Step Parenting: Folklore and Fantasy

Step parenting is one of life’s little challenges.  OK, truth be told, it was the most confounding role I ever undertook!  I had a major Brady-bunch fantasy when I married my husband with three teenage sons.  Blending my family (comprised of one teenage daughter) with his three teenage sons was going to be a piece of cake, or so I thought. Kids like me, right?  Kids who have nothing to lose like me; kids who might be competing for a parent’s time and affection, who are challenged to change habits…well, that’s another story.

Conflicting Cultures

I didn’t factor in differences in child rearing practices, conflicting cultures, resistance to yet-another adult figure, jealousies, resentments, tacit alliances.  The mountain of literature I read on step parenting scratched the surface.  Charts for chores were about as useful to me as a deaf dog is to a blind man. I learned that most second marriages with children fail, some even leaving domestic violence and crime in their wake. 

Early in my tenure as a stepparent, I expressed my distress over living with teenage boys to a colleague with no experience in step parenting (not a good idea).  With teenage sons of her own, she tried to empathize with my struggles. “Well, I know what you mean about teenage boys”, she quipped.  “It’s hard to live with them but you wouldn’t want to live without them!”  Before I could stop myself, I replied, “Actually I would like to live without them.”  Dead silence.  I realized that polite society is not prepared to deal with a deranged stepparent.

Ultimately, I took the coward’s way out: I ran away from home…. with my husband, leaving the three stepsons behind with their mother.  My husband accepted a job transfer (his idea) and we moved to the other side of the country.  Now, decades later, I am still married to the same man and have the same stepsons.  They’re adults with families of their own.  I believe we’ve all grown beyond the trauma of blending our families. 

Not everyone can take the route I took, nor would I want that solution for everyone. Some stepfamilies are very successful (though, not most).  Stepparents with success stories can be found everywhere; they write books, appear on talk shows and share stories on social media.  Stepparents with less successful stories or failures hide in the shadows of shame, regret and hurt.

Scary Statistics

The statistics remain dreadful (more than 20 years after I became a stepparent); the divorce rate for partners of blended families is much higher than that for marriages without children.  (About half of first marriages end in divorce compared with roughly seventy percent of second and third marriages with children.)  Step parenting is a blow to one’s self esteem; the tools one used as a parent don’t seem to work for step parenting.  Very often the children blame the stepparent for ruining their lives. Even if the stepparent entered the scene many years after the dissolution of the marriage of the children’s parents, the new stepparent creates an unwanted dynamic.

Limited Resources

While in the throes of my struggles, I did get help from friends and support groups, however.  I highly recommend confiding in the right people, not necessarily the father or mother of the children who are driving you crazy. I still find it odd that with so many blended families, most of which are struggling mightily, we still haven’t fully addressed the enormous challenges of blending families.

According to the U.S. Census, the number of children living with two biological parents is declining, the number living with one parent is increasing and the number of children living in blended families (where at least one parent is divorced) holds steady at about 15%.  Perhaps this minority status explains the lack of resources allocated to the issue of step parenting.

Of course, folklore and fairy tales don’t help dispel the myth of who’s to blame in the misery of blended families.  Only when we admit that Cinderella was sometimes really a b*tch, will we stop blaming stepmoms and stepdads as the faulty parties in this family constellation.