Why everyone in a blended family needs to let go of "should"

We all have very set ideas of how our lives should look. What careers we're supposed to have, the types of houses we're supposed to live in, whatever certain set of metrics that, when added up, lets us say to ourselves: "Yes, this is how life should be."

We set the same invisible standards for our family life, too. What a partnership or marriage should look like. How a family should act together. How kids should be raised and how they should behave. How much time a family should spend together. What a stepparent's role should look like.

In a blended family, nothing looks like you ever imagined your family would look back in your pre-stepparenting days.

Maybe you thought your courtship should include tons of candlelit dinners and romance and getaway vacations? Ummm NOPE—not if you're dating someone with kids, where your smoochy grownup time is severely limited and your partnership is inextricably linked with your relationship to your partner's kids.

Or you might think—like I did for many frustrating years—that a blended family isn't a "real" family because you don't do "normal" family things. A "normal" family eats dinners together, or the kids have a regular chore list, or you've gotta celebrate at least SOME of the major holidays together. Right?

Turns out, not so much. For us, we actually felt less like a "real" family when we were on a 50/50 custody schedule with my SD (but still embroiled in super high conflict all the time) compared to 80/20 long-distance custody (but enjoying relative peace during the 4 or so times a year we did get to spend together).

What works for you might not work for the next stepparent, and your blended family life might look nothing like the life of a different blended family. So the first step in ditching that "should" is to stop comparing yourself to other parents or stepparents or traditional families or blended families. Just do your own thing. Find your own way. Making shit up as you go is a perfectly valid approach to blending a family.

A blended family will never look exactly like a traditional family—and that's okay. Let go of the idea that it should.

The problem with "should"

Problem #1 with "should" is that every single should contradicts every single other should.

You should be more involved in your stepkid's life. You should be less involved so you're not overstepping. You should never stepparent with double standards. Actually don't parent at all. Wait, why aren't you parenting-- don't you love your stepkid?? You should go above and beyond to show your stepkid how much you care. You should step back and give your stepkid space to come to you. You should step in wherever it seems like you could help, including calming the situation between your partner and their high-conflict ex. You should never stick your nose in where it doesn't belong.

Which should is the right should? Who knows! Stop playing guessing games with shoulds and throw those unrealistic expectations out the window.

And then problem #2 is how much pressure you're putting on yourself with that one little word—"should."

You should love your stepkid unconditionally. Your stepkid should love you right back. You should help parent your partner's kids. Your partner should appreciate you, and so should their kids. You should never complain; you should've known what you were getting into. You shouldn't feel jealous or resentful of your stepkid. You should be more compassionate about what your stepkid is going through. You should be able to get over any negative feelings more easily than this.

And always, always, always the insidious you should be doing better.

Knock that off!

You only think you're failing because you're assigning yourself random, arbitrary guidelines based on—you guessed it—"should."

Listen—set rules do not exist here in blended family land. There's nothing you have to live up to. There's no one right way to stepparent and no one right way to blend a family. You're doing your best, and that's all you can do. And if you fuck up? Congrats! You're a human who makes mistakes! Just like every single other human on the planet!

Forgive yourself and move on. Whew! Feels good, doesn't it?

There's no "should" in a blended family

In a blended family, there is no "should" that acts as the gold standard. Ever.

Some parents have 50/50 custody, some have 60/40, some do that 2-2-3-3 thing, others have nothing written on paper at all and just wing it. Are some blended families more family-like than others because of a particular custody schedule? Nope.

Some stepparents fall right in love with their partner's kids, and becoming a stepparent is a breeze for them. That definitely was not my personal experience (and also I've never met any of those stepparents…) but that doesn't mean that I'm any less of a stepparent— or any worse of a stepparent— just because my SD and I have had a rockier road.

Don't get hung up on the disconnect between what you think your blended family should look/act/function like and what it actually looks/acts/functions like.

Get rid of that should. Just— stomp it dead. "Should" implies that your blended family as you know it is not enough. That we should less than, more than, better than. Other than.

What about letting life in a blended family just… be what it is? Just spend the time you have together, however much or how often that happens, without such high expectations for ourselves and each other.

Let's stop obsessing over how we envision a family should be, and learn to enjoy how our blended families really are. Stop wasting time on wishing for something different— for a family that doesn't look like Y or act like Z, or for the ex to disappear, or for stepparenting to not be so damn hard— and sink that energy into appreciation instead. Embrace the complicated, chaotic love/stress/tangle of blended family life instead of beating ourselves senseless and bloody against the unyielding should.

It's only when stepparents let go of "should" that we can stop struggling to define our role and find relative peace within our blended family. It's only when our partners let go of "should" that they can start appreciating the gifts we're bringing to the table—even if our role isn't what they (or we ourselves!) originally envisioned us taking on. And it's only when our stepkids let go of "should" that they can finally accept that their mom and dad will never get back together, and they have two families and both are valid.

Let go of should, and you'll make room for the blended family you already are.