By Kristin Perpignano
When my daughter was an infant, I used to love lying down next to her as she drifted off to sleep. She’d fight to stay awake, rubbing her eyes and blinking at the glow-in-the-dark star stickers on her ceiling, as I stroked her wispy baby hair and listed all the people in her life who loved her. I relished the sweetness of going down the long list of family members, friends and neighbors, ticking off names of everyone I could possibly think of.
Who loves you? Mommy loves you…Daddy loves you…Grandma loves you…
The list was modified over time; it would expand as a relative got married or a new cousin was born, and sometimes, albeit rarely, a divorce or breakup forced me to subtly faze someone out of the assemblage. Regardless of who made the tally each night, this recitation of everyone who loved her seemed to be a wonderful, affirming foundation for my little girl. I liked the idea of letting her know that, from the moment she was born, there were always people around who cared about her. I felt this was a great message to convey to my child: the more people who love you, the better.
I continue to find comfort in this message. I still try to send it, though in a slightly different way, to my now-seven-year-old daughter, who has weathered the breakup of her parents and the introduction of a new partner for her mom. In the beginning, when I started to talk with her about the new man in my life, she had so many questions. “He isn’t my daddy, but what is he to me?” she’d ask, and my heart would clench a little. “Well,” I’d say, reaching for the only answer that made sense, “He’s just one more person in your life to love you.”
I think this perspective helped us immensely in the early days of our new blended family, when the three of us were struggling so hard to figure out just what we were supposed to be to one another. My partner didn’t have the kind of bond with my daughter that her father had; he had sort of inherited this little girl by virtue of loving me, so what kind of role was he supposed to play in her life?
Families are defined in such a variety of ways nowadays, I think it helped that my partner was not attempting to be some kind of substitute dad, but rather an additional grown-up to help guide and care for her. Someone to demonstrate rules, eating habits, values, fun, in ways that might be different from her dad’s or mine.
The great thing about stepparents is that they can generally see things from a totally different perspective than the biological parents. I love the fact that my partner can always offer a fresh perspective on a family situation that I find teeth-grindingly difficult. He is unbiased and fair, and sees things as they are, not as they look through my ‘Mommy Goggles’.
The influence a stepparent has on a child’s life can be far-reaching and powerful. They get a chance to take a child that’s more than likely experienced some emotional strain, and show them a completely different way to be a family. After watching her parents‘ relationship unravel over the course of several years, my daughter now has a chance to experience a functional relationship by watching my partner and me. I’m so happy that we have an opportunity to demonstrate to my daughter how two people can be in a healthy, mutually respectful and satisfying relationship.
I’m not sure that my partner fully realizes the effect that he will have on my daughter when she gets to an age where she is choosing a partner of her own. But the influence of ‘an additional adult who loves her’ is greater than he thinks, as is the case, with many stepparents.
Be Patient. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the blended family….or anyone’s family, for that matter! Becoming a family unit means fusing together different lifestyles, households, likes, dislikes and values. It takes time for relationships to grow.
Be Flexible. Remember that everyone’s giving up a little bit of control for the good of the family. Nobody is going to be right all the time, and feelings can get hurt. Try not to take things personally.
Communicate. If something is bothering you about the way your household is running, speak up. Try to be honest and constructive. Use ‘I’ statements, rather than accusing a family member of behaving negatively (“I feel like maybe we could spend less time watching TV and more time doing things as a family…”).
Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff. Decide what is really important and let go of the rest. Keep your sense of humor intact. And always remember what drove you to become a family from the start: love.