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Managing the Mess: Layers of Stepfamily Struggles

By September 4, 2016 No Comments


There are a lot of similarities with first time families but so many that are different  and more complex. Layers of complexity. Families go through cycles of growth and development cycles just as a human being goes through growth and development cycles throughout the lifespan. For the individual it is infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle age and the golden years. The family goes through newlywed couple, childbearing years, launching children/empty nest, and elderly couple. However, these stages become more complex and much harder to navigate for stepfamilies. There is a pre made family with extended members. It’s not just in- laws, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles and grandparents from his side and yours. Now there are ex- in laws added to the mix -along with the more obvious challenges with the ex. More relationships, more feelings to consider, more politics, more people to try to please or placate.  And there are already established protocols, rules, and expectations around reviously celebrated event. So what normally should be celebratory moments for the new stepcouple during these life stages can become complicated. Tensions run much higher in anticipation of these significant events. Sometimes all the preplanning in the world can’t prevent those carefully laid, detailed plans from getting derailed.  All of them are exacerbated by unresolved tension between your partner and his ex and if there are issues around parental alienation. These are the layers  never experienced by first time families and often the reason why your friends and family cannot understand fully and completely what it is stepmoms and other blended family members go through.

There are plenty of scenarios but starting with the wedding, a normally exciting and highly anticipated event, this can potentially be tricky. Some unresolved issues can be stirred before or on the day of the big event.  If the ex doesn’t want the children to attend, then that can be difficult and painful for your partner. How do you entice the reluctant child to be in your wedding party or the pictures and at least smile? Some couples side step the formalities by living together.  Moving in can bring with it the blending in of 1 or 2 families. This is one layer that a first time family never has to deal with and this is the crux of a whole spin off of complications. Visitation, custody, court, child support, spousal support and….

Then another significant next is the birth of an ours baby. It’s hard enough for a full sibling to like and accept the new child.  It is much more difficult for the half sibling to adjust. Chances are they are still likely figuring out where they fit in with the newly formed joint family and then a new infant who is in constant need is brought in. Sensitive negotiations are required.

As children age, more next steps come.  Another significant right of passage for the family  is graduation from high school and the possibility of post secondary education. Then managing how to afford the costs associated with technical or training certificates or diplomas or university degrees. This can provide headaches of astronomical proportions. A foundational issue at this stage is child support going directly to the child or to the mother, and where do they go for school? Another step along the lifecycle journey is marriage of the adult stepchildren. Politics come into play here as well. Who attends the dress fittings and the showers, and various parties, who is invited to the wedding , where do they sit, who pays for what.

Even simple holiday events can be mired in challenges. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Christmas are key holidays that become that much more complicated by stepfamily dynamics.  Stepmothers often go unacknowledged and unappreciated on Mother’s  day despite the heart and soul that they pour into their family and stepchildren. Because of parental alienation, there are also a lot of dads who have lost connections with their children and recognizing Father’s Day is painful and sometimes avoided. Even small scale events like buying school supplies and registration, parent teacher interview, school concerts, and sporting tournaments can be a place where the pull of family loyalties are stretched.

It is possible to have positive and respectful celebrations as well for these significant events. But first must come the best interests of the child. So that means the adults must come to some resolution of old wounds, establishing patterns of healthy communication and clear boundaries and loving the child more than hating the ex and letting go of personal agendas.

With all of this said what does that say about stepmoms and stepfamilies. That it’s hard- sometimes brutally hard. But that just shows us how selfless, how strong, how resourceful, how smart and how resilient we can be. But above all else, how AMAZING we are. Stepmoms need to be more sensitive, more compassionate, more “take the high road” AND “take the big picture” view point than even bio moms. Believe me, I am both. It requires a very firm commitment to self care and securing your foundation as a couple. So find, create, carve out that time for you and your spouse. It truly is sacred time.


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