Winning The Step-Family Lottery
When someone mentions winning a lottery, most folks’ minds jump to the tickets sold at mini marts that (extremely rarely) result in big bucks. But there are other kinds of lotteries too, like when any of us finds ourselves in a situation where so much can go wrong but where things actually go very, very right.
I am getting to the age where I am going to more funerals. Those old enough to have been grandparents are long gone, and those of my parents’ generation are mostly into their 80’s, which should be a good, long life by almost anyone’s standards. I went to another funeral some time back which made me spend some time thinking about something that was once uncommon, but is becoming less so as time passes – the step family.
My parents divorced in the 1960’s and my father later remarried. I was nine years old in 1968, and the whole experience was a challenge for me. I may write more about this in the future, but for now, let’s just say that in my neighborhood in the midwestern suburbs of that time, I felt like a freak.
We have all watched (or at least heard of) The Brady Bunch on TV. The show’s premise was that a widower with three sons married a widow with three daughters, and they all lived happily ever after in a big house in southern California. My sister and I didn’t live the Brady Bunch lifestyle as 1) we continued to live mostly with our mother and 2) our stepmom didn’t bring kids of her own from a prior phase of life. One thing I never saw the Brady Bunch writers deal with was extended family. But we would have to. And it turned out to be a good thing.
Our stepmom Carol (a wonderful lady) came from a family much like that of our mother – in fact the two groups of families came of age only a county apart in the farming communities of northwestern Ohio. It should not be surprising that the two families would be a lot alike, and other than some small differences (Methodist instead of Lutheran, five siblings of the parents’ generation instead of three) the experiences were similar.
When the day came when we became introduced to Carol’s large extended family, I was not really ready. My introverted personality does not consider meeting lots of new people to be child’s play, but there we were. I cannot say that I remember the specific instance, but I do remember many different times for getting together in those early years. And in all of those times, I cannot remember a single bad experience.
The other kids welcomed us right into whatever they might have been playing. The aunts and uncles took a genuine interest in us, and were unfailingly warm and kind. The grandparents were just what the very best grandparents are supposed to be. It is one thing to be good to kids being brought into a big family, but it is quite another to treat them in a way that exhibited no favoritism. There were no second or third class grandchildren or nieces or nephews with this group – my sister and I stood on the same level playing field as all of the kids who had been born into the family.
I wish I could say that I fully reciprocated, but sadly I cannot. For most of our youth, my sister and I were a sample size of two in our neighborhood and in our circles of friends. It seems odd to say now, but we had no idea how this was all supposed to work. Our mother did not handle the rejection that is inherent in separation and divorce as well as others might have, but given our lack of experience, how could we know?
As an adult who has, by now, known many others affected by divorce and remarriage it is easy to look back and see that there were no choices to be made or sides to be chosen. In truth, we kind of saw that then, but we also recognized that wholeheartedly joining into this new family would be seen by our mother (whether reasonably or not) as more rejection, and we had no desire to cause any more hurt than was absolutely necessary. I wish I had been able to navigate these waters later when all these things would have been much more comprehensible to me.
This dynamic affected our relationship with our two younger brothers who came along as well. Visiting every third weekend and over periodic holidays is no way to build deep family ties, and the things that tug a teenager away from family and towards his circle of friends helps even less. I think we have pulled things together fairly well, but it could have been so much better.
The result was that we were close, but not too close. We were at some get-togethers and gatherings, but missed quite a few others. We were like those children at a summertime party who constantly run into and out of the house until some adult finally yells “Hey kids, stay in or go out, but you have to stop running through that door.” Fortunately, there was nobody minding the family’s real-life screen door. The door was always open to us, something that I knew and appreciated.
These wonderful people and how I had responded to them over the years rushed into my mind a few years ago when I got the news that Uncle Harold had passed away. I had known that he had been fighting some health problems, but had no idea how serious his condition was. I had already made up my mind to take the day from work and drive the one hundred miles to the funeral when I learned that his son was asking if I would be willing to be a pallbearer.
My first reaction was one of surprise. I had been expecting to offer my condolences from a respectful distance to leave space for those more closely related. But once again this family embraced me as a full member.
Today, I wish I had the opportunity to go back and make a second try at the two-family thing. I would be so much more successful at it if given a mulligan. But that is not the way these things work. All I can do is to appreciate and try to build on those relationships – I just wish that relationship-building was something that I was better at than I actually am.
In the decades that have gone by since I first found myself in the situation, I have heard so many stories where attempts at family blending went poorly. Those cases seem to outnumber the ones where things went really well. And with all of this additional information I can appreciate something now so much more fully than I could then: where things could have gone wrong in so many ways, I came up a winner. And I am thankful to the kind and generous people who made it so.
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My first wife is on her fifth marriage. You read that right. It’s not something I talk about often. I was her third, after a disastrous and very brief first at 18, a 10-year second that produced my 33-y-o stepson, and me. I was willing to write off #1 and treat #2 as her actual first, but now her track record proves she had stuff to work through and she did it through her husbands.
