Nuclear Families And Step-Relations: The Disconnect Is Real

by Grady Savage
Originally Published: 
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Dear Nuclear Family,

I wish you knew how hard it is to be a stepfamily. I wish you knew what it feels like to get strange looks and uncomfortable questions. I wish you knew that using the word “real” (as in “real” mom, “real” child, “real” family) hurts more than can be adequately explained.

Please don’t get me wrong here — I don’t think these things are intentional. I know that stepfamilies are complicated and sometimes confusing, and sometimes you’re just looking for clarification but accidentally unknowingly drop a bomb on a conversation.

But please understand that I feel like I’m avoiding social grenades every time I go to a school function, write on a parenting Facebook page, or sometimes just exist in public with my family.

I once had a boss tell me that I wouldn’t be allowed to be excused from work to pick my then 9-year-old stepdaughter up from the airport (after six weeks without her) because it wasn’t the same as if she was my real daughter. (And there’s my favorite word again.)

I can assure you of one thing, stepparenting is the most real thing I’ve ever done.

I have been in this child’s life since booster seats and bedtime stories, but I can’t sign school permission slips. I am married to her father and she lives full-time in my home (and has for five years), but if something horrible, God forbid, were to happen to my husband, I have zero legal rights in the eyes of the law. None.

I provide for her financially, emotionally, and in any other ways she needs, but I still internally shrink a bit when I introduce myself as her stepmom — not because I’m ashamed of it, but because I’ve seen the look on someone’s face change when they hear it and it breaks my heart.

This is real. This is very real.

And I don’t want pity because I love my family and wouldn’t trade it. I really wouldn’t. But I wish people knew what it was like.

It’s hard to see how pervasive the idea that “nuclear family = normal” is until you’re not in one. Honestly, it’s everywhere. It’s in the home decor or the Christmas ornaments with “Mom & Dad” emblazoned on them. It’s in the kids’ songs and TV commercials and storybooks. And it hits closer to home sometimes, too.

My stepdaughter participates in a club of sorts and they say certain pledges as a part of their meetings. I will never forget when my husband and I showed up with her on that very first day, all of us filled with nervous and excited energy that she was going to officially become a member. They were going through the speeches and suddenly there’s this entire section that Jess has to repeat about “respecting your mother and father.” And my heart sank.

Now, of course I want her to respect her mother and father; I’m obviously not opposed to that. But very suddenly and very immediately, I felt like an outcast. I felt like a fraud. I felt like a nobody.

I think it’s hard to imagine the impact, but it’s there and it’s real.

I grew up as a part of a nuclear family — I’m not trying to put them down by any means. I would never do that. But the fact is that one in three Americans currently has a step-relationship of some kind.

One in three, you guys. So why are we still treating stepfamilies with trepidation, secrecy, and judgment? Stepparents and stepkids and step-siblings and everything in between — what we all want is to be respected and viewed as a part of a family. It may not look or function the same as yours, but that’s okay.

That doesn’t mean it’s not real.

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