Living in any family brings surprises that’s life. Living in a stepfamily guarantees LOTS of surprises because of the “open” and expanded system it creates. Even in first marriages, we “marry” more than just our spouse we also get their family. And in a stepfamily, we not only marry a spouse and their extended family (parents, siblings, nieces and nephews), we “marry” their children, ex-spouse, ex-spouse’s extended family, any new spouse their ex-spouse may have.
Living in a stepfamily can be like opening package after package after package. When we first join we know how many packages there are. In our case, our package included my two daughters, my husband Gordon’s three sons, his ex-spouse (not married at the time), and my ex-spouse with his wife and their two sons. Then the packages start bringing more packages and creating more packages. Our first additional package was very unexpected my first granddaughter came into the world quite by surprise. Before she even arrived, we were expecting that this little girl would be given to adoptive parents, and I had even met the adoptive parents that my daughter had picked out.
We had serious marriage regrouping to do when we first found out my daughter was pregnant. She was 18 and living with us after returning from working abroad for several months in a high visibility career. She was in therapy where she was grieving the loss of this child and preparing for the adoption process. A month before her baby was born, she asked us to attend one of her counseling sessions where she shared that she had changed her mind and intended to keep her child. She asked us how or if we could support her. Now we were regrouping again!
My husband and I had actually seen her change of heart coming and had already had multiple discussions on where we would be if something like this happened. However, as in any event, when it did happen, we were thrust into a new reality.
We did agree to have the two of them live with us while my daughter regrouped, took some college courses and worked as a waitress. My granddaughter had a co-parenting team of three and all of us were bonding with her. The goal was to have my daughter living independently and on her own.
About one year into this arrangement she received an offer to re-enter her previous career and go abroad again an offer she didn’t want to refuse. Her plans were to take my granddaughter with her. This was quite frightening to me and neither my husband nor I thought that would be the productive thing to do for either of them. That began the intense process of working out a “win-win” for all of us. After many discussions, professional advice, deep thinking, lots of prayer and using every communication skill I had ever learned and was teaching, as well as understanding my daughter’s temperament and our history together, I came up with a “legal guardianship” agreement. My husband agreed both of us knowing and not knowing how that was going to impact our lives. My daughter’s consent took longer, which I wasn’t surprised about, but as all of us considered the stability and best interests of my granddaughter, we agreed as a family to do this.
Over the past 19 years our stepfamily has had a lot to negotiate and collaborate on to keep this situation a win-win. We’ve had many painful valleys to find our way through as well as mountaintop experiences. I have moved from Grandma to Mom, to Momma Carri, to Mom/Grandma/Parent. For all of you women reading this, you can probably imagine the mother-daughter issues that would have to be addressed for this arrangement to benefit everyone involved. I’m pleased and grateful to say that my daughter and I have and continue to address the tough stuff and have a truly, deep, beautiful friendship.
My daughter has stayed in her high-visibility career. She and my granddaughter are developing their own unique relationship. Meanwhile, my 19 year old granddaughter is stable, doing well in school, working, and has put together in her own mind who she is and where she belongs.
Right now our total package count is five adult children between 38 and 49 years old, and they have brought four spouses and ten grandchildren into our lives. I know the packages will continue to unfold. Once in a stepfamily, you never get out.