Not too long after I separated from their father, my oldest daughter joked around saying she hoped if I ever got remarried the man wouldn't have kids. She said she didn't want to have any step siblings. When I asked why not, she replied, "Haven't you ever seen a fairy tale?" I laughed. Then I pointed out that if I did get remarried, I would be the stepmom of the story. Which would make her and her sister the evil stepsisters. That blew her mind a little bit! Then she said perhaps the truest statement ever, "Yes, but you're not wicked. You're just overwhelming..." Fast forward a while and now this summer my girls will be getting a stepsister (they are no longer concerned she might be evil!) and I will become a stepmom.
And so not wanting to be too overwhelming, I decided to do a little research. As I skimmed through descriptions of books written by experts and stepparents with all kinds of advice, it occurred to me. I already know quite a lot about best practices in stepfamilies. In fact, my childhood was kind of like a Master's level course on the subject. Both my parents had stepparents. I had stepparents. Even my stepparent had stepparents.
Now like everyone, I have some issues stemming from my upbringing. Because the adults in my life, like all other adults, had their faults. (I could list both my issues and their faults over a drink some time if you like) But I promise you that none of my issues stem from my parents' divorce or being part of a stepfamily. Because when it came to modeling the right way to blend families, the adults in my life were the very best. Here's some of what I learned:
It is much easier for a child when all the important adults in their life seem to like each other. No one ever made me feel like there were sides to choose. They didn't even make it look hard to get along. A fact that now as an adult looking back, I can appreciate how difficult that must have been at times. But I have no memories of either of my parents ever saying anything bad about the other. My stepfather and father would go play basketball together. And while I had friends with divorced parents who had to have two of everything because their parents couldn't be in the same room together, in my family, we spent holidays and birthdays with anyone in town to celebrate: ex-husbands, new wives, grandparents from all sides with their 2nd (or 4th!) spouses. My uncle lived in a trailer in his ex-wife and her husband's yard for years to be close to my cousins. My father's mother and her 2nd husband were so close with my mom and my stepdad, you would have assumed they were one of their parents. And in a way, they were.
The adults in my life growing up taught me that commitment makes a family. Not blood relationships. And once you've made a commitment to someone, you can change the marital status, but they are still your family. And their family is your family. And everyone is always welcome at the party. Crazy ex or not. And even when someone messes up in a big way, if they come back knocking on the door, then you let them in like the prodigal son. And this open, accepting family policy helped me to grow into an open, accepting human being. And I am grateful to my complicated family tree for that.
As much as I appreciate and learned from all sides of my messy family tree, I am most thankful for the lessons taught to me by my stepfather and his family. Or rather my family on my stepfather's side. My mother married my stepfather when I was 7 years old and suddenly I was part of a huge family. He had 5 brothers and sisters, and they all had kids. My sister and I were the only stepchildren. And yet no one ever made us feel like we were any different from any other child in that family. My grandparents and aunts and uncles treated us the same way they treated all of their biological grandchildren and nieces and nephews. That sense of belonging was a blessing.
My stepfather was only 20 years old when he married my mom. And my sister and I already had a dad. One who was a part of our lives. And yet for most of the year, we lived with our stepfather and our mom. Again, now as an adult, and future stepparent, I am beginning to appreciate the complexity and difficulty of his position. But as a child, I never sensed there was an issue.
Because even though he didn't replace my dad, he was absolutely one of my parents. When I fell off my bike and needed stitches, he carried me to get help. He taught me how to drive. And when I ran out of gas, he brought me some on the side of the road. When I got lost (which happened all too frequently!) I called him for directions. He coached my t-ball team and never seemed to mind that I spent all the games picking dandelions. He grounded me when I came home a few minutes past curfew. He came to every school event and band concert. He took me bowling. He read me stories. He played with me. Sometimes he yelled at me. But always he loved me. And he never asked for anything in return. Just like a real parent.
And yet as much as he was absolutely a parent to my sister and me, we did not call him dad. Even as we called his parents grandma and grandpa, and his brothers and sisters aunt and uncle, we always called him by his name. If that bothered him, he never let it show. He certainly never made me feel guilty about it. But I always thought he deserved his own title. 17 years ago when my first niece was born, he got one. Papaw. And now my girls have 6 grandparents (soon to be 8) and yet they only have one Papaw. A papaw we all love.
I am a grateful stepchild. Thankful for the lessons being a stepdaughter taught me. That family is a living, growing organism. And children need to feel the important adults in their lives like and respect one another. And there is room in the heart for so many. And when we add new members, we never need to replace or push out the old ones. Maybe just do some rearranging. Love is not a competition. And neither is parenting...