Saturday, July 10, 2010

Roses and Thorns: Step-parenting in Mixed Families


Thanks to the Grim Brothers and their fairy tales, step-parents (step-mothers in particular) get a bum rap. I can't think of any stories right now where the step-parent stepped in and saved the day. Usually, in fiction at least, the step-parent is at best jealous of the prior relationship between the child and their new spouse. At the worse, well, we've all read Cinderella. And some of you have seen the horror movie, The Stepfather. In the lore of our culture, you're mostly like to see the word "step-parent" with the adjective "evil" in front of it.

As there is some truth in most of our stereotypes, I have to now allow for the fact that ARE some step-parents who seem unable to rise to the requirements of their role. I've known some men who were as remote to their step-children as the planet Uranus. I've known a few women who, when thrust into the role of step-mothering an adolescent girl found themselves reverting to the worst of their own high school behavior-- becoming competitive, back-biting, whining fifteen year olds all over again. As unattractive as either model might be, I can't entirely judge.

Step-parenting is very, very hard.

It's hard for reasons that sound ugly to admit, but are very true. Reasons like: it's difficult to love a child who is not your own, but who, because of the circumstances you're supposed to. Reasons like: the natural tendency to favor the children of your own relationships over the children of other relationships.

Children, I think, instinctively know this. They know on some level that no one will ever love them quite like their own parents. Hence they resist and reject perceived "interlopers"-- even when those "interlopers" meet them with an open mind and an open heart. The stepchild can't help being suspicious-- and the step-parent can't help feel frustrated.

I've been a step-parent. My first husband had three children under the age of 10 when we married. I did my best by those kids, but they didn't like me much. I had different ideas about child-rearing than their mother and while I would have happily deferred all matters regarding them to their father, he wasn't much interested in playing that role because he usually only saw them over the summers. When they were with us, he'd often disappear, leaving me to entertain them-- and to discipline them. It was a recipe for much resentment on all sides.

There was also a racial component in my efforts at step-parenting, since my first husband's ex-wife was part Phillipino. Her children had long straight black hair like hers that they were too little to care for and I had no experience with. My ex-husband's son's hair was a particular problem: he was about 8 years old and had a long wild afro that I really thought would have looked better trimmed a bit. His mother refused. My ex-husband refused. The little boy didn't like for me to brush his hair and his father didn't do it, so he wandered around looking like he'd been sleeping under a bridge. I sometimes felt the hair was a slap both racially and relationally. The hair said: "we're something you're not." The hair said: "you have no authority over me."

I may be over-sensitive, but I know that racial differences add a few more snakes to the alligator pit of step-parenthood. Kevin and Sisi have their moments when "You're not my father" is shorthand for "It's a black thing, you wouldn't understand." There are moments when I see the light in his eyes for Lil Bit-- his own daughter-- dim when Sisi comes close. As much as I ache for Sisi in these moments, I understand them. Kevin loves her, but Lil Bit is his own. He was there when she was born; he met Sisi when she was 8. It's different by definition. I know because I've felt that difference myself.

I don't know what the experts say about this, but in our family communication has helped everyone to manage their expectations about their roles and responsibilities. Only in the most extreme situations is Kevin responsible for disciplining Sierra. We decided early on that this should be my role exclusively. He backs me up, and when I'm traveling or otherwise unavailable, he enforces our family rules. But otherwise, it's all me. For us, this just makes sense: he IS the interloper; she was nine when we got married. For him to come down hard on discipline so late in her life is a recipe for resentment. We just don't do it.

When Sisi feels unfairly treated as the step-child, I do my best to assess whether her gripe is legitimate-- or jealous. I explain: what she sees in Kevin and Lil Bit is what her father feels for her. He doesn't live near us, so we call. She visits as often it can be arranged. Is this adequate? Probably not. It is, however, the best I can do.

But I know she feels the lack of her own dad's daily presence. I know that deep in there are the fairy stories, casting her as Cinderella. I know that encompassed in her feelings of being the family outcast are issues surrounding Lil Bit's pale skin, curly hair and green eyes. When she asks about blue contacts, she's scratching the surface of this thing. It pervades our culture-- but having "whiteness in the family" brings a black girl into greater intimacy with it.

That makes it even more critical for me, as the mother of BOTH these girls, to treat them as equally as possible. But is that possible? Is it possible when the needs of a 14 year old are radically different than a 5 year old-- even if they had the same father, which they don't? That the expectations placed on oldest children and youngest children are different? That parents and some children have just a natural connection-- a harmony of personality that enable them to understand each other easily. And some don't?

As parents, we strive to treat our children--step and natural-- "equally"... but in the reality is far more complicated. It's painful to admit, but true. Hard as we might try, we will probably not treat our children equally, just as we are not all treated equally in the wider world.

Perhaps the kindest thing we can do is acknowledge this fact? I don't know. But in a way, it seems more fair than candy-coating our reality. As a step-parent, I always tried to stay conscious of my prejudices and to realize that these were children-- who bore no responsibilities for the adult tensions surrounding them. As a parent, I try to love my girls for who they are and not to burden them with my feelings about their fathers for good or ill. I know that the frustrations that Kevin and Sisi have with each other are colored by the fact that they aren't related, but day by day I see him struggle to help her grow up to be the best woman she can be in spite of how hard that is, sometimes. I see him take her resentments, swallow down his own feeling and do his best to be, if not her father exactly, as close a representative as he can be.

And being a step-parent has it's "roses" as well as it's thorns. One of my ex's children-- now an adult, told me that she appreciated the rules and expectations I set for her while she was in our house as a kid. "You were the only person who ever gave us structure. I hated it then--I thought you were mean--but I appreciate it now," she said. A beautiful rose... a decade later and after plenty of harsh years... but still beautiful to hear.

I hope for that rose for Kevin some day... and for all the step-parents in blended families, interracial or not.


  1. This is an excellent post full of information for those in blended black/white families and those about to embark upon the adventure.

    Every rose does indeed has its thorns.

  2. Hi all, I've heard some people have had trouble posting comments to this blog. I'm not sure what the problem is, but I'm going to check all my settings and look into it.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. OT alert: I cannot believe I am just now finding this blog.

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