes entertaining and sometimes tear-inducing. There are actual “modern families” where biological kin and stepparents are able to create a strong affinity and spend enjoyable time together. There’s also the opposite: families where the competition and resentment run deep.
As for me, becoming a stepmom allowed me enough exposure to the ups-and-downs of parenting to satisfy my desire for contact with children. My stepsons are now 30-something adults and I hope they can now appreciate how fiercely determined their parents and stepparents were to love and protect them. I know they, themselves, would have preferred being raised solely by their biological mom and dad. Despite this, I also know that they didn’t want to completely dismiss me or their stepfather. My younger stepson told me as much when he was about 12: “I wish Mom and Dad lived in one house and you and [my stepdad] lived in another one in the same neighborhood,” he said. “That way I could still see all of you.”
The memory of this 20-year-old conversation continues to make me smile.