My family has always been confusing. I draw maps and trees to show people the relationships. Both of my biological parents have been married three times. I was adopted by my mother’s second husband. I spent several years living with my mother and her third husband, who had seven children between the two of them. And those are the basics.
Essentially, I went from having a quiet, peaceful, and fun childhood to living in a new house with a new step-dad and a “new family.” At first, I thought the process would be like all those before. We would move in. I would meet the other kids. I would sleep on the couch. And one day it would be over. This was not the case this time.
Moving into the new home was not a graceful entrance. I was constantly uncomfortable as an outsider to an instant family that already had its fair share of issues and two adults who didn’t really seem interested in getting to know their new children. All of parenting seemed to be about discipline and stressing out about money.
I wasn’t impressed by the situation. Everybody was loud. They broke things. They intruded. They read my journals. They told my secrets. They seemed wild. They fought. They had weird rules.
One of the weird rules of the house involved my dad only being able to take me for the weekend if he also took at least one of the new step-children. It made no sense then, and it certainly makes no sense now. My dad (my mom’s second husband) had not yet legally adopted me at this time. As a result, he had no legal custody of me. Essentially, his hands were tied.
I thought things like this would make more sense as I got older, but they don’t. I don’t have children, and I feel like my experiences with messy families are a big reason why they aren’t necessarily in my plans right now.
Here is what I’ve found to be true. Being told, “this is your new family,” does not make it so. Posting memes about family on Facebook is not an indicator of real love. I didn’t live out a Brady Bunch fantasy.
Failing to acknowledge the complex nature of step-families is a mistake. There is no such thing as a seamless transition, especially for children who have no choice in the matter. Maybe my childhood would have been less hectic if somebody actually tried to build a relationship rather than to claim one existed. Maybe we all would have benefited from some counseling before trying to combine families.
Ultimately, I’ve learned that family is built step by step. Marrying a man does not make him a dad to your children. Telling your children to love people does not facilitate real love. Families are about more than titles and bragging rights. You have to work to build a family.