As I get older, I can pick out four distinct phases of what it’s like being a stepchild. In some respects, this is hardly surprising. Relationships naturally change as people move into different phases of life and I can distinctly pick out phases with my blood relatives too.
Every family is different, so what I’ve written below won’t apply to everyone. Nonetheless I thought I’d jot down some observations as to how my status as a stepchild has changed over the years.
Some things remain the same
Before I get into this, I feel some things remain doggedly the same as a stepchild. I would, for instance, simply describe it as normal. I became a stepchild at a very young age, so it has been my experience since my early school days.
While normal for me, it never ceases to amaze me how confusing other people find it. Blended family life is frequently misunderstood by those with no experience of it. As I have stated many times in the past, some people, almost always those from outside the blended family unit, can be incredibly insensitive and treat the word step like it’s a swear word. Alas, part of being a stepchild is tolerating this insensitivity. That said, on to Phase One.
Phase One: Early childhood, adjustment and acceptance
I’m not going to say a huge amount about the early years because I want to focus on later life. Suffice it to say, Phase One of becoming a stepchild was a period of adjustment and acceptance. My mother remarried, we formed a new family unit and in the years immediately after the marriage, I gained two (half) brothers.
We moved to a new area, so this involved moving to a new school. It was a period of big change. I accepted a father figure in to my life and adjusted to a whole new variety of expectations and rules of behaviour from an extended family.
When we moved, it was to the most idyllic place and only now as a dad myself do I appreciate quite how lucky I was to live somewhere so wonderfully rural. Emotionally, however, it was a bit of a rollercoaster.
There were various issues to address, such as what to call my stepfather (I settled on calling him by his first name). That said, there was one amazing and unexpected fringe benefit. I didn’t get Christmas and birthday gifts from two sides of the family, I got presents three sides: My extended paternal family, extended maternal family and stepfamily! Anyway, I said I’d keep this brief so let’s move on the next phase.
Phase Two: Tweenage and teenage years
Phase Two, for me, were the tweenage and teenage years. These are likely to be turbulent times for any family as kids test boundaries and make mistakes. Trust me, stepkids are no different!
By now I’d had some life experience. I’d gained some limited independence by going to secondary school and had some hard knocks along the way. My status as a stepchild became a bigger thing. I was part of a nuclear family and I was loved and materially I was incredibly privileged.
Nonetheless, I was also not quite entirely part of the family unit. Don’t get me wrong, absolutely no one did anything to make me feel this way (my stepfather going out of his way to be inclusive). It’s simply a fact that with a different surname and background, I was different. I was a bit like a Venn diagram, the centre of which was the family unit I lived in and yet there was some of me and my extended family that existed outside of it.
By this point in time, I’d had to explain many times why I had a different surname to the rest of my family. There was also a bizarre incident when a man I was only the vaguest of acquaintances with, told me I shouldn’t refer to having a stepfather as it suggested there “were problems in the family.” It was a dreadfully insensitive thing to say and it bothers me to this day.
Having hit the teenage years, I found life a bit confusing. What did my future hold as a stepkid? What would relationships with blood relatives on my father’s side of the family look like as I grew older? He lived abroad with my older (half) sister from his first marriage. Add in the usual teenage stuff, and I have to say It was an interesting time.
The situation at school didn’t help. Based on some highly dubious test results carried out in my first year at secondary school, I was placed in the highest ability stream and I simply couldn’t cope with the pressure.
Unfortunately for me, this was an old grammar school. When my issues became apparent, I wasn’t bumped down a couple of streams, I was treated like a problem. I was failed by that school and if anything, I’m more upset about it now than I was when I was a kid. I guess it comes with being a dad myself because I go out of my way to ensure my kids have a positive experience of school and education, something I can’t tell you I had.
Essentially this made me a self-fulfilling prophesy. I was treated like a problem and so I became a problem. This did not help relations at home with any of my relatives. I became the stereotypical, awkward stepchild. Was I awkward, or was I, for a variety of reasons, crying out for understanding and acceptance?
Phase Three: Early adulthood
During early adulthood, my stepchild status hardly came on to the radar at all. I had left home and had a steady girlfriend. It was a stark contrast to the previous phase.
I was either at college in Yorkshire or I was working as a journalist in London. I was doing my thing. Home was somewhere I visited every month or so and only for a weekend.
I had gone through a process of natural re-invention. I was pursuing a career, partying and traveling lots. I was meeting new people. I was even back in touch with my sister after many years of estrangement.
Pah, who cares for family life when there’s a music festival to go to? That was pretty much my philosophy. I guess we all go through it, but it was a selfish existence and I look back on my twenties with a certain sense of regret that I didn’t make a greater effort to help make the world a better place. I was focused on having fun and little else. Thankfully I grew up.
Phase Four: The Middle Ages
After a decade or so of my stepchild status being of little consequence, everything changed. Oh my word did it change. It slapped me in the face once I got married and had kids.
Any stepchild preparing a seating plan for their wedding will probably relate to this. It’s hard enough simply decided if person X and person Y should sit on the same table, throw in a divorce and remarriages and you have to decide if person A and person B can even be invited. It can get political.
Moving on to when I became a father, all sorts of odd little things cropped up. What should my kids call their step relatives, primarily their stepgrandfather?
Also, kids are curious. Many a time I’ve had to tell them my life story so they can comprehend where all the various characters fit in to it. They ask questions and the answers are not always simple.
There’s also an anomaly I have seen with stepfamilies that applies to mine too: The generations go out of synch because there are often several years between a couple divorcing (or a bereavement), remarriage and having more children.
My brothers are almost a decade younger than me. When growing up, we were at totally different life stages. This has remained and will continue to be the case forever. It’s that Venn diagram thing again: Us siblings are absolutely from the same family, yet I’m slightly apart from them on account of the fact we are, and always will be, at completely different life stages.
Likewise, our kids are at completely different life stages. They’re all cousins, but none of my brothers’ kids have started school whereas mine are well and truly ensconced in the education system, my eldest being at secondary school. How well will they get to know each other? The reality is they may never get to know each other that well at all.
I suspect I am yet to experience a further phase or two. Later adulthood may present some interesting challenges and opportunities as a stepchild.
Whatever the future holds, the reality is that being a stepchild isn’t always easy. In my experience, it’s influences from outside the family home that are insensitive to your situation or want to gloss it over, airbrush your history so the more troubling aspects of your past do not exist.
I think my experiences as a stepchild have made me tough and resilient and very adaptable. They’ve also shaped me and will stay with me, the good and the bad.
I salute every stepparent and steprelative who handles stepfamily life and copes with it well. It can’t be easy for stepmums and stepdads and for most stepkids it can be quite tricky too. My advice: Just treat us steprelatives sensitively and remember, step is not a swear word.
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