But she’s not the point; my sons are. They’ve now had to get to know the families of *three* new spouses, two of their mom’s and one of mine. I admit to feeling some disappointment that my sons are polite but not warm towards my wife’s children. I suppose warmth may come in time. I hope so; Margaret’s kids are lovely people. But given my sons’ experience, I don’t blame them if they are wary.
That is a tough thing to get through, even when so many factors are pointing things in the right direction as they were in my case. I cannot begin to imagine how I would have dealt with that many versions of family.
You’ve triggered a lot of thought and introspection here…..
My father’s mother (who will be 98 next month) is her mother’s third child with her older half-sister coming about from a prior marriage. My great-grandmother obtained and was granted a divorce prior to 1920. She was maybe 20 at the time.
My mother’s father (who will be 95 next month) is his mother’s sixth surviving child. She had a child around 1910 to 1912 that was born out of wedlock – and the father has never been disclosed. After my great-grandfather died, my great-grandmother remarried and had two more children. The dynamic among her eight offspring, having three different fathers, was so seamless it was a long while before I realized the entire story; I was in my forties before the story of the oldest was ever mentioned.
However, none of this deals with extended family. For a novice navigating what could easily be turbulent waters, I think you did quite well. You had no example nor contemporaries with similar experiences. That you have a relationship with this extended family, one beyond just your siblings, tells me they are great people with open minds and hearts. You have something that some people can’t claim to have with biological family. You did win the lottery.
They are indeed great people. I can’t imagine how difficult things would have been had they been otherwise.
Sounds like you did win, and did at least a passing job of navigating the complicated situation at a young age and without an instruction manual.
The wisdom of years is an amazing thing, there are many situations in my life I look back now and think “Oh, so THATS what was actually happening there” or in some cases “I mishandled that one badly 😦 ”
My own mother really did have a wicked stepmother, after my grandmother died my grandfather married a much younger woman who wanted his first family to just disappear. Mom was determined to have a relationship with her father, and it was a 25 year battle of tough love.
Your mother’s story is more common than I would like to think, at least I have heard many versions of it. Family life is usually a big enough mess even at its simplest.
What a wonderful story — and what a beautiful analogy you’ve offered, also, to having won the lottery. The fact that you were asked to serve such an important role in your Uncle Harold’s funeral tells me that the larger family feel they won the lottery in “adopting” you, too.
Thank you, Heidi. It is funny how it sometimes takes years before realizing how well things turned out. It is also sad that I could not see at the time how my Mom’s way of dealing with her wounds was affecting my ability to forge deeper relationships. But isn’t that the way it all goes? All parents have their shortcomings that affect their kids, who in turn either repeat them with their own kids, or try to fix those things only to highlight other shortcomings. Wouldn’t life be so much better if we got to do a test-run over the first, say, 40 years?
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Life would be HUGELY better if we all got a test run (or a dress rehearsal, or even a do-over). Alas, you and I didn’t make the rules so we only get the one shot. But at least you have the self-reflective powers to look back, see what you might have done differently, and resolve to do better.
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Attitudes about people and families vary as much as those about life in general. Consistently with but not proven by the evidence, I choose to believe that most of us do our best to cope with circumstances we don’t choose. We screw up a lot, but often we get it right, as do other people. There are ways in which my original family situation harmed me, but my second, more extended family has done more than enough good to balance the scales. And I am honored to be in the same family with such an amazing group of people. I lucked out, and in the end, I won the lottery.
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It is good to hear another story where things turned out well.
Thank you for sharing this intimate remembrance about what went right and wrong in your extended family’s attempts to build a welcoming relationship with you. On balance, though perhaps if you had had the benefit of hindsight then, things could have been even better. But you seem to have emerged from a difficult situation quite well.
One of my friends wrote a book about step parenting years ago. As you say, it’s often extremely challenging for all concerned.
Nice to read about someone appreciating his good fortune.
Thanks, Annie. Appreciation of the good things in life is not common enough.
That was interesting. Certainly divorces and step-siblings were not that common back in then, despite the Brady Bunch (which I do remember and found too annoyingly perfect). I have only started reading your blog and am still trying to work out the juxtaposition of trial lawyer with introverted child?
Thanks for stopping by. There has been a long journey from being petrified at giving a speech in Jr high school to being able to be at ease in a court room.
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I’m an introvert so I couldn’t imagine doing your job!
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This is my second attempt— not sure why WP didn’t accept my first. Thank you for sharing this intimate remembrance. It’s good that you’ve been able to revisit your past and appreciate all the positives that evolved from a difficult situation. One of my friends wrote several books about stepfamilies years ago that showed the complexities and potential minefields in these familial relationships.
Technical glitch? Your first comment came through on my end last evening. Did my response show up for you?
Now it did. I’ve had complaints from followers of my blog that their comments didn’t go through, but WP always says they’re doing something wrong (!?).
My forthcoming post is also a remembrance—totally apolitical. I hope you’ll visit.
I look forward to it.