I went into the parenting section of the bookstore the other day and while there were shelves of books on parenting, there was maybe one on step-parenting. Why there is no guide book on the step-family situation – which judging by my experiences and what I’ve been hearing and reading from friends and on blogs, should almost be a combat manual, or maybe Sun Tzu’s Art of War – I have no idea. There are hidden dangers and land mines everywhere in the blended family, not to mention guerilla fighting tactics. If you are lucky, and all the combatants act agreeably, détente might be achieved fairly quickly, or at least only at the cost of a few small battles. If you are not lucky, a family conflict can continue on for years, with everyone taking sides and lobbing their personal artillery – leaving rubble and casualties behind.
When I entered V’s life, I was happy to be a step-mom, but was totally unprepared. I became swept up in a conflict between V’s parents which began during their marriage; they were still caught up in shared drama, dysfunctional patterns and lack of communication. She began a campaign against me characterized by bitterness, resentment, and volatility, refusing to meet me, talk to me, or have anything to do with me; content to hate me from afar. In her anger, jealousy, and fear, she must have felt the only control she had was to fuck with V’s father – and so she did – sending him into orbit with capricious demands, rules, and refusals. This, in turn, was enraging and crazy-making for me. I had pretty much fallen in love with V from the get-go, and so I kept fighting to have her in my life, but sometimes, I just wanted to give up.
We’ve all heard stories about crazy ex’s, difficult step-children, and spousal feuds but somehow I never thought that I would be caught up in a story like that. Looking back, I laugh at my naivete. Given the incredibly complex elements involved, perhaps it’s more surprising when anyone gets along at all, since there is so much at stake and a lot of powerful emotions in play. Families are full of different personalities, different levels of personal and emotional awareness, different goals, different styles of conflict resolution, and, sometimes, totally different parenting styles. When you throw new people and situations in the mix, sometimes you get chaos.
A friend who has a thirteen-year-old daughter and is integrating her new partner into her household had an interesting perspective. Although he and her daughter get along well, and he is willing to be a parenting partner, there are the inevitable struggles and she doesn’t know how much to involve herself. Should she jump in during an altercation, or let them work it out? Should she act as referee, or trust that they can be fair and caring to each other unaided? As she put it: you are contractually obligated to protect and support your children, and you must show them that you are on their side. By a similar token, you need to show that you will be on your chosen partner’s side, as well. It is a constant push-pull and sometimes it feels like nobody’s wining.
The blended family is the fastest growing demographic in the country, sometimes with families forming and reforming multiple times. There are a lot of egos and feelings to manage here. There may be conflict between parent and kid, step-parent and step-kid, parent and parent, parent and step-parent; not to mention problems with extended families. Parents can feel like they’re being replaced, and children can feel that they are being torn between adults, households and rules. Step-parents may feel they have little control over a situation, or have to take on kids, financial issues, and other problems, without being allowed to complain or act. I, personally, felt powerless and angry a lot, with no way to directly address the problem or improve it.
It can be tough being a step-parent, and while I don’t think rights or feelings should be trampled, there are rewards to sticking with the situation and the step-kid. Who can say what will stick, or what act of patience and love will have a lasting impact, or what word given at the right time will help? My relationship with V has lasted longer than my relationship with her father, and she’s poised for college and a successful life. Knowing I helped with that, even a little, is huge for me. Thankfully, I can report that the cold war ended, after years of hostility and the occasional angry incursion. Together, V and I held on to the possibility that her mother would come around. And one day, quite unexpectedly, she did. I continue to have a cordial relationship with V’s mother, and I help her when and how I can with her work and her daughter.
These are situations that will take a lot of time and work and involve a great deal of difficult emotions; that require almost-endless supplies of patience, compassion, clear-sightedness, personal honesty, and humor. One thing I fought to remember was that the adults needed to be adults. Kids are kids because they don’t have a mature perspective or an adult’s self-control. So I had to continue to own my own shit, keep my fears and anger to myself, and be mature, even when I didn’t want to be. I never reacted to what was coming my way, or talked about her mother in front of V, and never retaliated, although I nurtured my revenge fantasies. I held my peace.
So, how do you deal with obstructive ex-spouses, stubborn step-children, or family freak-outs? I, of course, advocate for therapy: even one adult – whether parent or step-parent – getting perspective and assistance may benefit everyone else. Make sure both kids and adults have someone uninvolved to talk to, who can give support and care. Cut each other some slack, be a little generous, deal with your own feelings. Try to remember you are all only human. Keeping in mind that some relationships will always be difficult, trying to have the best one possible with everyone involved is never wasted energy. Do your best; as usual, the only one we can control is ourselves. Kill them with kindness. If nothing else works, you might just have to wait it out until everyone gets too tired or caught up in new events to fight anymore, like V and I did. After all, as it says in The Art of War; “To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” For Alex and Sig.