Graduation and the childless stepparent

It’s graduation season. Does the thought make you feel a little queasy because your stepchildren are graduating and you don’t know where you fit in? Welcome to the club. I know you don’t all have stepchildren, but enough do that graduation issues are starting to come up in the comments. Graduation can certainly magnify the awkwardness in the family when there are both biological parents and stepparents.

Let me share some of my experiences.

The first graduate was my stepdaughter Gretchen, who had dropped out of high school when she got pregnant with her first child and went to an “adult school” to finish her classes while she was pregnant with her second child. Her mother was living in Texas, so the “family” that attended was her father, her brothers, and me, the new wife. Honestly, it went great. I took lots of pictures and had this warm mushy feeling that I finally had a family. Whatever arguments we had had before didn’t matter.

I was also the mom on duty when Michael, my youngest stepson, graduated from middle school a few years later. Again, his mother was not there, but my parents joined us for the outdoor ceremony. I was working for the local paper and ran around taking pictures for a story, split between my roles as reporter and mom. I loved it.

Four years later, when that same stepson graduated from high school, everyone was there: Fred and I, Michael’s siblings, my parents, his mother and HER parents, all sitting in the bleachers on the football field. Now, this was June in San Jose, so we were dressed in our summer clothes. The few clouds overhead were a welcome relief from days of relentless heat. But shortly after they got through the L’s and Michael received his diploma, the clouds turned black and it started to rain, a hard soaking deluge that sent people scattering for shelter.

At that time, Fred, Michael and I lived across the street from the high school, and the party was happening at our house. I handed my mom my keys and asked her to put the lasagna in the oven while we looked for Michael. Soon we were all gathered at our house, and I was handing out towels. Although things could have been weird, we all got along and felt like one big happy family, laughing over the rained-out ceremony.

Of course there are always those awkward moments. “This is my mom, this my dad, this is my, um . . . .” Know what I mean?

Years later, when Gretchen’s daughter Stephanie graduated from high school, I wasn’t there. Fred was in a nursing home, and my nephew was graduating from a college nearby on the same day. I went to his ceremony instead. There was still time afterwards to get to Stephanie’s graduation, but I was riding with my dad and he didn’t want anything to do with my step-family. (Someday soon I should do a post on the relationship between our own parents and our stepchildren. Now there’s a tricky relationship.) Anyway, I missed it.

And when Gretchen graduated from college a few years ago, I was widowed and living in Oregon and was not invited. Nor did I expect to be, even though I’m very proud of her. I’m proud of all of them, but sometimes that “step” between us is huge, especially with their father gone.

None of the kids came to my late-life master’s-degree graduation from Antioch University in Los Angeles. Fred was the only family there while other grads had big groups, including their children. But then if I had children, maybe I wouldn’t have been able to go back to school.

Enough about me. Graduation can be tough. When your stepchildren graduate, whether it’s from kindergarten, high school or Harvard, are you pitted against their biological family? Are you not invited? Are you expected to smile, give gifts, and be the hostess for kids who aren’t your own? To make nice with people you can’t stand? Are you gulping back tears because you may never watch your own children graduate? When you hear the band play “Pomp and Circumstance,” do you think back to your own graduations and how you never imagined things would turn out the way they have?

Let’s talk about it. You can let it all out here. I look forward to your comments.

9 thoughts on “Graduation and the childless stepparent

  1. It was so nice when my husband’s son graduated because he lived 3,000 miles away and my husband went by himself. Woohoo!!!!! Headed to a graduation party tomorrow. I would love to find some way to complain about this kid, or put down the parents in some way to make myself feel better, but this high school graduate is a really nice young man. Have known this family for about six years and have seen this boy quite a few times. I was shocked when I met him and got to know him. He is just a really good kid, friendly with his parents friends, humble, helpful, never in trouble and an amazing golf player. He got a full ride at a four-year college for his golf. Oh well. At least there will be great food.

    Can’t wait for when you bring up the topic of weddings!!!!! Oh do I ever have so much to share on that subject!!!!!! Instead of the wedding being three thousand miles away, it was in my home town and we spent a week from hell with the ex. 🙂


  2. I remember going to my stepson’s graduation at the University of Florida. It was a grand glorious occasion for him, his mother and his grandmother. Me, not at all. I endured the hurt and kept my mouth shut. Thank God his bio dad didn’t show up. I’d have tried to be civil, but then again he was such a drunk I didn’t expect him to be there.

