This year, I turned 30. I also graduated from graduate school with my masters in social work, got engaged to the love of my life and lost my job. This doesn’t even include my fitness bumps in the road. I’m not sure which one of those caused me to dig so deeply into self-reflection, but here I am.
wnMany social workers go into this field for one of two reasons: (1) They are following in someone’s footsteps or (2) Their own experiences have led them to wanting to help others that are likely on a path similar to the one they experienced. I ended up in this work because of the latter (mostly).
I come from a blended family, and one that is more complicated than the norm for blended families (aren’t they all complicated though?). I was recently doing a little research to find some posts about others peoples’ experiences growing up as a stepchild, adopted child, or in a blended family. What I instead found was mostly posts, websites and articles about how to deal with step and adopted children and how to make your blended family successful as a parent. This was really concerning to me, because as with most things, we again forget about what is important in these situations: The children. We are thinking of them as objects, things to control and figure out how to mold into our own expectations. Instead, we should be (1) Teaching them how to be human, (2) Honoring their experiences, and (3) Helping them to heal from trauma they may have experienced.
So I decided that for all of you with my similar experience, I would write just what I was looking for: My experience in my unique blended family.
My family. My biological father (bio-dad) died in 1988, when I was 3 years old. By this time, my mother was already with my step-dad (dad), who I have only ever known as my dad – my father – since he is the man who raised me. My mom and bio-dad split up when I was just a baby. I have two older siblings, brothers, who also left our family unit when I was 9 months old and spent years in the foster care system until they were adopted by another family. They are 4 and 7 years older than me. They grew up together with their adopted family who also have a daughter. When I was 7, my half brother (little bro) was born. So at this point, my family unit consisted of my mom, dad, and little bro.
Are you keeping up? Some other notes to make: I only met my mother’s family a handful of times in my life and have never met my maternal grandparents (who are still alive and wandering around in West Virginia). I grew up spending all my holidays with my dad’s family. They were the only family I ever knew. My dad’s parents were divorced. So, I then had two sets of step-grandparents out of that, since they both remarried.
Are you still keeping up? Well, here’s the twist. I didn’t know my dad wasn’t my bio-dad and didn’t know anything about my older brothers until I was 13 years old. Until then, my blended family wasn’t a blended family. It was just my family. My perfect, un-divorced, beautiful family. Then when I was 15, my parents did divorce… and the only family unit I had ever known came crumbling apart. My mom wouldn’t let me live with my dad, and I was forced to move from apartment to apartment to basement to hotel to apartment with my mom until I was 18 and chose to move out on my own.
You can imagine what it was like to find out the news that would change my life forever at age 13, and then lose my family security 2 years later. This is the kind of stuff you process in different ways throughout your life, it seems like, and for different reasons. So if you are an adult reading this, I ask you, do you know a child – or an adult – who has – or is – experienced anything like this? I want you to ask yourself if you have taken a moment at all to consider:
- If this child has been able to or learned how to process their experience
- If this child has been validated in their experiences
- If this person has experienced trauma
- What the hell they might be going through??
- Are you trying to fix this child or help this child?
Here’s what kids in blended families (step, adopted, crazy like mine) often experience, even into adulthood:
- Getting called the wrong name. Whether its the wrong pronunciation, or a slight variation of the name, it happens. It is also not OK. When you can’t say a child’s name that is a new member of your family correctly, what message are you sending?
- Exclusion from the family. Sometimes its at family functions, and sometimes its family functions all together, especially into adulthood. Hearing stories at the holidays of what the rest of the family did together or how your cousins went out on the lake together this summer is not a great feeling.
- Once we are all grown, we aren’t your “problem” anymore. When a child becomes part of a family, the expectation is that they have them forever, not that they will be abandon when (1) they turn 18 or (2) they do something “wrong”. Just because a child is not flesh and blood, does not mean they can be discarded or unforgiven for their mishaps.
- Inability to meet expectations. No one should ever be in their 20’s or 30’s trying to gain the acceptance of their family. Ever. Ever. Ever. They should know from the time they are brought into a family (whether by birth, adoption or marriage) that they are accepted, supported, and part of the family.
- Constant feeling of walking on eggshells. One of a person’s most comfortable places, including children, should be around their family. Throw on your sweats, have smelly socks, say how you feel about anything and everything because you can’t say it anywhere else, burp, fart, and laugh until milk comes out of your nose. But kids in blended families often don’t fully feel comfortable enough to do any of the above, which means they grow up never getting to show their family who they are are a wonderful, beautiful person.
- Feeling lower on the totem poll than other siblings/family members. We know when they don’t get as much as their siblings who are full blooded in the family and we noticed when they get more praise, attention, and support. Spread the love, adults. Spread the love.
- Blame for their other parent’s mistakes. In instances such as mine, I was brought into a family by marriage, and then that marriage was disintegrated. A child brought into a family this way shouldn’t then be removed when the circumstances change or be blamed for their parents “mistakes.” Remember that (1) children are not their parents and (2) children are not their parent’s mistakes. They are their own people navigating the world.
- Blame for their family being blended. Don’t ever, ever blame your children for your marriage not remaining enact. I promise you, those words you speak will stay with them forever. You cannot take what comes out of your mouth back.
- The effort to be a family member is all on us. There is the feeling of having to put in 110% to be the perfect family member (child, grandchild, cousin, niece, nephew, etc) to show the rest of the family that we care. Just like in any other relationship, its not all on us to pick up the phone or put forth an effort.
- We don’t like seeing family pictures that don’t include us. This may not seem like a big deal or there’s usually no implied insult, but its hurtful to see what seems like our parents, siblings, family members moving on as a whole without including us.
- We know when you don’t see us as an equal member of the family.
Whether you are the mother, father, sister, brother, cousin or friend of someone who is welcome a new member into their family by adoption or by dating someone with a child you should remember these things:
- This person is your family member. They have accepted this child into their life as their wholehearted child, as should you. Welcome this new grandchild, niece, nephew, cousin, etc. as just that.
- This child is not a problem that your family has to deal with. This child is an opportunity for your family to grow. You now have a new person to teach your skills to, share your life experiences with, learn how to be a human, and wrap your love around.
- Honor this child’s experiences now and forever. Remember that they will alway be a member of a blended family, and will always have a different lens that they have to view life through. Don’t make it any harder for them.
Most of all, remember these kids who turn into adults love you and these experiences are hard, so don’t make it any harder. Open up your heart – your WHOLE heart – and remember this child is part of your life forever.
Are you the child of a blended family? What have you experienced? What advice do you have for the adults in your life? What would have helped you as a child? Please share you experience!