Saturday, September 15, 2012
A stepparenting rulebook: uncertainty, regret, and ironing
I don't believe any child ever spends his or her formative years thinking, "When I grow up, I want to be a stepparent." Kids might dream of becoming a mom or dad one day, but the once-removed nature of stepparenting isn't easily to understand, let alone aspire to.
I became a stepparent nearly nearly seven years ago, and like most stepparents, I didn't break down and separate the relationships -- e.g., today I'm getting married, and today I'm also forming important-but-undefined relationships with four other humans. I assumed, as I'm sure most people do, that everything would simply fall into place.
There's so much to be written on the topic. But suffice it to say that in my opinion, step-relationships are difficult because they are so undefined -- to coin a cliche, there's no rulebook. And if you happen to have multiple stepkids, each relationship is going to be unique.
So many variables play into the relationship: Is the child's other parent still living? How much time does the child spend with that person? How does the other parent feel about you, the stepparent, and about your relationship with the child?
How contentious was the parents' divorce, and to what degree was the child involved and impacted? How old is the child, and what's his or her basic personality and temperament? And to put it simply: Does the child like you?
All those translate to roughly 8 million variables that, on most days, can seem to conspire against success.
Stepparenting is not for the faint of heart, the thin of skin, and the easily defeated. It's not the natural order of things, the way things are supposed to transpire. And unless you're very fortunate, it can bring you to your knees on a regular basis.
But then, there are days you have enough presence of mind to think of it like this:
When the child whose life you entered when he was not quite 5 is getting ready to go to his first school dance, and you're ironing his clothes. You know he doesn't really care who is ironing them; he's far more concerned, probably, with trying to figure out how the heck a school dance works, and how, to a larger degree, the whole dating thing works.
But the ironing, to you, exemplifies what being a stepparent is all about: Not Cinderella-type drudgery, but the behind-the-scenes nature of the job. You're not the one who ever gets kudos for anything, nor should you be, and you're good with that. But you've become pretty good at the little unseen things that let the child, and his parents, know that you want to help that child thrive and succeed.
As you iron, you think about teaching that child to read. You think about the eggshells you've walked on so as not to smother him; you think about the time his eyebrows fell out and how you tried not to draw attention to the fact that he looked like an alien. You think about the fact that you can't really hug him, because A. he's 15 and B. he doesn't want you to.
And you think about the time that you broke the news to him that his good friend had died. And because you're not the parent but the stepparent, and you have your own kids to attend to, you had to leave the house immediately after delivering that horrible news. And you think about how you've always somehow regretted the way things had worked out that day, as you drove away and left his dad, who's not always comfortable with feelings, to deal with the most awful thing that had ever happened in the child's life.
You think about the fact that even though this is not your child, you have a history with him. But you've consciously tried not to overstep your bounds, because your own children have stepparents, too, and you know how it feels to be on the other side. So sometimes you've chosen to hang back.
But in the end, although such relationships are complicated, you hope, somehow, that your meager contribution to your stepson's big night -- the ironing of the shirt and the pants -- can convey the fact that even though you never really know what your place is, you really, truly do care.