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Stepfamily geometry

April 25, 2012

 I don’t usually write very personal stuff on here, since I’m still figuring out what’s okay to share, especially about others.  However, I recently crowned myself Queen Reveal with an accidental post (which turned out to be a FALSE ALARM, but thank you so much to everyone who shared their excitement and support!), so I want to write a little bit about this stepfamily business. 

Let me tell you, being a stepfamily is not as easy as it looks.  The Big Guy and I went to a workshop last week as part of a “Parent’s Night Out” series organized by the school district.  Each week a local professional talks about his or her area of expertise.  Last week’s workshop was called: “The Stepfamily Journey – Merging and Emerging”.  I have heard good things about the presenter, Dianne Martin, and she certainly has a lot of experience to draw on, being a stepmom and having counselled stepfamilies for 20 years.  She said one thing that really stopped me in my tracks.  She was talking about expectations, the unrealistic expectations people have going into a stepfamily that they will be able to function just like an intact/nuclear/biological family.  She said the hardest thing to come to terms with is that you are not all going to love each other.  She said the best you can hope for is a diplomatic truce, where everyone agrees to certain rules about how to treat each other and how to share a house, and from there the cohabiting people learn to tolerate each other.  That just floored me!  Add to that – some of the people entering into the truce are children, who have no idea what it means to act in the interest of the greater good.  Most of the time they act in the interest of getting their needs met, and adults are just vehicles to that end.

Pythagorean theorem

Somewhere deep in my brain something broke, and maybe what emerged will set me free, because I can finally, finally let those expectations go.  I subliminally knew I was harbouring unrealistic expectations, but I was also clinging to the idea that we were somehow different, unique, an exception.  Seeing all those couples nod in agreement when she said “diplomatic truce” just opened up a whole new reality for me.  See, my partner and I were friends long before we decided to cohabit, and I thought part of the reason he was attracted to me was that I had kids, and he wanted kids, or at least, he liked the idea of having kids.  Specifically, he wanted his own kids, but that part came later.  So I loved him, and he loved me, and I loved my kids, so I thought it would follow that he would love my kids.  It seemed as logical as a2 + b2 = c2. I have come to understand that in this love triangle, there’s no law saying the root of one side has to be equal to the others.

What that means in a day-to-day context is that the people in the stepfamily who are not biologically related to each other constantly notice each other’s faults.  They notice ways one person treads on another’s needs.  Who ate the last banana?  Who left this wet towel on the floor?  Why can’t we eat dinner in peace?  Why can’t dinner be a raucous free for all? Why does it take a mad scramble to get five people out the door in the morning?  The whole business of life is a whole lot of work.  And it is for everyone, every family, but in a stepfamily the work is less about raising these genetically related offspring to go forth and practice our values in the world; it’s about tolerating others’ individual struggles, and apparently being annoyed with how they interfere with your own.  It reminds me of college roommates, whose quirky personalities are endearing until you have to share a fridge, and a bathroom with them.

So why enter into a stepfamily arrangement at all?  Well, one reason is necessity.  It makes sense to share resources and time when raising a family.  Single parents can share the work of bringing in money and raising the kids.  Childless adults can experience something like adoption, I imagine, when partnering with someone who already has children, though that adult would feel more lonely than when a couple adopts a child together, I’m guessing.  Maybe by this stage in life everyone brings a little baggage to a relationship, and sometimes that baggage is an ex-spouse and even a child (or two, or more), so you accept that as part of the deal.

More importantly, families blend because two adults have a chance at a deep and lasting connection with a partner.  When I was going to counselling to deal with the end of my marriage I revealed that I had a supportive plutonic friend for whom I had started to have romantic feelings, and I wasn’t sure if I was ready to trust again.  The counsellor said, “If you have a chance at love, go for it.  Most people spend their whole lives striving for that connection, and if you have that opportunity in front of you, don’t let it pass you by because you’re afraid.” 

Of course, it would be so much safer (emotionally) and easier (my way or my way) to raise my kids alone.  But financially it would be harder, and for sure it would be much lonelier, in a day-to-day way, and in the way that a lifetime spent raising and nurturing and shaping wonderful people who are going to be in your life (hopefully) forever would be a little less spectacular if there’s no one to share it with.  Like sitting on a beach watching the sunset alone, sometimes the beauty is overshadowed by the desire to share it with someone.

So even though this journey is infinitely harder than I could have imagined, because I often feel torn between my partner’s needs and my kids’ needs, I am grateful for the support, my gosh, the help with the daily logistics and chores, and his really good ideas about parenting (when my ego will let me listen), and a warm pair or arms to melt into at the end of the day.  I have learned to unapologetically love my kids, because denying my need to love them and enjoy them was stealing the meaning from my life.  I have also learned to put my partner front and centre, because his need for connection is no less strong or important than the children’s.   The diplomatic truce takes a lot of forgiving and forgetting and letting stuff go.  I must confess, somewhere in my heart of hearts, I still cling to the expectation of a shared sentiment just a shave above tolerance.  Maybe a little mutual appreciation, if that’s not asking too much.

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