By Teri Carter
When asked, “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” I might give any of the following answers: only child, oldest of 3, or oldest of 5. All true. This is what it means to be a stepdaughter.
1,300 new stepfamilies are created every day. I am a statistic, a stepdaughter three times over, starting at ages 2, 9, and 15, with two half-brothers, a stepbrother and a stepsister. Everyone offers advice. Over the years I’ve heard dozens of opinions from the well-intentioned about how divorced parents and new stepparents should and should not behave. Most get it wrong.
If anyone, including my own parents, had asked, this is what I would have told them.
- Say the words, “How’s your mom?” or “How’s your dad?” and be genuinely interested in the answer. You may have to fake it at first. That’s okay. I may give one-word answers. That’s okay, too. But do not underestimate the power of this seemingly simple question. Showing basic concern for the person I love as much as I love you is the greatest gift you can give me.
- Be reasonable and flexible with your time. If Dad shows up 30 minutes early, go ahead and hug me goodbye; if Mom’s an hour late because of traffic on a Friday, don’t make a big deal. I know you have court papers and rules, but be aware my smile is hiding a secret, sick-in-the-gut panic when watching you watch the clock.
- Attend parent-teacher conferences together. If you do nothing else, do this. It’s only twice a year, and essential you both hear first-hand, from the adult I spend the most time with, where I am strong and where I need help.
- Please do not buy me things or entertain me. I am not a houseguest. I want to be part of your real, everyday life, even if all we do is go grocery shopping, run errands, fold laundry, read books, cook food, and walk the dog.
- Remember the words “child support” mean something different for you than for me. I hear nothing but the number, the exact dollar amount I am worth fighting over. This will become my value.
- If you can bear it, and I know you can, sit near each other at my soccer games and band concerts. Whether I score a goal or nervously hit the wrong note, there is no comfort like looking to one spot in the crowd for your support.
- If you start seeing a special person who makes you happy, do not keep them a secret. Introduce me! Most adults will tell you the opposite of this; they are wrong. This does not mean we need to spend all of our time with them, nor that they should stay the night, but I worry about you when I’m with my other parent, worry about you being alone, and lonely. Knowing you have someone special in your life will make me feel less responsible for your happiness.
- Parenting is not a competitive sport. If you need to win, we will all pay an inestimable price.
- When and if you decide to remarry, encourage me and my new stepfather or stepmother to create our own bond, our own relationship, separate from you. I cannot stress enough how important this is. When you disappear (Dad), my stepfather will become the man in my life, someone to daddy me and teach me how to drive and walk me down the aisle. When you are in the hospital (Mom) dying after long illness, hearing you say to my stepmother, “Thank you, I know you will take good care of our girl,” will, over the devastating weeks and months and years to come, encourage me to count on the only mother I have left without loving you, or missing you, one ounce less.
Many will say this is an impossible list. Idealistic. Unrealistic. A pipedream. But is it?
It’s true, no one grows up dreaming of being a stepchild or a stepparent. I get this. I recently sat behind a group of women having lunch as one joked, “I know it takes a village to raise a child, but is it too much to ask my village not have my ex and a stepmother with her kids in it?” The women howled with laughter. I even laughed with them. I get this, too.
I will never have the simple answer. I will always be an only child, oldest of 3, and oldest of 5. But I count other, unexpected gifts: a stepfather who still checks on me and sends text messages that say, “I’m proud of you,” and a stepmother who stepped up to show me how to be a stepmother myself.
Indeed, it takes a village. And my whole, messy, complicated village, it turns out, is the dream I did not know I needed. Until I did.
Teri Carter’s work can be found in The New York Times Motherlode, Brain, Child Magazine, The Manifest-Station, Grown & Flown, and other journals and anthologies. She lives in Kentucky and California, where she is working on her first book.