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Suddenly Stepfamily: Blended Family Stories and Advice

Blending two families can be challenging. Here’s one family’s story, plus expert advice on how to help overcome blended family challenges.

DAUGHTER | Maayan Goshen

Ruth joined our family over a decade ago when I was 12, and it was a very positive experience for my teen years. Like every relationship, there were ups and downs. But it was consistently positive—not utopic, but definitely good.

First of all, she did wonders for my father, so having a happier dad was definitely a plus. But she was also able to facilitate my growing closer to my father. She got me from the get-go, so she was able to help explain who I was to my dad. Ruth and I had a deep connection from the outset. We hit it off right away, and she was really compatible with our family.

It was also helpful to have a woman living at our house while I was in my teens and going through bodily changes. I’m lucky because my mom understood the importance of allowing my relationship with Ruth to grow. My mother really supported my getting close to Ruth, and that was a true blessing. I realize how unusual that is. I know that it doesn’t happen that way for everyone.

It’s interesting, trying to find the words to explain what it’s like.

Having Ruth join my family made it grow.

It’s not that something was taken from me. I discovered that there’s enough room in my heart for more love. It didn’t detract from what I had in my nuclear family. It wasn’t at the expense of anything.

Ruth is not another mother. But she is a member of my family, and she’s not just my father’s wife. I have my sister and brothers, parents, and Ruth. She’s her own category. And it’s funny because this unnamed category does have a special function in my life. There are certain topics I can discuss more easily with Ruth than my parents. Moms and dads are very protective, and that can stretch to overprotective.

Ruth is protective, but more objective. She’s someone in my family who has experience and maturity, and offers me unconditional love, even in anger. She is not overprotective like parents.

Ruth is also the mom of my three younger brothers. She let me rear them as if they were mine. I fed them, changed diapers, babysat, put them to bed. They taught me the meaning of love at first sight.

Don’t get me wrong. There are times when Ruth drives me crazy. She can talk and analyze your ear off. Seriously! But all in all, I can’t imagine my life without her. I love my blended family!

Maayan Goshen is an actress living in Tel Aviv, Israel.


PARENT | Ruth Ebenstein

In our family, we don’t really use the terms “stepmom” and “stepdaughters.” I am more inclined to refer to my husband’s daughters, Tal and Maayan, by name. I’ve loved being another parental figure to Tal and Maayan from day one. That’s not to say that there aren’t complicated and challenging moments— there are! But that’s true of every relationship. I feel tremendously blessed because we had chemistry from the first minute.

I definitely would have chosen both Tal and Maayan to be my friends had we been classmates in school. For me, it was very clear that they were there before me, and that it was critical to leave their space pristine. When we bought an apartment, we made sure to have a bedroom for each girl, and our boys shared a room.

Being a stepparent means inheriting children that have been raised with a different set of morals than you.

That could be how they relate to family, physical touch, money, religion, or holidays. Funnily enough, one of the hardest things about being a stepmom is watching your spouse make parental choices that you think are wrong, but you don’t have the standing to tell him so. You are not the co-parent. Your vote is at best secondary, as is your knowledge.

My stepdaughters shower my sons with love. It’s incredible! And they also shower me with love and insight—about myself. Tal and Maayan share their impressions of what I’m like in the world because they are close family. They teach me about who I am and how I behave (like my tendency to complain too much), things that I could not have easily taken in from others. That’s a real blessing.

One existential challenge is that I know that I’m the only person in the world looking out only for my children. When the needs of the girls and our boys clash, my husband will be torn, and he doesn’t always choose our sons. That’s logical and understandable, but can also be hard to swallow.

I’m an older mom, and I know that my children don’t just have me and their father. They have their older sisters, and that’s amazing. A blended family has its own complications, but it also contains its own magic. I inherited two stellar women, and I feel so lucky!

Ruth Ebenstein is an award-winning writer, historian, public speaker, and peace/health activist who loves to laugh. She is writing a memoir, Bosom Buddies: How Breast Cancer Fostered an Unexpected Friendship Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide. Find her online at ruthebenstein.com and on Twitter @ruthebenstein.


EXPERT | Robert Emery, Ph.D.

Ruth says that she and Maayan were blessed with the chemistry of their relationship. I agree, and I give them lots of credit for their positive attitudes. I also appreciate their willingness to acknowledge some rough spots.
I assume lots of credit is due to Maayan’s dad and mom, too. Loyalties can be tricky to balance in stepfamilies, and roles can also be hard to figure out. Maayan’s dad and mom must have known that their job was to be her parents, and to allow Maayan and Ruth to develop their own relationship. That worked out wonderfully for everyone.

Things don’t always work so well.

Stepparents and stepchildren have a tricky relationship to negotiate. The new couple picked each other, but for the stepkids and parents, it’s not an arrangement of their choosing. It’s awesome if there’s chemistry, but no one should assume that’s an automatic. Teens especially can resent new stepparents. They’ve already been through at least one family upheaval. They’re used to things as they are. They only have a couple more years at home. Their new “parent”—not!—might feel like an intrusion and not much more.

New stepparents can have a hard time too, especially when teens don’t exactly welcome them. They don’t have the biological tie. They’re missing more than a decade of relationship-building. They, their spouse, or the other biological parent may have misconceptions about the stepparent’s role. This is no cakewalk for anyone.

One thing everyone needs to do is chill. Give each other time. And space.

Relationships take time to develop.

Stepparents who come in guns blazing about assuming a parental role are going to miss the target. Big time.

Unless the other parent is out of the picture—and usually only if the children are young when a remarriage happens—stepparents are not parents (despite the outdated term).

They are “Ruth,” a potential adult friend, someone who might become something like a fun aunt. Stepparents might discipline, a little, if they have been around since the child was young and gradually worked into the role. But new stepparents shouldn’t have to worry about those kinds of things. That’s the biological parents’ job. The stepparent’s job is to build a connection with their stepchild. Stepparents who try to be a parent, or who just try too hard, are bound to fail.

So, congrats again to Maayan and Ruth and their whole family. If you’re like them, congrats to you, too. If not, you don’t have to be the Brady Bunch. You can work on accepting your relationship for what it is. Just let other people in your family have their relationships, too.

Robert Emery, Ph.D.

Robert Emery, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Two Homes, One Childhood and The Truth about Children and Divorce.

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