the blended family

Finding our family’s new identity

By Sarah Mouracade

“Go upstairs and take a shower before dinner,” my husband, the father of my two teenage stepsons, told our boys. Without batting an eye, the younger one replied, “Mom said that we need to shower in the mornings.”

I was surprised. In eight years, neither of the boys ever countered a request based on something their mom, my husband’s ex-wife, told them to do. I chimed in, reminding them that we wanted them to shower at night so as not to wake up the baby or use all the hot water in the morning. My logic got us nowhere. Neither of the boys moved. In fact, both boys became increasingly defiant.

So I tried again, more directly, “Sweethearts, you’re going to be clean even if you shower tonight. Go on up, please.” By now, my stepsons were agitated, insisting they do as their “real” mother asked. It felt like a showdown – and anyone in my family can tell you, I do not like showdowns. I took a stand, “Alright, you’ve made yourself clear, but your mom doesn’t get to decide how things happen here. Shower. Now, please.” With that, the conversation was over, but the tension remained until their mom picked them up the next day.

Since these sorts of exchanges are not our family’s norm, I wasn’t prepared for it or how to feel about it afterward. I couldn’t shake the feeling of frustration and wondered if I made a mistake in my firm insistence with them. As the week wore on and our weekend custody approached, I battled with myself as to whether I should let their “real” mom “boss” people around in my house or should my husband’s and my rules override her requests. Put that way, the answer seemed obvious, which is why I knew that I needed to rethink my approach. Was this a troublesome ex-wife who was infiltrating our lives using requests made of her sons? Or was my family facing a different sort of transition, one related just to us, having nothing to do with the ex?

In order to get an answer, I started where most moms do. I chatted about the episode with some friends, though they are not stepparents. They suggested several explanations. Maybe our teenagers were testing limits. Perhaps, they were motivated by unconscious jealousy of their new half-brother. While I appreciated my friends’ support, I actually hoped that our family was experiencing something more than a classic case of teenage ego or sibling rivalry. However, none of my friends thought this incident had anything to do with my husband’s ex-wife. As much as I hated to admit it (blaming an ex is so much easier), the problem probably stemmed from something happening in my own family. It was time to do some research.

In an article written by Dr. Susan D. Stewart, a sociologist at Iowa State University, she talks about how stepfamilies tend to lack clarity about their roles. Her research indicates that stepfamilies with both step and shared children see their roles less clearly than stepfamilies with children from only one partner and no shared children. Over the past eight years, my family had developed comfortable roles together. However, because my husband and I now have an infant, we increased our family’s level of ambiguity. Everyone had to learn new roles with a new family member. According to Dr. Stewart, ambiguity about stepfamily roles almost doubles with the addition of half-siblings. Much to my chagrin, it was indeed the transitions we faced, not the meddling of an ex-wife, which led to some uncharacteristically heated exchanges.

About a year ago, my husband and I stumbled upon an unconventional pathway to shared parenthood, having met a 4-week-old boy who needed to be adopted and we wanted desperately to adopt. Our older sons, who may have tackled questions about their relationship to our family even with a traditional pregnancy, not only experienced the fast-paced nature of the adoption but were also confronting questions of identity that teenagers encounter. True to Dr. Stewart’s findings, our family was in the midst of reinterpreting our roles. We weren’t just arguing about when the boys should shower.

While lack of clarity about family members’ roles creates stress, the sooner clarity is gained, the sooner the stress recedes. Now, my husband and I must figure out when and how we can lead our family to understanding new roles. Fortunately, we have several factors working in our favor, and time is on our side. The longer the couple has been together, raising stepchildren, the easier it is to regain clarity.

No matter how long it takes to resolve our family’s new identity, at least by better understanding my stepsons’ reactions, I can soften mine. I don’t have to fret; no one is telling me how to run my household. We’re all just figuring out how to adjust to life that includes a new baby that luckily all of us adore, even my stinky teenage stepsons.