My marriage is now nearly three years old and so is our step family experience. I feel certain that we each would tell an interesting and perhaps complex story of our experience so far.(!) My husband has three grown children, as do I, and they are all quite capable of sharing their unique perspective, feelings and thoughts about how this part of their life has been for them. I can guess about their personal experience from over here, where I sit, but it would be a guess based on what has been shared directly, indirectly, or by how little has been shared by them individually. I do not presume to know exactly what it has been like for each of them, instead I remain open to hearing about it as they choose to share. What I have learned is that step-families are truly a complex equation and ripe opportunity for personal growth. In forming a step-family there are two individuals that come together to share their individual lives and become a couple. The by-product is the extended family experience in which the children from each member of the couple create a larger unit considered the step-family. The real truth is that the children are not making the choice to become a member of a new family unit, they are simply brought in via their parent. At some level, within them they must manage any feelings of disempowerment, where they see the process as something they had no control over. Any feelings of not wanting the experience will lay within them, latent, waiting to be addressed if indeed those feelings are there. Hopefully a parent can encourage the expressing process so that the child will have a safe place to allow the feelings to surface fully where they can be explored and experienced, rather than them going underground where they might cause unconscious disturbance.
The parents, the couple, are the individuals that made the choice to create the new experience. They got the ball rolling. Their individual ideas about parenting and co-parenting, about family life, family relationships, desires for relationship intimacy, and interactive behaviors are just some of the complexities that will be dealt with and co-managed in some respect along the way. In the end, these are the two individuals that hold the power as leaders of the family, unless or until they do not utilize the power and lead the unit. In some respects this mirrors any family unit. Parents remain the leaders until they are usurped so to speak, or relinquish the role as leader to the other parent or to the children. In a healthy model, the leadership role will eventually move to the adult children as they become capable and interested, as the parents age, as the family grows and changes. Finding little experiences where pre-adult age children can practice some leading can be a growth enhancing experience for all when handled well.
Our step-family experience has been an enormous growth experience for me. As I reflect on the years so far, I am well aware of my naiveté and my husbands. We both had considered aspects of "the family part" of our new life in our own ways, have since shared some of our thoughts and imaginings from the beginning. But we also, innocently enough, made assumptions about what we thought it might be like, how it would play out, what dynamics we were imagining. We each had our own individual perspectives and intimate knowledge of our own children and their personalities, inclinations and overall relationship interests. We came loaded with our own desires and needs, forging forward to make this new step-family what it is today.
What I have learned mostly is that this part of life is just like any other. It is a work in progress. It is ever-changing and growing. It's many parts make up the whole, coming together in some fashion to create an expression of truth of what this new family is. We have developed a dynamic that seems to define "us" to some respect but that will continue to grow and change with each of our parts as we grow and change. Because I choose to live with a focus on gratitude and growth, I am ever grateful for the ways this experience has pushed and pulled on me to cause me to look within at my needs, my wishes and at my conditioning. It has caused me to look more deeply at what I had assumed and expected that caused my own difficulties at the beginning and the "wants" can still tug at me. In my willingness to own this as "my stuff", I then put in the effort and work of freeing myself from remaining stuck to an initial vision of what I thought this step-family might look like, behave like and feel like. The ability to let go of expectations and assumptions has expanded my vision of both myself and our family. In that expansion and freedom, I have learned to open to possibility thinking, knowing that what it is today is simply a moment in time, and a fraction of what my whole life is all about. In expanding my self-definition beyond my role in my immediate family, I am learning a new role that is quite different from anything I have engaged in before now. Such opportunity for learning!
My experience within a step-family has caused me to expand my thinking about community and global family. The differences within our small unit can be viewed as an analogy of the bigger picture, a tiny example of what happens when individuals come together and decide, or not, to behave as though they are connected and impact one another. Recognizing the ways that I struggled with accepting different values and habits in our step-family, I understand more easily the struggles throughout the world with accepting others differing views and beliefs. Finding in my inner world the place in me that wants others to see through my eyes, I find the place that hurts and can become defensive when I perceive an infraction towards me, and I remember to look and see how it is not necessarily personal to me. The seeming infraction towards me may simply be a reflection of another's inner world and not much at all to do with me. With this awareness I see the importance of each of us owning responsibility for how we imprint the whole, how much individual power we hold by bringing our conscious selves into the mix. As we self-reflect about the ways we indeed impact one another, we expand our personal power to serve the greater good.
My goal is to continue to expand myself to include all the parts of our step-family just as they are in this moment. Looking at each individual and choosing to love them for just who they are in this moment, just as I wish to be loved. I remember, moment-to-moment to give that which I seek, acceptance and understanding, looking beyond the masks we wear for protection, and seeing more life beyond any outer appearances. And the journey continues.