Step Families, Part 1: A New Perspective

Newsletter, Issue 8

Are you an Insider, an Outsider, or Both?

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Imagine for a moment the start of a new step family…

The partners want to have space, specialness and time for their new relationship and an enjoyable start together. The parent(s) want their children to be happy and make the transition as easy as possible. The step child(ren) probably have a mix of reactions and want some control over the changes; they may not want it to happen, feeling jealous about parents moving on in their new relationships, feeling scared of them creating ‘new’ families where they don’t fit, perhaps overwhelmed by the responsibility of being the last connection between their parents, or they may want a new ‘mum’ or ‘dad’, feeling relief at knowing what is happening. Previous partners may or may not want it to work and be supportive or obstructive, and as parents will have a whole host of concerns and challenges ahead. Everything about access, money and logistics around the child(ren) has to be worked out! and agreed. And that’s just the start.

A quick glimpse of how hard it is in the life of a step family where everyone has different needs that are not always obvious and often contradictory, and where children’s relationships with their natural parents are complex and emotional. It’s hard to compare one step family to another as they are so diverse, each has its own unique combination of parents and children living together with widely varying access arrangements.

So What Helps?

I want to introduce to you the idea of ‘insiders and outsiders’.

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I found this concept incredibly helpful in understanding the varied needs, and also how to manage them. As children grow up with their mother and father, there is a unique bond and understanding that forms, which includes unwritten rules about what it means to be part of ‘that’ family, as well as shared memories and experiences. It may not all be good, but it’s familiar and ‘normal’. There is no way to impart this experience, knowledge and belonging to a new partner who wasn’t there, and so the new partner will feel an outsider to the existing family unit, the parent and child(ren) who are the insiders. Being the adult outsider can be a lonely place, even if it might seem like heaven to the insider parent who is being pulled between their child(ren) and partner. Obviously if both partners coming together have children, there will be two very different family units, with two groups of insiders both feeling outside of the other, potentially with different living arrangements. ! As children don’t usually want their real mother or father to be replaced, they are more likely to stress and play on the insider quality of their relationship with their biological parent as it is the one stable thing for them in the transition. Just understanding the idea that feeling an insider or outsider is normal, can give a new way to talk about it and for different individuals to feel understood.

So, being part of step family is hard and an instant big happy family is a fantasy. There is no easy way to bring two different families and ways of living together, especially as previous partners stay involved as they share parenting. Accepting this reality, and knowing what is happening is normal and NOT failure, can free couples up to explore how they can positively make the process easier for everyone.

A Thought for Stepmothers

What springs to mind when you hear the word?

Perhaps it’s the evil and wicked stepmother of fairytales, and now Hollywood films, that so many of us grow up with. Where are the positive images and recognition for the mothering they give, often before having children of their own, even instead of? I was so moved at hearing one stepmum share her pain of not being recognised as a ‘real’ mother, by society and even her own mother and family, despite having bought up two boys 50% of the time and made a choice not to have children of her own given the circumstances. If you’re a step mum and wanting something to read try ‘How to Be a Happy Stepmum’ by Lisa Doodson, a stepmum herself.

In the next newsletter I will share some positive approaches and ideas that can help make step family life a little easier, gleaned from research, experienced couples and family therapists and of course those who’ve been there. Much of it is relevant to any family and I hope might inspire parents, particularly with teenagers who often feel like outsiders in their quest for independence, to try out something different! I am always adding to this understanding of step family life as I share it with some couples I work with, so please share your own personal experiences, ideas and solutions.

Here’s to making the most of our relationships and family life, however hard they might seem at times.


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