A few years back, I was working through this class on finding your one true passion (which, FYI, I’m still not sure is a real thing). One of the assignments was to think about the times in your life when you were happiest, then write down all the words you associate with those times. Okay, fine. Next you write down the times in life you were unhappiest and do the same thing. Great. Then you compare those lists, and by comparing them, you get a glimpse into your values. I didn’t expect to uncover any huge surprises through doing this, but of course I did.
I’ve often said that the years immediately after Miss G’s dad moved out were some of the best in my life, but that’s always seemed so incongruous with the actual events that were taking place. Surely that was a time of upheaval, of heartbreak. And it was both of those things, for sure. Simultaneously, though, I was finally able to throw off the limbo that defined the bleak, final months of our relationship and commit to a concrete plan for my future: go back to school. And never have I experienced such an amazing support network as during those tumultuous, joyous, manic next few years while I juggled school and work and little Miss G.
According to my list, all my other happiest times shared the same profile: a clear path ahead combined with cheerful, boisterous camaraderie along the way.
When I look back at last decade or so of my life, I can see that meeting Dan and going through everything we went through together pointed us down a path too narrow for anyone to squeeze along except each other. So many other friendships and acquaintances faded out or fell behind. I’ve moved or they’ve moved; we’ve all changed careers; our lives have led us away from each other instead of continuing in the same direction. And I love Dan to pieces, but I miss having a tribe.
Stepparenting has been the loneliest journey of my life. People who aren’t stepparents can’t understand. (And people who are stepparents are like “PREACH” right now.) No matter how much outside support you might have in your life, the lack of support from inside the family unit you’re trying to build is missing— and that’s the support you need the most. Stepparenting is at least three times the work of normal parenting but with a fraction of the rewards— and if you admit to that, admit to the emotional exhaustion and the indescribable futility that haunts you daily when you’re years into this gig and still have made zero headway— then you’re a bad person who isn’t trying hard enough, you’re an idealistic person who should’ve known what you were getting into when you started dating a guy with kids.
I thought I approached blending a family with reasonable expectations. I never thought we’d form the Brady Bunch overnight. I of course expected an adjustment period when I met Miss L. Some initial resistance? Sure, totally normal. What I did not expect was her complete and total rejection— for years, without respite. What I did not expect was that things would get much, much harder before they would get better. And the worst part is that I didn’t figure out I needed help till I was a few years in. Right when I realized I was in way over my head, I simultaneously found I felt way too committed to back out.
It’s around this time that I (and I think most stepparents, particularly stepmoms) started seeking out resources on blended families. Any wisdom, from any corner. I read every book on stepparenting I could find at the library, and came away still lost. None of the dynamics those books described applied to our high-conflict situation. Every author was dismissive of my emotional turmoil: “Don’t take these things personally. Your stepchild would treat anyone in your position exactly the same way.” But none of them followed up with an explanation of HOW to not take everything personally. And PS, on what planet is my stepdaughter refusing to sing happy birthday to me not personal?
Frustrated, I started looking online. Ugh, even worse. Every forum was full of bitter, defensive stepmothers throwing pessimistic pity parties/bitch fests. No one was helping anyone. Negativity bred worse negativity. Search results were full of passive-aggressive bullshit like this nonsense —->
I gave up looking for help. Over time, life moved on. Kids grew older. Miss L moved away. Conflict eased up. So my need for outside wisdom became less immediate but my drive to understand exactly what had gone so very wrong in those miserable early years and how we could have done better only increased.
At some point, I stumbled into the stepparenting subreddit. There was venting there too, followed by the same worthless vanilla advice my instincts and personal experience told me was wrong. Tired of the status quo, I started speaking up, even though everything I’d come to believe went exactly against what everyone else was saying. My advice was downvoted to hell publicly, but privately I received messages saying stuff like “Thank you, what you said really hit home” or “Your comment was the only one in there that made sense to me.” And slowly, over several months, there was a shift in the subreddit — my comments started getting upvoted instead. More people started saying the same kinds of things I said. More people echoed my personal experiences of fighting for peace within a high-conflict co-parenting situation.
We all found out we weren’t as alone as we believed.
All stepparents go through this. All stepparents feel like outsiders. All stepparents feel like their contributions don’t matter. All stepparents struggle to find their role: are they helping to raise the children in their household, or are they glorified babysitters? At what point, if any, does normal day-to-day interaction with your stepchild count as overstepping in the eyes of the other biological parent? What doesn’t count as overstepping? Is helping with homework allowed? Helping get ready for a school play? School drop-offs and pick-ups? And should you even care what someone else thinks is overstepping or should you just say fuck it and overstep anyway because you have every right to build your own family, goddammit?
As far as stepparenting goes, r/stepparents has been the only thing that’s helped me haul myself out of my isolation tank and back into a wider, friendlier landscape. And others have found solace there too, which warms my soul. I wish this resource had been there for me back in the earliest days, back when I was drowning. But it’s there now for other stepparents, and that’s huge.
I didn’t ever intend for this blog to be a blog about stepparenting. Looking back on those years was too awful. I didn’t want to revisit a single bit of it; I wanted to slam the lid shut tight and shove that entire era into a dark, cobwebby corner where I could forget all that misery as thoroughly as possible. But damned if my occasional posts on blended families aren’t consistently the ones that folks read the most.
Someone somewhere is reading this thing and nominating me for the best stepparenting blog and best stepmom blog award thingies I post in the sidebar. (Thanks for that, by the way, whoever you are.) Someone somewhere finds resonance in what I write. And that means that as much of a black sheep as I have felt pretty much since the day I met Dan, as alone as I’ve felt all these years as a stepparent, there are so many of us feeling the exact same way. Enough of us that if you put us all together, we’d no longer be lonely outliers; we’d just be… together. Our own tribe of black sheep.
So that is my word for 2017. Tribe.
You’ve heard the saying that you should write the book you want to read. Well, I’ve decided to build the website I wished would’ve existed years ago when I needed it most.
My people are out there. And I have a plan for us to find each other. Stay tuned for info on the new site.