(This story will publish in the Press Democrat on June 1, 2012)

A friend and I were recently in a classroom at the Santa Rosa Junior College, sharing stories of our separate blended families with Sociology students as they studied remarriage and stepfamilies. We came there with a stepmother’s point of view, and told these stories as openly and honestly as we could. However, we never knew just how raw such a conversation could be, especially when it was part of an open dialogue with students who had extremely great questions for us.

“Are you ever affectionate with your stepson?” one student asked in the back of the room.

I had to pause for a second before I answered, even asking him to repeat himself just to stall for time. How do I answer this question? I thought about my fiancé’s 16-year old son, how untouchable the kid had seemed over the years. Just a few months ago we weren’t even speaking to each other, unsure how to even communicate anything with the other person. But recently a positive shift started to take place. We developed a mutual interest for running, and that served as the catalyst for a better relationship between the two of us. Now he’s using my name, striking up conversations with me, and the communication between us is easy and effortless.

But affection?

“In the almost 4 years I have known my stepson, I have hugged him only once,” I admitted to the boy. “That was two Christmases ago, and I can still remember how it felt because he’s actually a really great hugger.” They all laughed.

Probably the most poignant moment of the discussion, however, was when one girl in the classroom shared what it felt like to be a stepchild caught up between homes. Her father had remarried a woman who started out trying to get close to this girl. But this stepmom’s mistake was never getting to know her stepdaughter as an individual with separate tastes and interests than her own. She would buy her new clothes that she thought were nice, but weren’t really the girl’s style. She redecorated the girl’s room, but never conferred with her stepdaughter on how she would actually like it to be decorated.
The stepmother insisted that none of the clothes or belongings from their house were allowed to go to the ex-wife’s house, despite the fact that this girl’s mother was barely scraping by and could afford very little for her children on her single income. This girl would miss out on family vacations when her dad, stepmom, and new brother would travel during her visits at her mom’s house. But the biggest message she received regarding her place in the family was seeing family pictures with her stepbrother all over the house, but none of her. Feeling pushed out of her father’s new family, this student eventually moved in with her mom full time.

“When we moved into our house, one of the first things I did was put a few pictures up on the mantel,” a reader named Christina recently wrote to me after reading about this student’s story in this blog. This mom put up the pictures she had in her possession: a few of her son Jake, and a few of the two of them together. That night, her stepson Sam took notice. “You only put pictures up of Jake and you,” he pointed out, clearly hurt. Christina immediately searched the house for photos, printing out and framing some new pictures from a recent vacation that included all of them as a family. “I’m so grateful Sam said something because when I put those pictures up, I wasn’t even thinking I was being inconsiderate.”

Christina also told about how painful blending her family had been in the early years, particularly between her son and stepson. One son divided his time between households while the other was able to stay fulltime in the house. The result was a constant competition between the two of them. However, what once seemed like a hopeless situation eventually evolved into a brotherly friendship between the two and a bond within their family of four.

“I think I would define our family as a strong, loving blended family at this point. I think we all like each other for the most part and we have fun when we’re together. The household runs pretty smoothly when everyone is home. The boys know that Neil and I are totally supportive of one another, and that we’re supportive of them. If you had told me when Neil and I first met that it would take four years for me to feel this way, I probably would have cried.”

Blended families consist of two differently raised units that fit, at times, messily together. It’s not always easy, and obviously there will be mistakes. But with time, patience, and dedication, comes strength in a family that fits together beautifully.