Is it impossible for stepparents and stepchildren to get along? Reading the postings in Facebook’s Childless Stepmothers group, one would think so. I rarely read all the new posts because they contain so much anger I start to feel sick. They don’t use names; they use abbreviations. The husband is DH, the stepkids are SS and SD and the biological mothers are BMs (make of that what you will). They’re all talking bad about each other, lying to each other, and refusing to spend time with each other. They’re tangled up in disputes over money and custody. Holidays really bring out the teeth and claws. She gets the kids. They didn’t send me a card. The kid stole my money. It’s ugly.
In the Childfree community, there’s a lot of talk about how having children can mess up a marriage. Check out the new book Being FruitfulWithout Multiplying or any “childfree” website for lots of testimony from writers who cite that as one of the reasons they didn’t want to have children. There’s no question that having a baby can lead to sleepless nights, attention going to the child instead of each other, endless expenses, and physical and emotional changes.
I’m sharing an excerpt from my book today. In many cases, people who are childless by marriage find themselves becoming stepparents to their spouses’ children from previous marriages. Sometimes it can really ease the pain of not having your own children, but at other times, it just makes the pain of childlessness worse.
A waiter in a restaurant I frequented during my Saratoga News days asked me one day if I was a mother. I gave my standard answer: “I don’t have any children of my own, but I have three stepchildren.”
He rolled his eyes. “Oh, then you got kids.”
Well, yes and no. A stepmother is a lot like a substitute teacher. The kids know she’s not the real teacher, so they don’t have to listen to her or do what she says. She has all the responsibility without the love and respect. If she sticks around long enough, they might get to like each other, but when the real teacher pokes her head in the door, they’ll all abandon their desks, screaming, “Mrs. Smith, you’re back!”
It also feels like being the babysitter or the nanny. When the folks come home, the dad gets out his wallet, hands you some money and says, “Thank you very much. We’ll take over now.”
Have you experienced this? It’s a big issue for a lot of us. Let’s talk about it for the next few posts. Do you have stepchildren? Do you feel like a real mother or father to them?
You can read a lot more about stepparenting in my book Childless by Marriage. If you have a Kindle and haven’t paid the crazy low price for the e-book yet, the e-book will be available for free Oct. 28-31. Just click here for the page to download it. You can buy the paperback or ebook from Amazon.com.
These days, I wince when people talk about family activities. They always seem to have all these people around, a spouse and children and maybe grandchildren, to do things with. Since my husband passed away, I just have a dog.
If you’re teetering at the point of deciding whether or not you can be happy without children, think of this as a cautionary tale. I have been married twice to men who didn’t want to have children with me. Husband number one just didn’t want them. Fred, number two, already had three kids and didn’t want any more. He backed that up with a vasectomy long before we met.
In that second marriage, I gained three stepchildren, so in some respects I was not completely childless, but trust me, for most of us, having stepchildren is nowhere near the same as having your own. There are those lovely families that blend so well the “step” disappears, but they are rare. Like most stepchildren, mine have their own real mother, and now that I’m not linked with their dad, we have no connection at all. No, that’s not true. We’re Facebook friends. But so are lots of other people.
Meanwhile, my real-life friends are busy with their kids and grandkids. Some even have great-grandchildren. Yes, I have some terrific friends, and I have a shrinking family of older relatives and cousins. I won’t be alone on the holidays and I can get a lunch date if I want it, but on a day-to-day basis, it’s not the same. Mostly, I have my work and my dog.
I wince when people talk about families.
If you’re 30-something and have a choice, think hard before you volunteer to give up having children. If you really want children, fight for it.
Sorry for bumming you out, but that’s how I’m feeling today.
As you probably know by now, my husband, Fred, passed away April 23 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s hard to believe it has already been more than a month. I miss him every day, and if I don’t keep my mind busy, I flash back to scenes from our lives together, both good and bad. Much of the time, I’m fine, but at any minute something can trigger my emotions. Grief is like riding waves. Some are small, some are huge, and there are calm places between the waves.
Meanwhile I’m trying to grapple with my new identity as an unmarried woman, a widow. I have a hard time with that term. It feels like there’s an implied “pitiful” attached to the word “widow”. Know what I mean? In other places and other times, a woman without a husband might be poverty-stricken and homeless, but that’s not my situation, thank God. I just miss Fred.
