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Traditional Stepfamily Model Out of Favor?

My dorky blended family.

Have you ever noticed that the older we parents get, the less cool we become? It’s true. Ask your kids. They’ll tell you. It used to bother me, but now that I’m onto it, I’ve come to accept it.

But what I didn’t realize was how uncool my family has become—my blended family, that is. Turns out we’re super lame. Nowhere near as hip and edgy as other blended families.

At least according to Penelope Green. She recently wrote a piece for the New York Times entitled “Blended Like the Brady Bunch? Let’s Not Go Too Far.” which discusses the evolution of stepfamilies. I was surprised to learn that mine was square and outdated.

Green writes:

“The old, Brady Bunch stepfamily model — the so-called “blended family” — has long been out of favor. Indeed, the term is almost universally loathed by family therapists for the unrealistic expectations it promotes of previously unrelated children blending harmoniously with one another and a new adult, and the disjunction between that rosy vision and the more prickly reality that is stepfamily life.”

According to Green, three scenarios have recently emerged in lieu the traditional stepfamily. Nesters are families whose kids stay put in a primary house while the parents alternate living there with them. Partial-blenders are families which live under the same roof but with completely separate living quarters therein, such as a two-family townhouse, where that the dad and his children occupy one section while the mom and her kids occupy another. And the Living Apart Togethers (L.A.T.’s) are couples who have kids but maintain separate domiciles.

Green points out that these new scenarios are en vogue because they make it easier for everyone involved to coexist. They facilitate such ease by compromising the conventional definition of family. And I’m all for them. They’re perfect for people who want to combine families, but don’t want to deal with the baggage that comes along with it.

Still, Ms. Green, if you don’t mind, let’s not run off and disparage dinosaurs like my wife and me who aren’t hip enough, or, more importantly, even willing in the first place to compromise the definition of family. Regardless of the fact that our traditional blended family is “loathed by family therapists,” it’s the one we’ve chosen. Because we don’t think that families are about convenience. We think they’re about love. And Caroline and I have the kind that is ready, willing and able to tackle any and all complications that spring from it.

And there have, indeed, been complications, ones that Green specifically addresses in her article—ones that arise between a stepparent and a stepchild.

My relationship with my stepdaughter has had its fair share of ebbs and flows. The last couple of years, there have been many ebbs. But the last few months, we’ve been flowing. I think it might be because she’s finally reaching an age where she’s starting to realize that I don’t tell her I love her every day for the sheer heck of it. And that I don’t ask her about school every night just to break the silence.

She’s starting to pick up on the fact that I know every character on all of her TV shows. And the words to her favorite songs. And all of her friends. I think it’s even starting to dawn on her that those friends actually like me, in spite of the fact that she’s told them in no uncertain terms how uncool I am.

That’s not to say that I think things will continue to go this well. I know we’re in for more bumps along the way. There’ll be more confusion to navigate, more insults I’ll have to absorb, and more tears she’ll have to dry.

But step-parenting, like parenting, isn’t supposed to be 18 consecutive years of high fives and hugs. It’s supposed to be tough. The dedication, effort and love needed weave through those tough times are what make a true family, regardless of whether or not it’s prefaced by the word “step.” And these other manifestations of the stepfamily are specifically designed to minimize tough times and the effects thereof. Which is precisely why I don’t think they are true families.

Green’s critical assessment of traditional stepfamilies laments “the disjunction between [the] rosy vision and the more prickly reality that is stepfamily life.” But if you ask me, that place in between is where you find all the magic. You just have to be willing to work for it.

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

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