You Don’t Always Get the Stepfamily You Want
I’m from the “every other weekend and holidays” generation. Whoever came up with that asinine concoction of parental timeshare should be taken out back and taught a lesson.
When I was a child, the thinking around divorce and stepparenting was pretty half-baked. You would get a proper talking-to any time someone was getting divorced, and then you’d wake up one morning with a new stepparent. I did, very literally, twice.
A lot of shit went down when I was a kid. The Cliff’s Notes version: My parents divorced when I was six. My father remarried when I was seven. She had two sons. My mother remarried when I was nine. He had two sons. My mother divorced my first stepfather when I was 10. My father divorced my stepmother when I was 12. Four years went by, and then there was Todd. He has two sons, too. Still with me?
I wasn’t asked to be part of anyone’s family — I was told.
My stepmother did not like me. Cue the Disney music. I don’t think she liked children at all. Her own sons were 15 and 16 when I joined their family and I don’t think she fancied raising kids in reverse. She embedded into my psyche that I was taking up my father’s precious time. I should go to my room, be quiet, and not bother him (during the every other weekend that bothering him was even an option). She never showed me warmth, or even welcome. My very existence was an imposition.
This was my first experience with a stepfamily, and since I was a never-gets-in-trouble angel child (you’re welcome, Mom), I tried. I tried to like it, I tried to matter to these strangers. I wasn’t asked to be part of anyone’s family — I was told. Trying didn’t get me very far.
My first stepfather was not a nice man. He was very cold and mean to me and my younger brother. His life and his house never really seemed suitable for children, and he made us feel like we were an imposition. We were constantly trying to stay out of the way, to make as little noise as possible, to barely exist. There would not be any trying with him. I rarely saw his children and I don’t even remember their names. I was scared during most of the 10 months we lived in his house on the lake.
This cemented in my mind the rather sad, and mercifully incorrect, notion that stepfamilies aren’t things you like. Instead, they’re things you survive. You have no choice about these extra parents, extra siblings, these spare family parts. They don’t like you, they don’t need you, they don’t want you. But you’re stuck with them, because your actual parent says so. And you love your actual parent. And you trust that your actual parent loves you. So, you guess, this is what family is now. You’ll make it. You’ll turn 18 eventually.
By the end of my first round of next-marriages, I’d had two stepparents, four stepbrothers (honestly, can a bitch get a sister?), and a smattering of step-grandparents and other family flotsam.
I still have some of that anger. It’s in a drawer somewhere.
They all went away when my mother, brother, and I moved into a two-bedroom apartment. We’d stay there until my senior year of high school. I endured decisions I didn’t like and had no control over (not even a say in) for a decade. This would make any child very, very angry. I still have some of that anger. It’s in a drawer somewhere.
It will also make a child not really give a shit about new family members. I had long since decided that, no matter what, my immediate family consisted of me, my mother, and (ugh) my little brother. So I barely noticed when my mother met Todd.
This wasn’t the first long-term relationship she’d had while we lived in that apartment. After those and after the stepfamilies, you can imagine the peak 16-year-old “whatever” attitude I was working with. I was so disconnected and over it that it took me about a year to realize he was the one trying this time. He didn’t just want to marry my parent. He wanted to be my parent, too. Theirs was the first step-wedding I ever knew about in advance or attended.
He speaks of all of us with permanence, not tolerance.
Along the way, I learned a little something about Todd: He’s a wonderful person! He is kind and thoughtful and very nerdy in the same way that I am. He likes soccer and cycling and he is always very proud of me. He runs his own business(es), volunteers a lot of his time, and he speaks of all of us with permanence, not tolerance. He once gave me an annual subscription to the Sundance Documentary Club (did you know that existed?). To this day it is the only unsolicited gift I’ve ever been given that was perfect for me. It required someone to consider my interests, to care about making me smile. “What would Shani like, I wonder? Ha! I’ve got it! She loves documentaries! Here’s a subscription to literally all of them.”
He is what I like to call “my upgrade.” If I can credit one thing with reviving my belief in family, and in the people who collectively hold that title in my life today, he’s it. He’s the thing.
Another thing about Todd. I don’t call him that. In the ’90s there was this unspoken waiting game to see how long it would take for a stepchild to call a stepparent “dad.” I’m not a big fan of that word, so I call him Toddles. He’s my Toddles, the first stepparent I’ve ever had who feels like family.
This is the first year that marks Todd being in my life longer than he wasn’t. That might not sound like a milestone to you but to a very, very angry little girl, it’s the jackpot. I wish I could have told her what she’d win someday.
In the fall of 2019, my mother and stepfather will have been married for 20 years. Ten years after that, they’ll have been married for 30. I don’t wonder about that, and I don’t hope. I know it for sure, and I like the idea very much.