When I was only contemplating this step-mother idea, my lovely friend Ying told me very sincerely and emphatically, “In China, step-mother always bad.” I shook my head, thinking of my very good experience of step mothers. She repeated it more slowly, thinking I didn’t understand. She explained that we have a reflex for our biological baby that we lack for our step child. When your biological child spills milk, she said, you mop it up with a bit of grumbling, or you may even praise their perfectly circular spill. When your step-child does exactly the same thing, you blame the bad baby that spilled the milk.
The reflexive bias she described is a huge obstacle in blended families. I understood it well from having been a step kid. Problems sprout from the bias and grow in every direction. The urges to be protective, effective and fair as a parent collide with the child’s needs to be favored, nurtured and understood. Before you know it, everyone is pissed off.
Family life becomes more complex with each additional person in any situation. When you add differences of blood and culture, you are begging for chaos. When you add both boys and girls you are begging for fights about toilet seats.
I did it anyway, with an eye to that friendly warning: the stepmother is always bad. I believe now that she was telling me not to be a step-mother. At the time, I took her to mean that I shouldn’t be bad. I tried super-hard not to be bad.
For us, the blending began more like smashing. On our first Christmas, I killed Santa Claus. There was a bitter confrontation, which was not at all festive. Everyone thought they had the right idea, and that meant someone else had to be wrong. It’s possible to agree on the most important fundamentals and still stumble on tiny touchstones along the way. The Santa Claus emergency was the first of an inevitable string of calamities.
All these years later, yerdad and I sit back and wonder how the hell we did it. The hardest part was figuring out when to get into and out of each other’s way as parents. No one can spot over-protectiveness faster than a step parent. We have a duty to protect against that.
Loving the kids was the easiest part. Finding fairness was the most interesting part. If you decide to dive into the insanity of a blended family, you will see what I mean. Partiality toward your biological kids is a powerful tide to resist, but you can fight it and they all will notice your efforts. With your bio-kids, you may assume you “get them” just as you find the step-kids opaque. Even as you struggle to understand them, recognize that you can have a wonderful impartiality toward your step-people. It just comes along with the situation.
As a step-parent, if you can express your step-parent thoughts gently and honestly to an open reception, the result will be a much better understanding of everyone, for everyone. The reverse is even more important. Try your hardest to take the other view to heart and give it a chance to teach you something.
Know that you will mess it up more than once and sometimes an entire chorus of jeers will result. No one is better able to recognize mistakes than a step parent or a step kid. They are viewing the situation from a step back, so to speak.
It’s so tricky and so worthwhile. But so tricky.