I recommend to you the essays in the collection My Father Married Your Mother (edited by Anne Burt, Norton, 2006). One of the best is by novelist Barbara Kingsolver, who describes a family of dolls she played with as a young girl. They each came with a factory-assigned name: Dad, Mom, Sis, and Junior. Kingsolver writes, “I think you know what they looked like, at least before I loved them to death and their heads fell off.”
Kingsolver, a stepmother, observes, “Now I’ve replaced the dolls with a life. I knit my days around my daughter’s survival and happiness, and am proud to say her head is still on. But we aren’t the Family of Dolls. Maybe you’re not, either. And if not, even though you are statistically no oddity, it’s probably been suggested to you in a hundred ways that yours isn’t exactly a real family, but an impostor family, a harbinger of cultural ruin, a slapdash substitute—something like counterfeit money.”
The problem, Kingsolver concludes, is what she calls the “Family-of-Dolls Family Values Crew.” She says it’s hard to shrug them off “when they judge (from their safe distance) that divorced people, blended families, gay families, and single parents are failures. That our children are at risk, and the whole arrangement is messy and embarrassing. A marriage that ends is not called “finished,” it’s called failed. The children of this family may have been born to a happy union, but now they are called the children of divorce.”
What I’ve observed is that the success of a stepfamily is often a tribute to the patience and long-suffering of the stepparent, and that is certainly the case with our family. Over the years, Holly has been tireless in her efforts to keep the channels of communication open and constructive—not only within our family, but also between households. This has been slow, difficult, and often thankless work. But Holly believes Zoë can benefit from two strong and successful, albeit different, maternal figures in her life. Holly’s love has been strong enough to endure. She is a wonderful partner to me, and a wonderful stepmother to Zoë.
Taking her “for granted”
As a way of paying tribute to Holly on this Mother’s Day, I’d like to reflect on what birth parents can learn from stepparents about parenting. Those of us who are birth parents usually base our parenting approach upon a connection to our children that we assume is solid and enduring. In other words, we can take our basic relationship with our children for granted. When spoken aloud, this assumption takes the form of responses like “Because I am your father (or mother), that’s why,” and so on. I’ve come to call this approach “parenting by presumption.”
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