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The Best Gifts Aren't Perfect: A Blended Family, A Stepdaughter and Me

By John Cave Osborne |

Blue-tongued Alli goofing off at the beach last August.

Although we had gone to school together from 1980 to 1987, I hadn’t laid eyes on Caroline for nearly a decade. That is before I randomly bumped into her in 2004. Truth be known, I had always found her extremely attractive, even during the Carter administration when she was nothing more than a feisty little 6th grader equipped with the perfect blend of beauty and sass. And the all-grown-up version was somehow even more beautiful than I had remembered.

But in spite of our immediate chemistry, I knew a long-term relationship wasn’t in the cards.

After all, Caroline was a single mom. And as a 34 year-old professional bachelor type, I had no interest in any of that. I mean, being a parent is hard enough. But being a stepparent? It’s downright impossible, a fact I understood all too well from my childhood.

My parents each had spouses who predeceased them. After they married in 1966, both their families began living under the same roof. My dad had two little girls, my mom, a son and a daughter. I came along in 1969, the only person in my entire family related to everyone else. By no means, however, would I prove to be a common denominator. As a little boy, I saw firsthand how dicey things can get between a stepparent and a stepchild. And as a man, I wanted no part of it.

Until something funny happened. I fell in love. Twice. First with Caroline, then shortly thereafter with her daughter, Alli, who was only three when we met.

I moved in with Caroline and Alli right after our wedding in August of 2006. Despite my experiences with the tumultuous blended family of my youth, I remained confident that my new blended family would suffer from no such tumult.

And one key reason for my confidence was my emerging relationship with Alli. Thanks to it, I realized that much of the discontent which had haunted me from my late twenties and on into my thirties stemmed from a paternal yearning I never even knew I had.

So while my parents were busy refereeing various territorial battles waged by different sets of dissimilar children, I believed that I would be sailing in waters made smooth by my earnest gratitude for simply getting the chance to be a father in the first place. Even if it was prefaced by the word “step.”

Enough time has now passed for me to realize that my idealistic notion of a blended family was preposterous. It’s even harder and more complicated than I had anticipated. And if it’s complicated for me, just think what it must be like for a little girl whose parents got divorced before she was even old enough to speak in complete sentences. The one who has to share her mom with me. The one who’s got two different homes and the same number of dads.

My mom and dad may have shown me that being a stepparent was tough, but Alli has taught me that being a stepchild isn’t exactly a walk in the park, either. And I try to keep that in mind whenever our complicated dynamic leads to little phases when she’s not as respectful as she should be. I try to keep that in mind whenever she rejects me.

The toddler who loved Mommy’s friend has grown into a third grader who, though usually very sweet, sometimes acts completely indifferent toward me. But I’ll never turn my back on her. Even when she’s got hers turned to me. Because when I committed to Caroline for life, I made the exact same commitment to her daughter.

And I’m so thankful for that commitment to Alli, not to mention the relationship we share. Despite its difficulty, or possibly because of it, it’s one of the richest ones in my entire life. And this holiday season, it’s more apparent to me than ever that the gift which Alli has given me through that relationship is far bigger than any of the ones that are carefully wrapped and waiting patiently for her underneath our Christmas tree.

Photo: Beth Lankler, personal friend.

John Cave Osborne’s personal blog.
John Cave Osborne’s book website.

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About John Cave Osborne

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John Cave Osborne

John Cave Osborne is a writer whose work has appeared on such sites as Babble, TLC, YahooShine, and the Huffington Post. John went from carefree bachelor to father of four in just 13 months after marrying a single mom, then quickly conceived triplets. Since then, they have added one more to the mix, a little boy they named Grand Finale. Read bio and latest posts → Read John's latest posts →

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27 thoughts on “The Best Gifts Aren't Perfect: A Blended Family, A Stepdaughter and Me

  1. jrmiss86 says:

    I too come from a blended family. My parents were divorced when I was 1, and my mom re-married when I was 6. Like you I believe it can work if you are committed to making it work. Just like anything else, it isn’t always fun but if you make up your mind that you are going to make it work, most times it will.

    1. John Cave Osborne says:

      @jrmiss86—Here, here. With you 100%. Thanks for the comment.

      @Juli—you’re sweet. I see too many examples of couples fighting b/c of the way the stepparent interprets the actions of the stepchild. One thing that occurred to me was the fact that I don’t think my parents ever got how tough it was to be a stepchild. Had they gotten that fact, I think I would have picked up on it. But all I picked up on was how hard it was to be a stepparent. Thank God Alli showed me the other side of that coin.

      @Eric—I have a hard time believing there was ever a time when you had “no friggin’ clue” what you were doing! Also, Alli’s dad is fantastic. That actually makes my spot even harder, I think, than if he were not. I’ve said up front a million times to a million people…I’m not looking to replace Alli’s bio dad. I’m looking to be a stepdad she loves like a bio dad. (I’m 1 for 2 on that thus far!)

