I saw myself as a stepmom because I married a man with 3 children from a previous relationship. That was a pretty clear conclusion to draw. Until very recently, only after the work that I’ve done with stepfamilies, I never thought of myself as a stepchild. First, because I was an adult when my mother died and my dad re-coupled and second, because of my age, I never saw my stepmother as well….MY mother. Largely because I did’t think I needed one. I write about how stepchildren have behaviours that can be difficult to manage, how stepchildren can be cold and disrespectful, how they can play power and control games, how they tell you they don’t have to listen to you because you’re not their real mom. But I wrote that from the perspective of children who are under the age of majority. However, this time I am writing from the perspective of an adult stepchild. Me. And this one has been a long time coming. And hard to write. In fact, I’ve been ignoring it for some time now. What are my insights as I am coming from the other person’s perspective? I’m going to give MYSELF some advice now that maybe I should have had THEN.
It was very hard for me to accept that my mom had died. That took a long time to get to that place of acceptance. But I watched my dad as he watched his life partner of 42 years slowly and painfully slip away. He didn’t handle it well …at all. I was angry that he quickly re-coupled with a new woman 3 months after my mom died. It wasn’t until many months later that I realised if he hadn’t, my dad would have made a quick trip to be reunited with my mom. He was lost without her.
Although it was hard to accept that my mom had died it was harder still to accept that my dad couldn’t do life alone. Here’s my sage advice to my younger self:
1) Men typically re -couple faster than women. There is an old saying that women mourn and men replace. Men look to their partner to organize their life. Social and otherwise. I had to learn and understand this. It didn’t make it right but put things in perspective. My dad was lost without my mom organizing the day to day activities, taking charge of the home, paying the bills. She made life very easy for him. And he was also very lonely. For a stepchild, this is hard. I was angry that my dad didn’t honour my mom and the fact that they were together for over 4 decades. I really didn’t want my dad to recouple. How dare he?! I didn’t want him to move on- yet. I had a loyalty bind too! I wouldn’t say I hated her but I certainly didn’t like her and I didn’t want to like her because I loved my mom. And I didn’t make it easy for either of them. In fact, I made it down right difficult. Go figure! But she was patient. And she was there for a long time, until my dad passed away. 11 years after my mom. And I DID let her in. She was the grandma to my girls.
2) In one of my other blogs on adult stepchildren I wrote about how the stepmom should honour the relationship between the dad and his kids. This can be supported by allowing one on one time alone with each other. I will wholeheartedly reiterate that. My dad and I lost some opportunities we needed to spend time together, just the two of us. My dad’s partner (see I still don’t see her as my stepmom) was insecure to be sure. And honestly, my dad was too. He was navigating the biggest loss and change of his life. But there were ways that I made our time alone happen. It was so important to have that time to grieve together. I lost my mom and that was a huge adjustment. He had lost his wife and his way of life.
3) My last bit of advice is to give myself the permission I needed to be angry and be sad and even more than that AFRAID. I had lost my mom and had lost my foundation as my parents’ marriage had changed. A child’s perception of their parents’ marriage is pivotal to how they view safety and security and of their self esteem. That foundation of the parental unit is the spring board of all future intimate relationships. If the foundation gets rocked, so too does the sense of what family is and who you are in your family. There was so much out of my control and I HATED EVERY SECOND OF NOT HAVING IT!! Imagine an adult with a master’s degree in Family Studies and an undergraduate degree in psychology feeling out of control? I had a lot of resources and I was smart! It still brought me to my knees. I wish I knew then what I know now. I was afraid and even afraid to feel afraid. But I needed to be ok with those feelings and allow them (me) the space they (I) needed to hold less power over me. Everything that I was feeling was totally normal and totally ok. I just really needed to take better care of myself. Self care. And I also needed to stop making everyone else live up to what I expected them to do. Again, self care.
So all of the things a child experiences after the loss of their family are all of the things an adult experiences after the loss of their family. All of the feelings a child has about having a new mom are all of the feelings an adult has about having a new mom. But support and understanding and compassion for the child and adult stepchild are still necessary to arrive on the other side of grief and loss.