In my articles, I talk a lot about the difficulties that new stepcouples face and how to address them. I also think it’s important to celebrate the possibilities for what a stepfamily can become. The other night, over dinner with our kids and grandkids, we reminisced about what it was like growing up in our stepfamily.
When David and I got married in 1976, our kids were 6, 7, 9, 11 and 14—not exactly easy ages. I had two boys and I inherited 2 stepdaughters and a stepson.
One night early in our marriage, David came home from work with a suspicious smile on his face. When the seven of us sat down to dinner, he said, “Anyone who would like a puppy, raise your hand.” Everyone raised his or her hand…except for me. I was furious! I was already overworked and overwhelmed—I wasn’t interested in a dog. But the others talked me into it, and off we went to pick out our new golden retriever, which David’s partner was giving away.
The kids named her Gingersnap. Everyone loved Ginger, especially me. The kids rode her, dressed her up, fought over her, walked and ran with her. I loved her because she was always sweet and never talked back. (Although the episode turned out well for everyone, it didn’t take us long to learn to check in with each other about important decisions.)
This was before Costco, so I spent most of my life grocery shopping. The kids remember loading bags of groceries into the house and garbage out. We quickly discovered that we had to run a tight ship to avoid chaos in the household. We posted a rotating chore schedule on the refrigerator that detailed everyone’s duties for the week. At an early age, our kids took turns setting and clearing the table and doing the dishes. They even did their own laundry. (Our kids had tie-dyed clothes before it was the style; they didn’t separate colors very well.)
While we were reminiscing, the kids talked about their wonderful holiday memories. One of them complimented me by saying, “You did holidays well!” My memories are quite different. I remember working my tail off, spending lots of money, wrapping gifts ‘til I dropped, cooking and cleaning. They loved Thanksgiving, when my son always ate the turkey skin, Fourth of July, when they drove the neighbors crazy with fireworks, and Halloween, when David expertly painted the kids’ faces to suit their costumes. I loved Mother’s Day, when they presented me with homemade cards and breakfast in bed.
We had especially memorable family vacations: the time Lu broke her leg and we made a bed for her in the back of the van; the time a kid got lost in the woods and frightened; and the many times someone ended up getting stitches. We recalled how the kids loved watching slideshows of our vacations and holidays. Everyone would gather in the living room, mostly eager to see the pictures of themselves.
You know that your stepfamily has really bonded when the kids start to cover for each other. It was the kids vs. the parents, and our kids developed a code of silence. Their mantra was “DO NOT rat out your sister or brother.” Unfortunately, we, the parents, were often left in the cold, not knowing things we should have known.
When they were older, the kids would get into our booze and have a fine time. The older kids led the younger ones astray. We laughed about how every kid knew where the liquor cabinet was and exactly what was in it. They asked us, “What were you thinking? Why didn’t you hide it?” We answered, “Because we trusted you.” DUMB.
We were hardly a perfect family. There were days when I wanted to run away…honestly. But when we were chatting the other night and laughing about our memories, it was all worth it. We played the “Do You Remember…” game for a long time. I learned stuff that they couldn’t tell me back then (the code of silence has a statute of limitations, apparently). And while we reminisced around the dining table, the grandkids were hanging out together, enjoying their cousins.
May you be so lucky!
Susan Wisdom MA