by Carol Jaquith
In preparation for a quick getaway, the bride and groom ran to the waiting convertible with a “Just Married” sign on the trunk. With showers of confetti and cries of congratulations, the groom turned the key in the ignition.
Smiles turned to shock as we heard a loud explosion; the front of the car was engulfed in smoke. It took a few minutes of confusion to see that no one was hurt or injured. It was a smoke bomb, a prank the two teenage sons of the bride played on the newlyweds.
No ordinary wedding, this was the marriage of my father to my new step-mother. My naive eleven-year-old mind was beginning to understand that this was going to be far from the fantasy family I dreamed it would be.
My mother died when I was seven, leaving my father with two sons and a daughter. For three years we lived with dad and an abusive aunt. The grief of my father was palpable, not to mention the grief and confusion we children felt. So when he married this woman, it was exciting, relieving, and hopeful. Here was a woman who seemed to really be interested and kind to us. The hope in my heart was as large as my body could hold: I would have a new mom.
According to Step Family Matters, a web site established for the support of stepfamilies, “One important aspect parents need to understand is why misbehaving happens in the first place. A misbehaving child is a discouraged child because he or she has a mistaken belief about the lack of belonging or significance in their family.” If this is so, certainly my father and this new family threatened these two rebellious teens.
The boys had been questioning authority since their strict father left with another woman five years before. When their mother tried to enforce rules, they inevitably would gain the upper hand. In retaliation for some perceived injustice, they hung her girdles and bras out the front window like flags. They also rigged the couch with a microphone to listen to the couple’s pre-wedding conversations. Certainly these two boys didn’t live by the rule my father would often bellow, “Children should be seen and not heard,”
Dad was the authority in our house before these two families merged; things were done according to his rules. One of the rules was never to talk about the elephant in the room—my mother’s death, my aunt’s abuse and my father’s sadness and anger were just walked around, but always loomed large. We were told what to do and we did it. Now things were certainly shifting. My new step-mother acted as mediator between dad and her two sons, while assuming the role of disciplinarian for the three “new” kids. While the older boys were outwardly rebelling, I was inwardly trying to find my way as well. I became a people pleaser, hoping to be accepted. I tried to “be seen and not heard,” but that only lasted so long before my spirit would erupt in temper. Surely this too was a form of acting out.
The car explosion is a good metaphor for how we came to forge our new family. Boom!...people and relationships, unresolved loss and grief mixed with expectation and hope. There were new rules and rituals that were very different from my family of origin. There were family dinners, fights and tears, just like any family, but it was intensified because we were all uncertain about our place in this new family. I was in a smoke cloud of confusion for a very long time. I am not sure I ever felt truly a part of a new family but rather that I was assimilated into theirs.
As Elizabeth Carter, ACSW of the Family Institute of Westchester states,” Our culture provides no guidelines. It is our experience that blending families is one of the most difficult transitions for families to negotiate.” Death, divorce and a new family-- these were the very complex issues that we wounded family members were dealing with, without adequate support or guidance. Covered in an ash of denial as a way to cope, denial then became a way of life.
My parents did the best they could given the times they were living in. Children don’t come with instruction sheets. People learn how to be a parent one day at a time, and becoming a stepparent adds layers of dimension to that task. It takes looking at the elephant in the room, feeding and nurturing it, with a big dose of time and patience.
We became a family, dysfunction and all. To this day we laugh about some of the crazy things that happened along the way. Discussion about our family, our place in it, and our feelings about the merger are territories left unexplored, except through humor and nostalgia. Old habits are hard to break
The availability and openness to receiving support for forging a healthy new step-family is greater than it was back then. This type of support would have helped us greatly. I offer some wisdom from my own experience:
- Seek out support for all family members dealing with loss from death or divorce. In need of time to heal, often the adults in such situations are not the best support for the children. An excellent organization which offers support groups for children dealing with loss is an organization called Rainbows. www.Rainbows.org. 1-800-266-3206
- Nurture your new marriage. Take the time to enjoy each other as well as time spent in organizing such issues as discipline, planning, fun etc. Take advantage of the seminars, coaching and counseling available at www.successfulstepfamilies.com
- Family meetings are a way to give all members a forum for sharing thoughts, needs, and feelings, as well as fostering a sense of belonging. Perhaps a book like Ron Deal’s The Smart Stepfamily would give these meetings direction and purpose.
- Discipline your own biological children until new family bonds, boundaries and rules are forged and strong.
- Respect and honor the relationships children have with their family of origin. They have bonds that should not be broken with other parents, grandparents, etc.
My basic need was support through the inevitable ups and downs of our new life. I needed reassurance that my relationship with my father and brothers was secure. I needed then to know I was loved and valued as a member of this new family. As a young child I needed to know that love doesn’t divide, but rather multiplies, given time and effort.
Carol Jaquith has written articles about children, families and health. She lives in New Jersey with her husband of 40 years. She has three grown children and nine grandchildren. She is also an herbalist/naturopath that enjoys talking and writing about natural health issues. She can be contacted at: [email protected].