It’s funny to think that at one time, families like that of The Brady Bunch were enough of an anomaly to warrant an entire TV series. Today’s reality is often much more complicated.
On paper, my family looks like any other in my tree-lined suburban neighborhood: four people, some kids, and a dog.
But the reality — that I live with my boyfriend, 21-year-old stepdaughter, and 6-year-old son, who splits his time between my house and his father’s — sounds more like the cast of a Netflix sitcom than an actual working family… and feels that way a lot of the time, too.
It’s no secret that the traditional nuclear family has gone the way of Chernobyl, and the last year or so has reshaped households as people weather COVID-19. Shelter-in-place orders have fast-tracked some relationships and frozen others, and adult children have moved back home in record numbers.
While this was a new reality for many families, it has been mine for most of my life. The last time I was part of a nuclear family, I was 8 years old. My parents separated when I was in grade school, and when I met my future husband in college, he already had a 9-month-old daughter.
I was helping change diapers before I could legally buy a beer. As she got older, strangers mistook me for her mother all the time, as we were both blond and blue-eyed and her father looked every bit the Sicilian he was.
I always felt slightly taken aback that anyone could think I was old enough to have a child or even know what to do with one. I never had younger siblings and was a novice babysitter at best. I was in a strange position of not quite being a parent but assuming many of the roles and responsibilities of one.
There aren’t a whole lot of resources for people in my situation today, and there were far fewer back then. Certainly, no one I knew was in a similar circumstance, so asking for advice wasn’t possible. I had to wing it her entire childhood.
In addition to all the difficulties that come with raising any child, I had the added burden of raising someone else’s child. I didn’t make decisions or even get a say in them, but I had to help enforce the rules and be a role model.
I went to church events and participated in Lent even though I’d never been religious, rearranged my holidays around her custody schedule, and made sure she always had a gift for Mother’s Day.
Helping raise my stepdaughter also meant getting front-row seats to the contentious relationship that played out between her parents, and it did more to reaffirm my commitment to never get divorced than my own parents’ split.
Despite that, after nearly 20 years together, my husband and I separated when his daughter was 18 and our son was 3. Raising kids more than a decade apart is not something I’d recommend, and no, it didn’t mean I had a free babysitter whenever I needed one.
I wanted my stepdaughter to enjoy her half brother — not resent him (at least no more than she did when she suddenly faced giving up her only-child status at age 15), so I made sure I always had her enthusiastic agreement before asking her to do anything for him.
My son was nothing like my stepdaughter. The adage that girls are easy when young and difficult when they hit their teens, and boys, the opposite, rang completely true for me. I was handling two kids at their peak difficulty level at the same time. But thanks to having attended parenting boot camp for the previous decade and a half, I felt ready for this new challenge.
In many ways, the experience of being a stepparent not only prepared me for being a mom but also for being a single mom.
A family lawyer I recently interviewed told me that one of the best predictors of a child’s well-being is how well the adults handle co-parenting. My ex and I may not have agreed on much, but we both agreed that we didn’t want to raise our son amid constant strife and stress.
My son can certainly be a handful, but he’s an amazingly happy child and has adapted incredibly well to our split and both of us subsequently moving in with new partners. Communication between me and my ex isn’t perfect, but we’ve worked around our differences by always putting our son and his daughter first.
My stepdaughter moved in with me when she began college, and we remain as close as ever. It’s tough having a college student and first-grader under the same roof (tougher for her than me, I’m sure), but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
I never expected my path to parenthood to look like it has, but possibly the craziest curveball yet has been meeting my boyfriend and experiencing stepparenting in an entirely different way — from the other side.
We moved in together after dating for several years, and suddenly, I’m the one making the rules, enforcing discipline, and dealing with an ex while he tries to figure out what, exactly, his role is in all of this.
I like to think that being a stepparent myself has made me sensitive to the fine line he’s always walking, but the situation he stepped into is entirely different than the one I stepped into 20 years ago. And, of course, a global pandemic added another layer of complication.
We’ve had our share of bumps, but I recently told my boyfriend that I don’t expect him to have the same relationship with my son that I have with my stepdaughter.
Part of his journey as a stepparent will be learning to carve out his own role in my son’s life. I don’t worry about it, because I know — from experience — it is possible. All that matters to me is that we’re all together.
We may not all share DNA, the same last name, or even views on what temperature to keep the thermostat set at, but to me, whatever you call us, we’ll always be family.
Jill Waldbieser writes about food, wellness, and parenthood and lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.