      @jeannette Lofas—I totally agree and have reached out to various resources to help me along. For the most part, I think that people who enter a blended family and get frustrated at the first sign of trouble are in for a long and windy road. Self must often take a backseat. The tricky part is accomplishing that without relinquishing the authority that every parent needs. Thanks for your comment!

      @Manjari—that was a sweet thing to say. I’m glad you liked it!

      @Jack—Thanks! And I agree. In fact, we’re in the process of finding it right now. It’s a continual thing, you know…

      @Indigo—You obviously know firsthand. There’s something so special about it…Hugs back at you!

  2. Juli says:

    Sadly I know too many stepparents who make it a point to keep their stepchildren well reminded they are not their biological parent when trying situations occur. Kudos to you for your commitment to Alli and allowing a child to act like a child while you remain the thoughtful parent. In a world with an ever increasing number of blended families, how much better a place this would be if all stepparents took your approach.

  3. Eric says:

    Wonderfully presented, John.

    I’ve stated quite often how hard it is to be a step-father. It sucks because I want nothing more than for my son to have a relationship with his father, but his dad won’t step up. He only gives his court ordered two weekends a month. He makes the mistake of letting my son make the decisions, which is wrong because it gives my son control and has his dad come off non caring.

    But he’ll defend his dad in a lot of things he does. That’s a really hard part.

    But I know who he really relies on. I know who he trusts. It’s me and his mother. He’s never come out to tell me, but he’s told different people on different occasions he sees me more as a father than his dad. Which me in my “I can’t take a compliment because I feel I’m not worthy of anything related to praise or accomplishment” can’t do anything but stay silent and well up because he was a gift not mine to start with but given to me and trusted to me when I had no friggin’ clue what I was doing.

  4. Jeannette Lofas says:

    There is a whole body of knowledge about blended/stepfamilies that must be learned, or the stepfamily will drive us into total confusion.

    We do need to be prepared as to how stepfamilies function very differently than do biologically connected families.

  5. Manjari says:

    Beautiful post – love it.

  6. Jack says:

    John,

    Not that my opinion matters, but I have never thought/worried about your understanding/feelings of your role here. You guys will find your way.

  7. Indigo says:

    My ex didn’t exactly make the whole blended family ‘ideal’ when he married his 2nd wife. My daughter felt displaced and to say I ended up being the butt of her displeasure is putting it mildly.

    So imagine how Paul felt when he joined our little family. He’d never had a child of his own and here comes Skye with all the teenage angst she could muster. I won’t say it was easy between these two.

    I do know she’s bringing her husband to spend Christmas day with us this year. She swore off all other family obligations (and her own dad) to give us the gift of her time and company. I’d say…sometimes the more difficult relationships turn out to be the strongest of the bunch.

    Sounds like it’s going to be the same for you and Alli. I wish you the same love and understanding Paul and my daughter Skye now share. (Hugs)Indigo

  8. Jenn says:

    This was a beautiful entry, thanks so much for sharing. And for your unique perspective.
    When I was 9, my mom tried to start dating again (my father died a year before) and I was an absolute MONSTER. The last thing in the world that I wanted was another person 1) taking my dad’s place in my home and 2) trying to tell me what to do. She never did find anyone else, and I have always felt partly to blame. As an adult, I am horrified at the things that I did then – but as a child I was horrified at the prospect of what she might do. It might have been different had I been younger, though… who knows?

    1. John Cave Osborne says:

      @Jenn—It may well have been different if you were younger. Divorces are tough. I can’t even imagine what you had to deal with losing your father at such a young age.
      @Snarky Mama—HA! I sure think you’re right. Boy are we in for it. Thanks for your comment, SM!
      @SurprisedMom—I’m so sorry to hear of your sister’s situation. It’s a tough situation all the way around. I can tell you one thing, though. Caroline and I will never get divorced! (We got a deal that goes like this: whoever leaves gets the kids. HA)
      @SeattleDad—You’re one of the very best, my friend.
      @MissA—Something about your comment gave me chills. I really appreciate you leaving it. I was touched to hear about your strong feelings for your stepmom in spite of the fact she’s no longer with your dad. And don’t worry. It’s not an act. I truly love Alli with everything I’ve got. I won’t doubt that little girl. No matter how she acts. I began that journey with the end of it in mind.
      @Otter—You’re the man, brother. I don’t know how blessed she feels, but I sure feel that way.
      @CC—You nailed it. I figured out so much stuff after the fact, you know? Like what you said about how it was “normal” for us. Yet if we look closer, it was anything but for everyone else. Being a child, oddly, I saw the adults perspective. But, yet, as an adult in the drama, I see the child’s perspective. Weird. But cool. Very cool.

  9. Snarky Mama says:

    Not to dismiss the step-family angle (I have a step-mom and four step-brothers, plus my own brother and sister, so I have some experience), but I also have a 3rd grader, and he’s a real butthead sometimes. My formerly sweet, cuddly child has moments of real sass and downright ugliness, directed towards his father and I, as well as his siblings. Having spoken to several other parents and witnessing similar behavior in their 8 and 9 y/os, it really just seems to be an age thing.

