No one prepares you for the onslaught of emotion that is tied to joining a family already in progress.
My husband looked over at me, as I sat casually in the passenger seat. Our family of five cruised along to our new Friday night ritual—family date night—and said wistfully, “You know he realllllly loves you. I know what I have with him, but that is really special—I’m a little jealous sometimes.”
“Mmm-hmm, I know,” I said.
Things have come a long way.
He was talking about my youngest stepson, who was hanging onto the last words I’d just spoken. My husband said, “I know I’m The Protector, but you, you’re The Teacher.”
It was in that moment I really began to appreciate just how far our blended family had come. Eight years ago, my then-boyfriend had two young sons when we moved in together, ages 4 and 2 to be exact. Needless to say, I had no idea what it meant to live with kids, much less kids who weren’t related to me. I especially didn’t know that forming a stepfamily is one of the most insane, courageous, and stressful things a couple could ever go through. (All the stepmoms out there, I imagine, are saying sing it, sister!). The good news is that the first five years are the hardest, and if you can get through those, there’s a good chance you are in the clear.
My lovely husband and I were pregnant within the year of shacking up, had a son and were married a year later. Fast-forward almost seven years, and I’m starting to forget those early hard days. They say you don’t have to love your stepchildren, nor like them, but treat them with respect and dignity and support their relationship with their parents.
I feel like that’s a big load of BS. Nonsense.
That sounds very reasonable and practical, but when you get them as a 4- and 2-year-old—guess what? They need love, whether you feel like giving it or not. Genuine love. Lots of love. And getting to love two kids who aren’t related to you, as much as you love your own child … well, it’s not for the faint of heart.
I bring up the relation part, because now that I have my own child, I have a reference point for comparison. I can see what the biological attachment does; it blinds you to any and all annoying things about your child. It must be a survival mechanism. You know when you call an adult and they put little Johnny on the phone because, well isn’t it cute that he can talk on the phone? No. No, its not cute. Put your mom back on the phone please, Johnny. However, when you live with two kids who aren’t related to you biologically, every annoying thing they do is 10 times louder, grosser, and more irritating. All the time. Two days on, two days off.
This is particularly true of our middle guy, aforementioned stepson number two, who is now an introspective, brilliant, outspoken 10-year-old. The reason he annoys me so is that we are very much alike. Quite honestly, I must have been a rather annoying child as well.
I remember an uncle (whom I really liked) telling me I was a “difficult child” when I was in my 20s, which, of course, crushed me. Stepson and I butt heads a lot because, in truth, I forget how young he is (he is very articulate) and treat him like a friend most days. Then I say something, and look into those big, waiting eyes, and he’s just a little boy. And more and more, I’ve realized lately, holy crap, he really is hanging onto every word I say.
He trusts me. Finally. It only took eight years.
If I could go back in time to myself about five or six years ago, I would say, “Girl, hang on tight and don’t worry, I can guarantee it will get better.” I might have been less of a freak show, and more of a Zen stepmom and second wife. I wasn’t Zen though. I tried to take things in stride, but no one prepares you for the onslaught of emotion that is tied to joining a family already in progress.
However, I’m happy to say, we are our own family now. We have our own well-defined traditions all the kids look forward to all year long. The relationship between my two stepsons and our son is touching and heartwarming. They adore each other. My marriage is stronger than it’s ever been. And my relationship with my stepsons has definitely entered a new stage. One is hitting puberty and one will be soon, and both thoughts are somewhat terrifying. But this new level of trust and mutual respect will help buffer the next stages of life and development for them and us (here’s hoping).
Being in a stepfamily has made all of us stronger. I would like to think the boys will have really high emotional intelligence in their future romantic relationships because we all talk about our feelings All.The.Time. Which you have to do in a stepfamily, because you don’t have the benefit of shared genetics to “get” each other. We all know more about collaboration, negotiation, emotional regulation, and boundaries.
The bond my husband and I formed many years ago, in creating a new marriage and a new family, has finally moved into the next chapter. Proven by my middle stepson, who now hangs on my every word.
Christina Crowe is a 30-something senior sales consultant, as well as a Certified Coach and Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology candidate. She lives north of Toronto with her husband, their son, two stepsons, and new puppy. Follow her on Twitter at: @CndCounsellor, Instagram at: @christina_crowe and at www.christinacrowe.ca