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July 19, 2023 Feature

What I Wish I Had Known

Paula M. Lipsey

At the ripe old age of 41, I became the stepparent to two young men, aged 23 and 25. To say that I entered into this relationship blindly would be to put it very, very mildly. To say that I was naive also would be an understatement. In retrospect, my experience can be categorized into two areas: (1) what I should have known and (2) what I never could have known. As I search the depths of my aging heart almost 25 years later, I can finally acknowledge, “what I wish I had known.”

Have a Plan

As a social worker by profession and someone who enjoyed analyzing the dynamics of human relationships, I should have had a plan to blend the two families together. I didn’t. I literally thought that my outgoing nature, sprinkled with a hefty measure of determination, would be the recipe for success. It wasn’t. I gave no thought to how we would clear the air about different traditions, lifestyles, and ethnic and religious backgrounds. I certainly didn’t dwell on the possibility that my husband’s adult sons might choose not to have a relationship with me and my two teenage children. The simplistic approach of “come for dinner, and we can get to know one another” was simply not an option, and there was no Plan B. Even though my kids were more amenable to meeting and exploring, we were still in uncharted territory. The great planner/organizer was flying by the seat of her pants!

Don’t Assume

My assumption that my husband, an astute family law practitioner, would have all the answers was unrealistic. I would soon learn that professional legal expertise is one thing, but your own family dynamics are something else. Seeking the assistance of a qualified family therapist who could prepare me for the challenges I was facing would have been a better route to follow.

Reevaluate and Develop Another Plan

I wish I had taken the time to learn as much about my husband’s children as possible. I knew the basics: age, relationship status, education. I didn’t know about some of the experiences that could have shaped their values and contributed to their strong opinions. I needed to objectively try to understand some of the emotional issues, which would be ever-present in their lives. Children expect to live in “forever families” and to grow up in a family that stays together. I should have asked where they were in the process of accepting the legacies of divorce. I wish I had known about the National Stepfamily Resource Center (NSRC), an organization that might have had helpful insights and suggestions for meeting the challenges I faced.

What I Never Could Have Known

My stepchildren were adults with extensive educational accomplishments. Although I could have delved more into their emotional past, I never could have predicted exactly where that would lead. I never could have known exactly if or where the “tipping point” was for bringing us together as some sort of family. This business of living life is a challenging experience. In my relationship with my stepchildren, I never could have known exactly when to step back to give space or when to push forward. It was, and still is, a constantly evolving relationship. I have learned to accept the challenge as a journey and not a destination.

When the Grandchildren Come

Sometimes the “patter of little feet” brings people together in unique ways. Happily in our case, the step (blended) family evolution gained momentum through the commitment of a stepdaughter-in-law who wanted her children to experience as much loving family as possible. The logistical problems still exist, but we work at making it as comfortable as possible. Recognizing that no one has a monopoly on time or circumstance, flexibility is the key to harmony. I wish I had known that simple rule 25 years ago. My advice to any new stepparent is don’t assume the situation will take care of itself and everyone will happily come together for family outings. Although this might happen, it is best not to leave such important relationships to chance.

This article originally appeared in Family Advocate’s Summer 2013 Client Manual “Your Blended Family: A Guide for Parents & Stepparents” on p. 21.

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Paula M. Lipsey


Paula M. Lipsey lives in Lincoln, Rhode Island. She worked for 15 years as a social worker and program developer.