As I reported earlier, his kids were here to help with the memorial service and that first week full of upheaval and out-of-town visitors. That was truly great. Now they have disappeared again. The oldest son got married, and I wasn’t there. Too far, too soon. The daughter is back to work, school and loving her kids and grandkids. The youngest, who was supposed to come pick up some of his father’s things, didn’t show up.
When I went back to the cemetery for the placement of Fred’s ashes in the mausoleum, I went alone. Then I sat in a chair stairing at the urn and cried alone. Even if they were my own children, I might have been alone because they don’t live here. It’s my choice to stay in Oregon. I can’t blame them for the distance or for being busy with their own lives.
Meanwhile, I have a wonderful group of friends who feel like a family. Some of them are widowed, too. Others let me join them with their husbands and children for holidays and special events. I think we all need to reach out to other people and bring them into our lives. Young or old, there’s no reason we can’t love someone, even if they’re not officially family.
Will I ever get married again? If so, might I take on a whole new set of stepchildren and stepgrandchildren? Do I want that? I don’t know. I don’t expect to find anyone as great as Fred was.
Now that the marriage has run to its death-do-us-part end, I ask myself if it was worth sacrificing my chance at motherhood. Probably. Most people don’t get a love like we had, and most people don’t get to do all the things I have been able to do as a childless woman. But if I had to do it over again, would I insist on having children? Yes, I would.
Peace to you all.
When I married Fred, he had three children from his first marriage. The youngest was 8 and the other two were teenagers. As with most of us, I had no idea what I was getting into. I could not imagine that the daughter would get pregnant and married at 17, that the youngest son would live with us from age 11 to 20, or that long periods of time would pass with no communication between us and Fred’s kids. Ours was not just a geographical separation but an emotional separation as well. Fred was not a hands-on dad, and I didn’t feel confident leaping over him to cozy up to the three kids. We were cordial enough, but it certainly wasn’t like I imagine having our own would be.
Whatever separation we have had over the last 26 years, they rallied last month when their father died. Michael, the youngest at 34, came bearing food. He was here to help me, he said, and he did. So did his sister, Gretchen, 42, who drove nonstop from California. Ted, the oldest, couldn’t get away from work, but he sent a eulogy and was here in spirit.
Gretchen brought her mom. We are lucky that we have always gotten along well. I know that is not the norm, but it was kind of wonderful bringing together the whole picture of Fred’s adult life, each of us sharing the parts that we lived with him. As Gretchen put it at the funeral, “Mom” had the first half of his life, and “Sue” had the second.
We stayed up late drinking wine, going through photos to create a display for the service, and telling stories about Fred. My father and brother also came up from California and it really did feel like one happy family. In death, Fred brought us all together, and I felt the barriers between us dissolve.
Will I see them again now that Fred is gone? I think I will. It took a lot of years but we are finally a family.
If your stepchildren are giving you nothing but grief, hang in there. They will grow up, and you will always have one big thing in common: You all love the same person.
I got to the space on the Who’s Who form where it asked for the names of my sons and daughters and decided to come back to it another day.
At the furniture store where we bought a new mattress, we told the lefthanded salesperson that we were both left-handed, too, and she innocently asked if we had any children. “No,” I replied, then looked at my husband said, “Well, he does.”
Last Mother’s Day, I told anyone who asked that I was not a mother. Period.
What happened to my stock answer of “I have three stepchildren?” For years, that’s what I said, that’s what I wrote on forms, that’s what I put on those pesky high-school reunion questionnaires, that’s what I wound up telling Who’s Who.
It was a good answer. It acknowledged my husband’s sons and daughter while conveying that I have not actually given birth. People would know that yes, there were children in my life, even if they weren’t mine. I could go on to discuss being a Boy Scout mom, dealing with teenage attitudes, planning a daughter’s wedding or welcoming grandchildren into the family. Just don’t ask me about birth, colic or potty training because I don’t know.
But that was years ago. The kids are grown. My stepdaughter has a granddaughter now, and I may never see that child outside of Facebook.
It’s partially our fault because we moved away to Oregon–something I would never have agreed to do if I had children of my own back in California.
The step between me and my stepchildren became a chasm when my husband came down with Alzheimer’s Disease and moved to a nursing home. He doesn’t always remember that he has children. And now, when people ask, I just say no. It’s easier. I still care about them and hope they care about me, but the only thing we have in common these days is our last name.