    I guess that means you and I get to look forward to more of this behavior when our younger kids hit 3rd grade. :)

  10. SurprisedMom says:

    My Dad remarried when I was in my early 20s, already grown, so I never considered his wife my stepmom. I never lived with them and my Mom had raised me along with my five sisters. Technically I may be a stepdaughter, but I never had that kind of relationship with my Dad’s wife.

    My sister became a stepmom upon her marriage. She raised two of the three children from the time they were very young. The third came into her life full time when he was 14. Unfortunately, for my sister, he hurt my sister so badly, she’ll always carry an emotional scar. Her marriage ended in divorce. Her stepdaughter still lives with her.

    I think a blended family is probably one of the hardest roads to navigate. I think you’re doing a wonderful job of this. Being a step-anything is hard, but it can be a blessing. Not every family is the Brady Bunch, but not every family ends up emotionally challenged either. I think you’ve got a great attitude and Alli has a great stepdad.

  11. Seattledad (Luke, I am Your Father) says:

    You’re a good man JCO. And that little girl is as lucky to have you around as you are to have her.

    Nice post.

  12. Miss A. says:

    To surprisemom above. Kudos to your sister. My stepmom raised me from the age of 9, and while the relationship with my dad went sour and ugly, she tells me that the most beautiful thing to come out are her two daughter, my sister (her biological child and my blood sister) and me.
    And John, never ever doubt that little girl. I was a monster, well into my late teens. I was testing I think, got scolded, grounded, even slapped once, but never lacked the love. And my mom (from a step) has my undying love and respect.

  13. Otter says:

    Beutifully said John. It sounds like both you and Alli are blessed to have each other.

  14. CC says:

    My parents were both previously married (ended in divorce). From those marriages, my Mom had three girls and my Dad had twin boys. Together, my parents had my twin brother and I.

    I really appreciate your perspective, because I’ve been there, noticing the deep seeded “issues” between family factions, but feeling outside of it. Your post shed a new light on my upbringing, and how weird it must have been for my other siblings, who were 4-14 years old when my parents got together. Because, for me, our blended family was/is just “the way things are/were” you know? But not for them.

  15. Ed Simmons says:

    I loved this story. It is very similar to mine and I understand exactly how a man can fall in fatherly love with someone else’s child. It happened to me twice. Once with a divorced woman I was dating whose son was 12 and out of control. By age 14, and in control with his head on straight, he asked me if I minded that he tell his buddies I was his dad. But by then I found I loved him every bit as much as I did my own boys when they were younger and I was honored and humbled by his request. The other was when my single parent daughter moved 2,000 miles to be closer to dad. She had a mixed race, 3 yr old daughter. For all good reasons I am the ‘dad’ she knows and loves. Today, she is 6 and still I cannot sit down without her wriggling onto my lap like she absolutely belongs there. I love her every bit as much as I loved her mother when she was small. To say I am truly blessed twice is an understatement.

    1. John Cave Osborne says:

      @Ed—thank you so much for your comments. Your story was is a wonderful one. no wonder you feel blessed twice! Happy holidays, my friend. And thank you for your thoughtful comment.

  16. DC Urban Dad says:

    You are the epitome of what it means to be a man and a father. I think you picture is in Webster’s under both.

  17. Jennifer says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience! I am in the middle of a divorce and this gives me hope. Hope that there is another kind, patient and loving man out there who can love my two daughters and build a family with us.

  18. Mike says:

    Life is tuff sometimes… We just got make lemonade instead of going lets kill the whole family and we’ll all end up in heaven routine. Just spike the lemonade.. Hard Mike’s LOL…

  19. Sierra Black says:

    Thanks for this, John. It really struck a chord with me. Here’s myessay from a few months ago on a similar topic: http://blogs.babble.com/strollerderby/2010/06/30/stepmothers-do-you-really-love-your-husbands-kids/

  20. katie allison granju says:

    Gorgeous!

  21. thomas says:

    my step-dad = dad

  22. Aubrey D. says:

    I was twice blessed. My bio dad walked out when i was 6 months old. My Dad came into my life when I was 5. He was the best man at my wedding and has been there for all the ups and downs in my life, including being Pop Pop to my 2 boys who I’ve raised alone since they were born. My husband came into my life a couple years ago. A stubborn 40yo techsgt that blew past my defenses, made me fall in love with him, and stepped into the stepdad’s shoes like they fit him perfectly. Not even my oldest son, who is adhd and bipolar, could pull enough bull to make him walk away. We were married in June, and in july I found out I was pregnant. Blended families are hard, but when u can make them work, they are a beautiful moasic. Kudo’s to u!

  23. icon archive says:

    The question is interesting, I too will take part in discussion. Together we can come to a right answer.

    P.S. Please review icons

  24. Jason says:

    John,
    I stumbled upon this article while surfing and reading about what it’s like to be a step-parent, becuase there’s a chance I could be heading down that path as well. Your situation is eerily familiar to what I may be about to tackle, in that I have also reconnected with someone from my past who is now a single mom of a 2-year old girl. I’m not sure if you’re still writing or not, but I’ll look for more of your stuff, since it might be a guide for what I’m about to go through.

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