I am in many online groups of blended families and each and every day there will be people who ask some version of the question that goes like this: I try and I try and this is so tough. Why is this so hard?
I’ve been in this spot myself and I’ve asked myself a version of this question over and over and over again. I’ve also asked my partner and therapists and life coaches. I think it’s not uncommon to question our roles as parents and step-parents.
In online groups without fail there will be a person who answers … because it’s not natural to raise a child that is not yours biologically. They say it’s not natural to be a step-parent.
You may agree with this.
I’ll share my opinion here and include a little bit of research that I’ve done to help you make your own choice.
My personal thought here is that if you’re in the middle of being a step-parent this is maybe not a helpful thought.
First let’s talk about truth … as a concept
One of my mentor coaches has a question that they ask … it’s actually a series of questions but it starts with: is it true?
Sometimes it’s an amazingly powerful question.
However, in my experience truth can be a moving target.
For many years I beleived Pluto was a planet becuase the text books told me so and then all of a sudden … it was no longer considered a planet. I also thought Christopher Columbus discovered America and that turns out to be false also.
My point is that truth can be a moving target. I tend to like the word “accurate” better. I try to remember that what feels true and accurate today can change.
I mean look at nutrition science …eggs are good, no they aren’t, yes they are, no they aren’t.
Let’s talk about what’s natural for parenting
I’m a human. I’m going to guess you are too.
Sometimes scientists look to the behavior of primates and animals to understand the origin of human behavior. I am not a scientist but I think this is because a lot of people believe in evolution and that humans are at our core animals.
When people say it’s not natural they sometimes mean — this wouldn’t happen in nature. I think that’s why we look for support in the wild.
First, in support of the theory that being a step-parent is not natural is that in wild primate communities it is rare for a primate to raise an animal that isn’t biologically theirs. In fact, I think it was thought that it didn’t happen. However it does happen. There are instances even in the wild of chimpanzees raising chimps that aren’t their offspring. This happens when the biological adult chimps are not around.
Here’s a super sciency (yes … not a word) document about the comparison between primates and humans and parenting if you are super curious.
Let’s talk about the idea of the traditional nuclear family
One of the reasons people will give that being a step-parent is not normal is that it doesn’t conform to the idea of the “traditional nuclear family.”
Let’s look at that because what does that even mean?
The concept of a nuclear family (according to Webster’s Dictionary) dates to the 1920s. It uses the word nuclear before we had nuclear bombs or power and it was meaning with a center like a biologic cell. But what might be important is that the 1920s is when the idea of a family being only a mom a dad and kids that stay together alone for the entire duration of the child’s life began.
These are my opinions and every once in a while I write something that just pushes some peoples buttons. I’m not a historian, not a psychologist, not an anthropologist I’m a life coach and I work with people in blended families who want to feel happier. If you don’t agree with my ideas … that’s totally okay.
When “people” say “traditional nuclear family” this is a political statement designed to resonate with people who want to embody this and shame people who fall outside whatever they are pushing.
I ignore it completely. Because I think it might be crap.
The concept of this small isolated family is actually so not normal that it has over time had to be required by different groups. Rules and regulations had to be set up to require people to follow these rules and even with these ideological rules the majority of people are not able to do it.
I am not a historian or a sociologist but I’m also not alone in holding this idea. Stephenie Coontz is a history professor and she is considered to be an expert on the history of the American family. Coontz has been cited as calling the concept of the American nuclear family, “a fluke.”
My point, from the context of me being a person who wants to support and help people in blended families find happiness, that comparing ourselves to this version of a family isn’t probably helpful.
Let’s look to nature to see what family might otherwise look like
It’s hard for those of us born way after the industrial revolution to imagine what life would be like any other way. At least, I’ll admit that it’s hard for me to imagine it.
I’m not a historian or sociologist or whoever studies these things. But there are still a few indigenous tribes which may show what family life looked like before the world was industrialized.
One of these tribes is called the Kraho in Brazil and they still exist today and they are studied in part for the example of how they raise children which is as a group. You can read about the Kraho here.
One of the top complaints of modern moms is is that they feel undervalued and overworked. I think it is very possible that some of this is created by isolating modern moms and children away from the bigger group of family. We want the big house with the fence … and then sometimes we might realize we are fenced in and away from our tribe.
Until super recently in time most families lived in shared spaces with other parts of their family. A house would include grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. This is recent. My husband who is not that old lived in an apartment building and his grandparents lived upstairs.
Historically it was after world war when the suburbs began to explode and the idea that each nuclear family should have their own home. The “American Dream” was coined in the 1930s and is kinda sorta a sales pitch for home ownership.
What might not be natural is for a woman to be isolated and alone shouldering the burden of raising a family or running a home by herself. Pretty much every parenting book I’ve ever read encourages mom’s to work to set up a support group. Where does that leave a step-parent well maybe we need to set up some step-parent support groups. Actually, there are some already.
Let’s talk about marriage as a concept
Marriage is a social construct.
That simply means it does not exist in nature. Marriage was created by a group of people / society.
I’m not a historian or marriage expert. Here’s a link to an article with some history of marriage.
The concept of marriage is a contract that binds a man to the wife and children financially. The woman gave the man children. Usually this included land and money from the woman’s family. Historically the marriage contract committed the man to financially provide for her and required the woman and all of her life or duration of the marriage to be with the man.
Interestingly (to me) the marriage contract pre-dates christianity. Go ask your jewish friends to show you their Ketubah which is their marriage contract. Here’s where you can find more about Ketubah
Let’s talk about marriage as an institution
What do I mean as an institution. What I mean is the organization that approves the contract of the marriage and sets whatever rules they want you to follow.
A lot of groups like to have a say in the rules of marriage. Specifically governments and religions.
What’s notable about this is that they don’t agree. Not at all. Some say more than one wife is fine. Others say one wife forever. Some say you can get divorced. Others say no.
This can be a hot topic and everybody can have their own opinion.
What I take from this is that if there was a natural right way to be married I think all the religions and governments would probably agree or at maybe least be a lot closer than they are.
My example for this is murder. I do not know of any religion or government that says … you know what … its fine to go around and kill people.
What about step-parents?
Many people have step-parents or adoptive parents. This happens for a lot of different reasons.
Fun (and perhaps unexpected fact for you) the majority of families in the United States may be blended families. I wrote about this here. The statistics are not solid but It is estimated that as many as 70% of families have children living at least part time with adults who are not biologically parents.
Reframing unhelpful thoughts
There’s a saying that I love which is credited to Confusious … I may have gotten it from a fortune cookie.
Man who says it cannot be done should not interrupt man doing it.
Here’s where I weigh in on this.
I don’t know if it’s natural to be a step-parent. I do know that I’ve been a step-parent for decades.
Being an adult is hard. Being a parent is hard. Being a step-parent is hard.
I personally choose the thought that it’s very natural to be in a blended family. I also choose the thought that every family has complicated issues. I choose to believe that conflict and challenges are not isolated to just blended families.
Of course, maybe that’s why I felt called to step in and become a life coach for blended families.
As a coach I help people reframe thoughts to help them get to the goal they want. If you want to be a step-parent the idea that it’s not natural may not help you. How about, I choose to be a step-parent. I choose to be in this family. I choose to love these children.
If those sound good. I’ve got more. Let me know.