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  • Writer's pictureKarla Palmer

The Myth of the Blended Family

During a casual conversation in the office here at LAFC, one of our therapists stated she'd been curious regarding the etymology of the word "step" in relation to stepchild/stepparent relationships. In the moment, I did observe somewhat distractedly that we are all incredibly nerdy around here. However, her comment got me thinking.

Gianna's curiosity led her to discover that the word "step" actually comes from an 8th Century old English word "steop", which applied to children who had lost their parents. The word actually leaned toward "orphan", which wasn't a word that would come into useage for another 500 years. "Steop" in Old English comes from a Proto Germanic word "steupa". The word was used in Norse and Germanic languages to suggest "loss", "to be bereft", or more simply "grief". It was closely related to "astiepan", which means "to deprive of parents".

In early American culture, the word "steopchild" also meant orphan. More importantly, at least one of your parents had to be dead for that term to apply to you. It wasn't until sometime in the 1950s that we began applying the word "step" like a prefix. This is also when the word began to include family relationships in families where divorce and remarriage occurred. Stepfather, stepmother, stepchild, stepuncle, so on and so forth. We used to hyphenate these words. Nowadays, it is not considered good grammar to hypenate unless you're using a particularly unusual form of the concept such as "step-niece". Even then, use of a hypen might cause a teacher or an editor to reach for the proverbial red pen. (Or perhaps the double click highlight in this day and age!)

When Gianna brought up the concept of grief and reframed the word "stepparent" to "grief parent", it really got me thinking. As not only a therapist, but also a stepmother, I've experienced issues related to what I often refer to as "the myth of the blended family". Layering the idea of "grief parent" onto "stepparent" really drives a point home.

Is it "easier" for familes where the step relationship is created after the death of a natural parent? It's instinctive to say a quick "No!", but the truth is much more complex and leans in the direction of "Yes.". Death is its own form of closure. A living parent cannot coparent with a parent who has passed away. There is no joint custodial schedule, no arguments about holiday gatherings, disciplinary issues, confusion for kids regarding who has what rules at what house, and no chance of that "steopchild" eventually having four parental units bossing them around.

Perhaps if we applied the concept of "grief parent" to these blended family situations, we would see less of the "stepmonster" animosity between stepparents and stepchildren. The grief in blended families where parents remarry is intense. Children very often wish they could have their nuclear family back (more about that in a future post). Kids don't appreciate being asked to obey a stranger. Even if their natural parent is the one in charge of discipline, there is no way for a stepparent who lives in the home to be entirely uninvolved in making rules. The children may be upset at their parent finding love and companionship with someone else. They believe (quite in error actually) that they should be the center of their parent's world. And so many times the coparent, whether having a new partner or not, struggles with jealousy toward the stepparent. This jealousy is nearly impossble to hide from the children, which then causes further difficulties and grief.

The best stepparents are the ones who don't try to be a parent. They offer friendship, companionship, and understanding to the "steopchildren" in their lives. This is hard and often painful as it can sometimes involve stepping back during family decisionmaking processes that heavily involve kids that aren't their own. After all, children are in the lives of their parents forever, but the goal is to get them independent and self sustaining in their late teens and early twenties. This means giving stepchildren the benefit of the doubt for eighteen years or less is really just a drop in the bucket of time. Good communication between the natural parent and the stepparent is critical from the moment the relationship begins. Talk about potential issues whether you're experiencing them now or not.

At the end of the day, almost all of life's little dramas can be either prevented or cured by good communication. And if you're seeking more help for your daily dramas, contact our Counseling Center. We'd love to help you out!

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