My, this is a gloomy post, isn’t it? It’s really okay. It’s just a fact. What about you? When people ask if you have children, do you count stepchilden or other non-biological children in your life or just say “no.”
Ah, stepchildren. I don’t dare write what I want to write today for fear it will make my stepchildren dislike me more than they already do. It’s not all their fault. Their father never reached out to them. Although I never missed sending a birthday or Christmas present, they seem to feel that we didn’t care about them when they were younger, so why should they care about us now?
The thing with adult stepchildren is that they no longer have to visit the non-custodial parent. They don’t have to share their children with you. They don’t have to remember your birthday. If you didn’t build a relationship when they were young, it’s over. Recent events have made it clear they don’t consider me family. So now I hug my dog, the only “child” I raised well.
Stepchildren are so tricky. They’ve got all that divorce baggage. How often do they love and respect both parents after the split? I suspect it’s rare. They’ll blame one or both for breaking up the family. Along comes the innocent new spouse, who is battling forces set in place long before she or he arrived. God bless those stepfamilies that blend together like flour and sugar in a cake batter. The rest of us separate like oil and vinegar. Heavy stirring may blend them for a while, but they inevitably separate again.
How is it with your stepchildren? Are you close? Do they include you in family events? Let’s talk about it.
I have recently become aware that my stepchildren are reading this blog. Oh my gosh. I have been honest, even occasionally catty. It’s as if they have been reading my diary or listening in on my phone calls. I know this blog is public and I also know I am blessed to have Michael, Ted and Gretchen in my life. They have grown into interesting, loving adults. Maybe a little too interesting sometimes, but who isn’t?
Gretchen says I can say anything, that she has nothing to hide. Okay. The other night, when we were on the phone for 90 minutes, she told me she had always hated me because she thought her father was cheating with me while her parents were still married. What made her think so? Well, she had come upon a necklace that he gave me early in our relationship. I assured her I didn’t even know her dad when he was still married. I was dating someone else. I met Fred seven months after his wife asked him to move out. He had told me he had bought the necklace for someone else. I assumed that was his wife. Well, Gretchen was flabbergasted to hear that. Twenty-five years of wasted hate. It explains a lot.
We get along all right now, even though we have nothing in common but her father. Gretchen gives the best hugs, second only to her dad, except that she usually smells much nicer.
Unfortunately, Gretchen, Ted and Michael will never be my own children. They have a perfectly good mother back in San Jose. But if they need one in Oregon, here I am. And Michael, who was just here visiting, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re over your stomach flu. Ted, congratulations on your engagement to Shelly. She’s terrific, and it’s about time.
Dear readers, how about you and your stepchildren? Do you feel totally comfortable with them, hate them, or wear yourself out trying to win their love because they aren’t yours? Let’s talk about it.
Without children to be our natural heirs, we childless folks may struggle with what to do with our worldly goods when we shuffle off to heaven. To whom do we leave our photo albums? Who will care about my collection of antique ruby glass? But we are also free to do whatever we want with our stuff. As an old text called Family Systems and Inheritance Patterns notes, childless people often name outside beneficiaries and really tick off their families.
Many childless people leave their estates to good causes, such as scholarships, charities, animal shelters, medical research, etc. That’s pretty much what I plan to do.
But some folks go a little farther outside the norm. For example, George Bernard Shaw bequeathed millions to anyone who could devise a new alphabet that made more sense than the one we have. Louis da Camara, a Portuguese man with no family, picked strangers out of a Lisbon phone book to be his heirs. Ed Headrick, perfector of the Frisbee, asked that his ashes be molded into memorial discs to be sold, with profits to be used for a Frisbee museum. My favorite: Ruth Lilly, an amateur poet, left $100 million to a poetry magazine that had repeatedly rejected her work.
Another good one from the UK: A Mr. F left several relatives each “one penny as that is what they are worth as members of my family.” Show of hands: how many of us are tempted to do that? Me too.
How about you? Have you made a will? Who will inherit your earthly wealth? Did you know that in some states, including Oregon, where I live, stepchildren are not considered your legal heirs unless you write them into your will? What unusual bequests have you heard about or considered doing? Without children–and assuming the spouse goes first–we are free to bequeath as we please. Any thoughts?