Not a real family
Here’s something I’m struggling with today: that even after more than a decade together, my SD—apparently— still does not consider us her real family.
Today my SD left for her winter break from college, which is 24 days long. She’s spending 21 of those days with her HCBM and stepdad several states away, and not coming back till 3 days before before classes resume. Her boyfriend is flying up to also spend that entire time with her. And her real family.
This is how I know we are not a real family.
If we were a real family, surely some part of her would’ve thought ‘Oh wait, what about spending the second half of winter break with my dad the way I’ve done MY ENTIRE CHILDHOOD.’
If we were a real family, surely some part of her would’ve thought ‘Oh wait, I’d really love to have my boyfriend celebrate Paper Tree Christmas with my dad and stepmom and stepsister, which we’ve done EVERY NEW YEAR’S FOR THE LAST 8 YEARS.’
But none of that happened. And I don’t know what to say. Because she also ditched us for all of Thanksgiving break, missing our family Thanksgiving celebration of Thankful French Onion Soup Day completely.
Granted, these are made up holidays. But they’re holidays that we made up specifically so that we, the four of us, would have our own family holidays that wouldn’t turn into a battleground with any opposite parents. So it’s almost worse that she missed them— because we made them up for her benefit, for all four of us to have that time together. You know, like a normal family. A real family.
And these made-up holidays, which to the other 3 of us feel magical and sacred and all ours in a way that’s pretty damn cool, are just absent from her radar. Even after all these years.
Is it the typical oblivion of any 19-year-old? I can’t say that; my BD is also 19 and she arranged her holiday travel so she’d be here for our made-up holidays. And if it were deliberate— like SD purposely planned to be out of town to avoid spending holidays with us— that at least is something we could tell ourselves: that this is a phase she’ll get over at some point. So there would be disappointment, but there would also be hope.
Neither of us believes SD is being hurtful on purpose, which makes all of this that much more bleak and sludgy and grey and awful. Because how do you overcome being an afterthought? What’s a positive way we could spin our family time together at the holidays mattering so little to her that missing (or not missing) them simply did not occur to her?
This is why I say that I have no answers. No matter how long I’ve been a stepmom, the ongoing heartache keeps sneaking in there. Usually when I least expect it.
I’d love to not have any recent personal examples of blended family problems to share on this blog, and more than that, I’d love to tell you that after a decade or so, you too will come up short on heartbreaking stepparenting stories. That your stepkid will never again crush your spirit in a half-nelson like she’s training for pro status.
But I’d be lying. Because here we are.
You want stepparenting to stop hurting less. You expect it will, with time, and you’re right. Over time, the pain lessens. Sad stepparenting stories dwindle to fewer and further between. Yet even happening less often, I gotta say— the familiarity of the disappointment somehow hits worse than the disappointment itself. Every time I think this wound has healed or will heal, it gets ripped open again in the very same way.
I cannot stand how often SD has broken our collective hearts by treating us like we’re not her real family, and also can’t stand that there’s no way to prevent a similar scenario from happening again in the future. And again and again and again, ad nauseum.
In lieu of answers, Dan and I do what all parents and stepparents in a high conflict blended family do: we patch ourselves and each other up with heavy sighs and return to the fray, knowing there is no real way to win this war. Frustrated that feeling like a real family should lend itself to a battle metaphor at all, and so damn well at that.
I remind myself (and I remind Dan) that a couple days ago, SD asked “When are you doing Paper Tree Christmas this year?” And I— attempting a calm and casual tone, and maybe even succeeding— said “Well, I mean… whenever you get back. We celebrate when we’re together.”
I might be projecting, but I thought she sounded equal parts hesitant and wistful when she asked, like maybe she did realize she goofed by forgetting to factor us into her holiday plans. And (still projecting, maybe?) did her “Oh, okay” reply sound kinda sorta maybe a little relieved?
I’m going to tell myself yes. I’m going to remind myself that SD is not a planner and never has been, and that she inherited Dan’s awful trait of singleminded focus to the exclusion of all other considerations, which (in both of them) has come across as callous thoughtlessness more than once, even when their intentions are in the right place.
I will also tell myself, we will do better next year. After years of long distance custody, we now live in the same city as SD. The move was kind of sudden, and we never talked about holiday schedules. We’ll have to redefine our relationship as we go. This is a new era; our family time together is no longer bound by whatever the custody papers say.
Most of all, we can’t ever stop planning 8 steps ahead. Unlike a traditional family— unlike even a low conflict blended family— in a high conflict blended family, we must always, always proactively advocate for ourselves. Her entire life, SD has been encouraged by her HCBM to believe that her time with her dad doesn’t matter. That life at HCBM’s house is real life, and we are only an obligation. That love is finite, and so SD must choose between her parents; there’s only room for one.
It is our job to remind SD that we do exist. That we are her family. A real family.