We took our Christmas tree down this week. As I was removing ornaments from the dry, prickly needles, I realized that standing before me was an elegant representation of the all the messy human integration that went into creating my family.
One September afternoon several years ago, I was picking through red and green plastic tubs in the garage of a rental house in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. My (then) husband and I had been separated for four months, and I had returned for ten days to pack up more of my belongings. When we separated abruptly that May, I drove our small enclosed trailer across the country, packed with the items I wanted. I didn’t have the heart to go through the Christmas boxes on that rushed weekend, because the separation was still very new, very fresh, and very painful. I was not careful about the things I left behind on that May weekend, but after four months of living on my own, I was starting to see enough glimmers of my future that I wanted my Christmas mementos.
And so I began the process of sifting through fifteen years of family memories. First, and perhaps most meaningfully, I separated the lovely, elegant ornaments in the shape of each of our first initials that my former mother-in-law had given us. My “J” still goes on the tree every year, because I am still a “J”, even though I have no idea what he did with his. Next I took the ornament my friend Catherine had given me when I was still a vegetarian – a spritely sprig of broccoli festooned with Christmas finery. That was mine, and always would be. And so it went from there.
These days, each year that we decorate a tree together – this was the second year – my partner and I have a running narration of the meaning and history of each ornament we place on our tree. This ornament was made by his mother, and that one by his great-grandfather. Then there’s the Santa hugging the soccer ball, perfectly appropriate for a soccer coach. And what about the cute little kitty curled up asleep? That was from the first Christmas after his own separation, when he was living in a small apartment and had two children under the age of five and no Christmas decorations. An older woman of his acquaintance gave him her artificial Christmas tree, and the kitty was on that tree.
The Christmas tree is an important symbol because it drives home the humbling truth that your partner and your stepchildren have a history, sometimes long, that does not involve you. That threatens a lot of people, and while that’s understandable, it’s also unfortunate. Because what makes a so-called “blended family” so vulnerable – the fact that it has the potential to tap into the deepest insecurities of each person living within it – is also what makes it such fertile ground for emotional growth.
The blended family is the most intentional of human creations. The ones that, like mine, are composed only of “his and mine”, with no “ours” are not biologically organic entities; they are the product of purposeful synthesis. Not only is this kind of family propelled by none of the biological mechanisms that create and sustain an “original” family, it often defies them. Think about it – two adults with their own children set up housekeeping and declare themselves a family unit, and each adult agrees to allocate a portion of their resources – whether material, emotional, or temporal — to children who are not their “own”. By definition, a blended family requires a parent to take resources out of the mouths of their own biological children and hand those resources over to others unrelated by genetics. This is where our family is different from most other non-biological relationships like adoption. People adopt children all the time, but they ordinarily do so with the understanding that those doing the adopting are their child’s primary parents.
You don’t usually get to do that in a blended family. And indeed, the success of the entire venture usually depends on doing the absolute opposite. Quite simply, if a stepparent tries to usurp another’s established parental role, they are asking for trouble. (I think this is often true even if there is no established and connected parental role that gets usurped; the same trouble will occur if a stepparent simply arrives on the scene and announces his or her authority with no basis or foundation for doing so.)
In our family, all our children have other parents, both of whom are married to other people, and they divide their time between those households. I am not my stepchildrens’ mother. I’m a mother already, and that relationship is very different. I get the gift of enjoying my stepkids — while my partner and their mother enjoy the unique burdens and benefits of parenting them. I relish my role in their lives, which is somewhere south of parent, and somewhere north of friend.
The delights of stepparenting are all the more striking to me because I never, ever wanted a stepfamily. In fact, I spent a number of years trying very hard to avoid it, shuddering at what I imagined were the insurmountable difficulties. That’s probably because my own family of origin was a blended family that fell apart under the pressures. But as my father says, we often spend a lot of time unconsciously working to bring about those things we fear the most. That’s good, because it’s sometimes the only way to come to terms with a fear is to be forced into close quarters with it.
Don’t get me wrong. There are times when I find myself fantasizing about a small house somewhere, perfectly neat and quiet, away from the noise and the mess. And I see myself about to slip quietly out the door, headed to my private nirvana. And then I look downstairs and see my teenage stepdaughter sitting there, trying to shut out the chaos and stomping by the younger boys on the floors above. And her expression says “Take me with you?”
And of course, I do.