Friday, August 22, 2008

the invisible stepfamily

Sorry about the absence, everyone. I'm still sort of decompressing from several crazy-but-wonderful weeks of summer parenting time. It's pretty much baptism by fire for me, compared to the typical parenting learning curve, and considering I'm still somewhat new to this. It feels a little jarring to be unceremoniously thrown into "mom" mode, including being called "your mom" by many well-meaning (but presumptuous) strangers, while not actually being Khymi's mother--not wanting to be, not pretending to be; just assuming similar responsibilities. I guess some would say a stepmother is a kind of mother, but I'm quite aware of the fact that I am not Khymi's mother. That title has always belonged to someone else, and it always will.

Every now and then I read another stepparent's account of their integrating a partner and the partner's child(ren) into his or her life, and although I hear a lot of familiar experiences, I've never much liked the "instant family" image that is often described. Maybe many people think of blended families as something like The Brady Bunch. The thing about the Bradys is that Mike was a widower, and no one really knew what Carol's story was, but each set of children was supposed to have been raised exclusively by one parent for some time, before Mike and Carol met and they were just one big happy family--emphasis there on one.

The Brady Bunch and its cousins like Yours, Mine and Ours (also about the blending of two widowed families) don't really portray the typical blended family, because they conveniently eliminate any need to discuss divorce/separation and shared custody by making the parents' ex-partners either deceased or completely out of the picture. For most of us, that's just not the case. In my opinion, to call one's new nuclear family an instant family isn't entirely fair to the child(ren) involved, or to the other adults. To me, "instant" it makes it sound effortless for a child to automatically become "ours" and have that be the end of it, when in most cases, the child is also someone else's, and that's a significant part of who that child is. This is true even when one of the parents is deceased or absent, and it's certainly true if the child's other parent is present and involved in his or her life.

The fact that the kids have another parent/family somewhere else isn't a bad thing, nor should it reflect negatively on them. Although the two-family situation can sometimes present challenges that non-blended families do not have to face, for the most part,
it's just the way it is. I really don't think it would have been that complicated or inconvenient for Marcia, Jan and Cindy to take an episode off because they were with their father that day. Sitcom writers have made far more unlikely storylines happen when they really wanted to.

If I were to make a movie or sitcom about our family... well, it wouldn't be interesting enough. (That's why we all have blogs, right?) But hypothetically, I couldn't even consider making it seem like it's just about the three of us and our life here, no matter how simple it might be to edit here and there to make it look that way. So much of who Khymi is comes from her mother and maternal family, her life and experiences at her other home, and also from her past, years before either her stepfather or I even knew she existed. None of those parts of her life involve me or are under my control. That doesn't mean, though, that I can just operate as if those parts don't exist or matter. If I did, I would essentially be rejecting my stepdaughter's integral, whole being. And so, while we spend most of our time together focusing on maintaining a good family life in the everyday and in this place, Jacob and I know that we are just one side of her uniquely multifaceted life. We are one family, but we are not her one and only.

It's a little tiresome, but when one of those well-meaning counselors or teachers says to Khymi, "Let's show your mom what you've learned," I smile and say kindly, "I'm her stepmom, but I'd love to see what she's learned. And maybe we can take a picture to show her mom, too."


Jo said...

I can easily imagine you smiling and saying that. Which is why you rock.

Bean said...

I'm not sure if you ever knew Sarah very well, but as you went to the Silver Spring Church I'm guessing you knew James Bank, the minister there for some time. Cathy, his wife, is the stepmother to Sarah and Julia who grew up in my neighborhood with their mom and saw Dad only on weekends. Cathy was very much in the same place you are. . .

Your life sounds extremely similar to how it was watching Cathy around Sarah and Julia.

Ferocious Kitty said...

Thank you for sharing this wonderful image of your "emerging" (as opposed to "instant") family. In particular, I love this line:

"We are one family, but we are not her one and only."

Please let me know if you would be willing to cross-post this (with a little explanatory intro added) at