    I felt so alone, empty and useless. Rent-a-dad. I guess this is my lot in life. Unless I leave for a younger woman.


  3. I’m so happy to have found this blog because I’ve recently been consumed with anxiety and doubt over my current situation. I am with a man I love and he has an 8-year-old son. For a while, he was vague on the idea of more kids. He’d always use the line “not anytime soon” which frustrates me because he won’t give me a straight yes or no. He also says he’d let me go if children are what I want and assumes that’s a nice thing to say when really it just makes me feel completely unloved. I was never super gung ho about wanting children but as my clock ticks away (almost 32) I find myself wanting kids. Not right now but probably by 35-36. Lately I’ve been filled with anger and resentment at him and, sadly, at his son as well. I know it’s not his fault, but I feel like if he wasn’t here with all the child support and baby mama drama then maybe he’d be singing a different tune. I feel awful admitting it but I find myself quick tempered and bitter and I hate it. Mostly it sucks that he won’t have a kid with me but expects me to take on all these responsibilities with his son. I feel like my nose is being rubbed in it. I won’t give you a baby but can you make mine a sandwich? I guess I feel like it’s even harder to be a childless stepparent than it is to just be childless. If we both decided to not be parents and travel the world and have nice things, that would be one thing, but that’s not an option. He already is a father. And one day he’ll be a grandfather and I’ll be nothing, the afterthought, the outsider. I think about how every holiday will likely be with his family and not mine. Every vacation will be geared around his son. At his graduation and wedding, what will my role be? I recently went to a wedding where the bride and groom’s parents were both long divorced and remarried and yet they only listed the biological parents’ names in the guide. So a stepparent you’ve known since age 7 can’t be listed along with your biological parent? Would I be listed in an obituary? I hadn’t even considered what would happen if we divorced years down the road. Would I be dropped from his life? It broke my heart to read that your stepfamily didn’t attend your mother’s funeral services. Am I expected to leave my inheritance to a stepchild? I’m not sure if I can do this. I’m thinking these feelings will only get worse and not better, and I feel like my boyfriend doesn’t understand my feelings at all and thinks I’m overthinking it and acting crazy. I know I have time, but if I have to start over I wanna know now and not at 35-36, and to be honest I don’t want to start over because there’s a chance I’ll end up completely alone. I’ve always said I would never be one of those girls that gets pregnant on purpose, but a part of me feels like if we broke up he’d start dating a girl and she’d get pregnant and he’d say “oh well” and marry her. I guess I might be overthinking it, but who can blame me?


      • Sue, I can certainly imagine people being horrified by my post. It’s still fresh and hence very blunt and raw, and even I acknowledge that I sound like a cold- hearted, soulless witch. I know his son did not ask to be born as a result of a one night stand. It’s not fair to him as well. We’re both innocent victims in this scenario. But the reality isn’t quite as harsh I assure you. In fact, I have a great relationship with my BFs son. When he snuggles with me and kisses me, I’m beyond happy that he’s accepted me that much into his life even in our every other weekend life. I’m just struggling with the idea of being asked to play the role of parent while being denied the chance to do it for real. I read another woman’s comment that said her go-to line was “you didn’t want to be bothered with more kids, so I don’t wanna be bothered with yours.” I certainly couldn’t do that. I couldn’t just pretend there was no child in the house every other weekend. I think I need to disengage sometimes and take time for me and give them father-son time. Especially when I feel like I’m doing everything. Of course I don’t mind doing the laundry or making lunch but a little reminder every now and then that Daddy can take care of it is sometimes necessary for my sanity.
        I’ll keep you posted….


    • Your post made me cry – so much of it felt so close to home. Stay strong.

      Maybe moving on is best but maybe this is something you will be able to work through together. I think it will only truly get better if you and your partner make a commitment to work through how you are both feeling together but ultimately only you can decide what is best for you.


  4. Due to COVID, my stepson’s high school is allowing only two guests per student at graduation. This means I won’t be allowed to attend, even though I have helped raise my stepson since he was 5 years old. It’s very hurtful. Furthermore, my husband informed me that he wants to sit next to his ex-wife at the ceremony. I know I’m supposed to be OK with this, but his decision is making the situation even more difficult for me. I’m still trying to sort it out.


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