~originally published in elephant journal~

this is a letter for stepparents – of a particular kind. i’m not talking about the ones who have a good situation, though i’m happy for you. yes, indeed, that’s how it ought to be. today, however, i’m talking about the ones who find themselves in a chronically conflictual dynamic. this love letter is for you.

under the best of circumstances, it’s hard to be a stepparent. blood is thicker than water, as they say. there are archetypes as old as fairy tales that frame this interloper as evil. unless you’ve been in children’s lives since day one, there may be years of attachment that you missed out on. it can be hard to know how to show up, and you may or may not have support on the journey. if you’re lucky, you’ve got a great partner. if you’re really blessed, your partner’s got a great ex. how your presence is held by parents shapes a lot.

the vulnerability of trying to create relationships with children can be painful. kids don’t get to choose who their parents love, and opening up to a new adult may be unwelcome or strange. kids didn’t choose this, but here they are. forging attachment amid the rubble of what for many children is a fractured family is hard. you didn’t cause the fracture, but here you are. some stepparents avoid the role, choosing not to let stepkids into their hearts. with compassion, i recognize that’s a way to protect oneself. but this love letter is for those who try, anyhow.

stepparents know it’s a humble position. children may choose to love you…or not. they may want to know your story, your outlook, and where you’ve come from….or not. the other parent may welcome or malign you. you have no choice in this – except to show up with love…or not. and if you show up with love, this letter’s for you.

perhaps you entered into a preexisting conflict, as can happen in divorce or blended families. if you have, i’m sorry: that makes things harder. it’s not your fault. stay out of the conflict as best you can. it’s a zero sum game that you cannot win. better to aim for win-win.

and even though a stepparent’s standing can be tenuous, their behaviour must be unimpeachable. a sharp word or a tired response will not land in the same way as it would from a parent. the bonds of attachment that allow for durability in relationships may be brittle, fragile. there is less room for mistakes. the disparity of standards to which a stepparent is held doesn’t change the reality. look at it this way: the discipline of restraint is a valuable practice. it will hold you in good stead for the rest of your life.

in my own life, i have had a stepparent; mothered a child who had a stepparent; and been a stepparent myself. from all angles, i understand the complexity of blending a family. what have i learned? that the adults in my life could have taught me how to welcome my stepmother more. to my mother’s credit, she became an ally to my stepmother – a victim of domestic violence without relatives nearby. i’ve learned that when my own child had a stepparent, my most subtle gestures of generosity or stinginess would influence how that adult was welcomed or excluded. such power requires rigorous self-honesty.

stepparenting is delicate heart work, with a lot of moving parts. heart work takes courage. the word courage comes from the latin word cor, which actually means heart. it is “the quality of mind that enables one to meet danger and trouble without fear.” being a stepparent can require courage. be open and show your love without fear.

why would anyone choose a role at once so potentially powerless and so painful? one may pour themselves into stepparenting and still have it come to naught. children have no duty to return your love in kind. you can’t control this, and have no right to offer love with strings attached.

every stepparent has different reasons for showing up. if you find it hard, consider this: life is long. love matters. good intentions plant seeds that grow into beautiful things…or not. but keep planting. some seeds will germinate and make something of your love. and in the meantime, let stepparenting carve your character. feel it deepen your humility, strengthen your equanimity, forge your kindness, fortify your love. no matter what comes from that, there’s more beauty in the world because of it. hold the courage of your intentions, and keep going.

About the Author

deirdre mclaughlin (she/they/we) is a counsellor, sex educator, and phd student in clinical sexology. they live and work within the ancestral, traditional, and unceded territories of the tmixʷ (Syilx Okanagan), snʕickstx tmxʷúlaʔxʷ (Sinixt), and ɁamakɁis (Ktunaxa) peoples, as well as many other diverse Indigenous persons, including the Métis.

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