Saturday, April 09, 2011

A Vision of a Stepmom by Maureen Eich VanWalleghan

I have physically entered the realm of blended family complete with the title stepmom. Three weeks ago my husband’s sixteen year old son come out for his first visit. Due to a long and difficult custody process that has languished in the California court system, my husband has not been able to have contact with this sweet child for over ten years. Needless to say it was an incredible moment for all of us.

My daughter who has always known that she has a big brother was so thrilled and completely taken with him. On my first date with my husband six years ago, we talked of his son. For me, I knew that at some point this invisible son would be a part of our lives. When my daughter was being born I wanted a picture of this son in the room with us so we could know his presence was a part of the family even if he was not physically with us. I had my mom take our first family portrait with my husband holding his son’s picture and me holding our new daughter.

Now with the physical presence of this son finally here, I have been thinking about how “pecking order” plays out for the stepmother in a blended family. My parents got divorced when I was just starting college. Both my parents have now been in their respective second marriages for over twenty years. From both families I have stepsiblings. With my mother I am at the top of the “pecking order” over my stepsister and with my stepmom I am behind my four stepsiblings. When I say “pecking order” I am not talking about kindness. My mom is very supportive of my stepsister and my stepmom is very supportive of me.

In both cases, I think each blended family gets along well. Most of my siblings and I were adults who did not live with our parents when our parents got married. My brother did not fair as well since he was the youngest of us all—a teenager in high school. He was not autonomous, but still living at home, first with my mom and then later with my dad. I believe “pecking order” did impact his situation when he lived with my dad. Again, I want to make sure that “pecking order” is not confused with kindness, rather in my mind, “pecking order” is an unconscious favoring of one’s birth children in a blended family. I imagine that “pecking order” happens regularly, most certainly because it is unconscious and even possibly an instinctual response.

When considering the evil stepmother, a disdain and punishment of the stepchildren shows itself in the awful caricature’s actions—think about a variety of animated Disney movies...Now though, with so many blended families, the evil stepmother caricature is just that: a caricature. But “pecking order” I think does show itself. At each moment of preparation for our son’s visit I wanted to be very conscious about what I did and to lavish the same attention for my husband’s son as I would for our daughter.

Money for us is tight and that process began when we bought the plane ticket. A cheap ticket was not to be found. At one point my husband and I had the practical discussion and considered postponing the visit till summer. That felt like a mistake. We were all so ready to meet this kid that waiting didn’t seem like an option. At each moment of preparing for our son’s arrival I asked myself a question over and over: what would I do if this was for my daughter? In asking myself that question I was able to relax and enjoy my motherly pursuits for this son: setting up the festive table, buying gifts and lastly, just doing motherly things like folding his laundry on the last night before he left.

In being conscious about my actions I think I made it a very special visit and fully opened my heart to this precious child. Having a teenage son is very much the same as having a five year old daughter and of course not the same. As a high school educator, I have a great deal of knowledge and practical experience about the developmental issues of teenagers. That was a big help in this situation.

Last night I finished printing out the pictures from the trip, which I will frame up tomorrow to send to our son so he’ll remember this first visit. In one frame I will have the most recent family portrait at the Grand Canyon and next to it I will put that first family portrait from five years ago where he is just a spirit. I hope our son feels as we do: that our family is now complete...that he has always been with us and that both our children are the center of my husband and I’s universe.

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