What makes stepparenting so hard?
Life in a high-conflict blended family can often feel like we’re at war, whether we’re battling the stepkids or the ex or even our partners. And sometimes stepparents feel like we’re at war within ourselves. We have this idea that we’ll be only be “real” blended families once the fighting stops. That we’re not truly blended till everyone’s happy and there’s no more drama. Like someday stepparenting won’t be hard anymore, and THEN we’ll have succeeded as stepparents.
That’s not how blending a family works.
Why stepparenting is harder than parenting
Shawn Achor did a study on happiness, and found that as a society, we tend to continually move our happiness goalposts. We tell ourselves, “I’ll be happy when X happens.” But the whole time we’re striving for X, we’re thinking past X to how we’re gonna handle that Y looming in the distance. And when we do eventually reach X, we never stop to savor the moment. We gloss our achievement over as fast as we can in our rush toward the next goal. Then once we hit that Y, we’re already planning for Z.
The secret to happiness, Achor says, is to stop looking ahead toward success. Revel in the now. Celebrate the moment. Stop thinking you can't be happy until you've checkmarked whatever next box sits on your wishlist of blended family goals, and instead practice gratitude for every single teeny tiny baby step along the way.
Because honestly, most of what makes a blended family work isn't the big stuff; we blend via the hundreds of small successes along the way. The mumbled good morning from the stepkid who ignored you yesterday. The lack of an angry email from the ex last week. The slow thaw; the spontaneous hug; the "I love you too" after months (or years) of no response.
Think for a minute about those moments you've experienced yourself. Stop and breathe them in. Just for a second, really feel them in your bones. That feeling? That's what blending a family in high conflict feels like. Even one happy memory counts. One pretty burst of light. String them along a strong cord and knot them in next to the hundreds of unpretty memories where they'll shine out all the more brightly for being hard-won.
That is blended.
Struggling with stepparenting… and celebrating the successes
In the US, we celebrate our national independence on July 4th every year without a second thought. But the 4th of July 1776 isn’t the day we gained our independence from Britain— it’s the day we declared our independence. The day we threw down and said “We're doing this.” The day we started the Revolutionary War. Not the day we stopped fighting.
The Revolutionary War ended on September 3, 1783— a date that no one cares about or probably even knows. (I had to look it up myself to include it here.) As a nation, we’ve decided the date we achieved peace matters less than the date we declared our intent to live as a free and independent country. The day we made the commitment is the day we set off fireworks.
In a blended family, we can't celebrate only after the fighting is over. We count our stepparenting time backwards from the day we met the kids, the day we started fighting to become a family. There isn't one particular day I can look back on and say "Ah yes, the day we finally felt blended!" I look back and say "That's the day I met Dan. That's the day we started— the day we stepped forward into this together."
Don't wait until your family resembles your idea of what a blended family "should" look like to define yourself as blended. "Blend" is a verb: a word of action. Your family lives in constant evolution. What's hard about stepparenting today might be easy next week. The fight you're fighting with your stepkid or your partner right now could be a moot point by next year.
It's so easy to fall into this belief of, okay, well we're kinda blended now, but someday we'll really be blended. Every day we're almost there. Just a couple more checkboxes to go, then our life together will be peaceful enough to count as legit. Right now our lives are only almost like real life, but someday this will be really like real life.
How long does it take to blend a family?
The answer to whether being a stepmom or stepdad ever gets easier is yes, definitely. But the real reason you're asking is because you want to know when will stepparenting get easier. WHEN!!! Dear GOD when will any of finally feel simple?? How much longer do you have to slog through this fake life bullshit before you reach your goal of easier stepparenting?
Fun fact: blending a family takes 5 to 7 years… and for high-conflict blended families, up to 10 years. Now tell me this: does having that number make you feel better or worse? Because the first time I heard that statistic (at only 2 years in), I burst into tears. What do you mean I'm only like, 25% of the way there? Can my sanity survive another 3 to 5 (or up to 8 more) years of this?
Plus the statistic is a lie, because stepparenting gets easier much sooner than that. And by that I mean, there are easier moments. But then there are moments that are harder than you expected, too. And there never won't be those hard times, those sucker punches right to the gut. Even your biggest successes can feel bittersweet because of the revolutionary war you had to fight your way through to get there.
So don't wait for easier. Fuck easier. Fiercely celebrate those tiny successes along the way, so looking back becomes a starry night sky: you're so taken by the tiny twinkles of light here and there that the dark backdrop isn't what you notice. And remember too that without the dark, we couldn't see those stars at all.
This week I’m throwing a party for my parents— they’re celebrating their golden anniversary: 50 years of marriage. A number I’m not sure I’ll reach in my own marriage, not because I think we might not make it but because Dan & I met later in life and who knows how many years we have together. We hit our 10-year anniversary this year and that definitely felt celebratory— but no more or less than every other year we’ve survived together. When your marriage is born into chaos, every minute spent in relative calm feels like a goddamn miracle. Not just a star in an endless night sky; a supernova.
And every anniversary feels like fireworks.