8 stepparenting tips I learned from Game of Thrones
Welcome to the first Sunday of the rest of your life without Game of Thrones. Now that we know how the story ends (at least how HBO's version ends; who knows if we'll ever get GRRM's version), looking back at the beginning brings up all kinds of obvious-in-retrospect foreshadowing that makes me wonder how the hell I missed this, that, or the other.
Kinda like blending a family, where present-day me wonders wtf 2009 me even thought she was doing as a new stepmom. How did I not see what was coming?!
In hindsight, I could've taken some stepparenting tips straight from GoT, if I'd just been paying attention. [Disclaimer: this post is snark and full of spoilers. If spoilers even matter to anyone anymore.]
1. We do some crazy shit for love.
We love our partners. We love our idea of who our stepkids could become (with our help). We love our vision of the blended family we're trying to build.
And all that fierce love makes us a bit nuts.
Maybe not push-a-10-year-old-kid-out-a-window nuts, but definitely off-kilter. We compromise our ethics for the sake of peace, we bend over backwards further than anyone should be able to pretzel themselves, we compromise till we've moved so far from our original stance as to make unrecognizable decisions.
Stepparents meet the exact definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again—fighting the same fight over and over again—while expecting different results.
No wonder we're exhausted.
But listen, also remember this: Jaime's shove was the shove that launched an epic, unforgettable journey. Bran becoming broken was the first event in a many-evented chain that had to happen for all that followed to come about. Whatever you're going through right now is not purposeless. Love matters. Your contributions matter.
2. We know nothing.
Remember how Jon Snow was super-duper excited to join the Night's Watch till he met some other recruits? Turns out the glorious backstory Jon invented around the valiant Night's Watch brethren was a complete fairy tale—the real Night's Watch is full of rapists, murderers, and the dregs of Westerosi society.
Same for stepparents. We go in like "Stepparenting! How hard can it really be." And then reality bitch-slaps us in the face and we realize that, holy shit, we had no idea what we were getting into. And worse, by the time we realize it, we're good and committed. But hey—it's only for life, right?
Like Jon Snow, you will eventually figure out a few things. You won't always feel lost as a stepparent, like you're playing some game where no one will tell you the rules yet somehow you keep right on breaking them. Over time, you'll find your way to a place where you feel peace. Where you feel like you belong.
3. Bran is disengaged. Be like Bran.
Bran, once he becomes the Three-Eyed Raven, sees everything that's happening while it's happening, plus everything that's happened in the past. Does Bran dwell? Does Bran get all wound up about those things? Does Bran use his omniscience to deep-dive strategies with the other good guys?
NOPE. Bran does not care. He remains as neutral as it's possible to remain, offering semi-supportive tidbits here and there as needed.
Like Bran, we stepparents need to learn how to calmly observe the raging Dumpster fire surrounding us without letting our own emotional barometer get all whacked out. Bran isn't really the ideal example of how to disengage from your stepkids ("zombie-like" really shouldn't be a goal for any stepparent, and please don't ever just vacantly stare at your stepkids), but the one thing he gets right is going all-in on the "not my circus, not my monkeys" vibe.
4. You'll sacrifice everything, and no one's gonna thank you for it.
You'll follow the rules. You'll make hard decisions. You'll try your damnedest to build a blended family. And with every obstacle that breaks your heart along the way (and there will be many), the fight'll get knocked right outta you. You'll fall to your knees in the snow, you'll crouch there stunned for a minute or a week or a month. But then you'll push yourself back up and return to the brotherhood that stabbed you in the back because it's the right thing to do, dammit.
Almost for sure no one will thank you for this. And they won't extend a friendly hand to bring you back inside the safety of stone walls to sit with them by the fire, either. They're more likely to blame you for not succeeding perfectly each and every single time you make a contribution.
A lot of stepparenthood is spent shunned in isolation: the blamed scapegoat, the kicked messenger. But we're not making decisions to be popular, here. We're doing what we know is right for the realm, even when the personal cost is severe.
5. Even the worst characters have some redeeming qualities.
GRRM delights in subverting tropes and deliberately set out to create characters who are never all good or all bad. The best aspects of our favorite characters end up being their downfall; the worst aspects of our favorite villains end up winning us over; the most despicable characters evolve into our new favorites; the heroes we root for turn out to be tyrants.
In a blended family, we never question who's right and who's wrong. The answer seems obvious. But the reality is that there is no all-right or all-wrong. Everyone lives in various shades of grey.
HCBM lobbed plenty of hand grenades into our lives, but destroying us was never her goal. Well… okay, I can't say never. But I think causing us misery was just a fun bonus. I think HCBM genuinely believed she was being a good mama bear and protecting her daughter. I think she truly convinced herself that we were the ones attacking her. No one's the bad guy in their own story, right?
As much as I struggle to forgive HCBM, other days I think to myself, how fucked up do you have to be that you're scared your own child will love some new stranger more than you. How shattered does your self-esteem have to be that you feel so unworthy of being loved—even by your own child—that your subconscious tells you your only option is to sabotage your child's relationship with her father because otherwise she will always love him more. What kind of hellish emotional landscape fosters the twisted idea that you are that hateful and that unlovable, that love is not only finite but scarce.
As hard as my SD's childhood was on her, how much worse must HCBM's childhood have been for HCBM to end up the way she did.
Being spiteful is easy. It's being sympathetic that's hard.
And if I can find even the tiniest smidge of compassion for HCBM, then I should be able to forgive myself too, right? Accept that even my worst stepmom mistakes don't make me a bad person or even a bad stepmom. Accept that I can be a good person who screws up sometimes.
None of us is all good or all bad. Not one of us. Even Cersei loved her children.
6. We get hated on for doing the right thing.
One thing about GoT I never understood is why everyone hurls "Kingslayer" at Jaime with such contempt. I mean… doesn’t anyone remember why the dude he was guarding was nicknamed the Mad King? King Aerys literally had people burned alive in front of him while laughing about it. Why is all of Westeros mad at Jaime for killing this guy? Because he broke his oath to protect the king? By killing King Aerys, wasn't Jaime really protecting the king from himself, from his own insane actions?
Like Jamie, stepparents get a terrible reputation for trying to do the right thing. When we try to parent our stepkids, I promise we aren't giving them rules and structure because we're all evil stepparents who have it in for our stepkids. Omg we’re trying to help raise them into good people, just like we would our own kids!! Please stop blaming us for only trying to help!!
7. The ending isn't quite what you expected.
Game of Thrones took 8 seasons to wrap up its bajillion storylines; blended families take 5 to 7 years to completely blend (or longer, in high conflict). And after all those years, despite many hints and mucho foreshadowing (that we largely ignored), the ending still won't be what you thought.
When we first start out dating someone with kids, we think we're forming a new family that's pretty much like a traditional family, only the kids are older and not related to us by blood. And we're the new fan who came in kinda partway through the show and is binge-watching to catch up. But eventually we'll get there, and then we'll all be one big happy Brady Bunch, right?
A blended family does not look or act like a traditional family. And that is okay. Blended family life, even at its happiest and simplest, is far more complex than a first family. And most divorces are contentious by definition, so expecting happy/simple out of the gate is just plain unrealistic.
None of that means your blended family can't someday feel like a "real" family. You can. You just need to adjust your expectations for what a "real" family looks and feels and acts like. Once you stop trying to make your blended family life into something it isn't and appreciating it for what it is, you'll be able to make your peace with how your story wraps up. Even if it's not the way you originally pictured. Like… not at all.
8. The pack survives.
As stepparents, aka the lone wolf outsiders, we tend to think that A) anything that goes wrong must be our fault and B) it's all on us to make our blended family work.
Stepparenting is an ecosystem, not an island. Without the support of our partner, the lone wolf ain't gonna make it. To survive and become a pack, our partners need to stand with us, united.
We're breaking the wheel here, folks. The traditional family is the old way of doing things; a blended family is the new way. Our partners think the pack only includes them and their kids, but the new pack includes us too.
Our partners haven't blended a family before and neither have we. Our only experience comes from whatever we knew about families before we met our partners. We don't know what that blended family world looks like, so it's hard to envision the right way to move forward.
While there's no single right way to blend a family, the only way to become blended is by joining together against whatever winter is headed our way, and not letting outside forces divide us.