With 95 million adults in the US involved in a step family experience, Samantha Waltz’s new book Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience speaks to a wide audience. My friend Janet Bowden shares her review with The Mamafesto.
In her note prefacing Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience, Samantha Waltz describes the revelatory experience many of us have when we become part of a blended family: at a moment when she is blithely confident of her expertise on family relationships, she has decided to give a workshop for step-parents. “I wasn’t expecting it to be that different from the others. I was wrong.”
Okay, so let’s take a look at that revelation, because it’s crucial both to the experience of entering the blender (more on that metaphor later) and to the essays in this fascinating collection. Those of us who begin the “blending” process as adults have, up to that point, developed a certain confidence in ourselves and in our abilities; our new families will take a big whack at that confidence because blending actually changes who we are and therefore how we think of ourselves. We tend to think we’re right; our families will tell us we’re wrong—or we’ll get the look and the rolled eyes. For the children, blending becomes a formative part of their identity, which can be equally challenging. And for everyone involved, the change is sudden, like taking a step and realizing the ground is further away than we thought. Sometimes much further away.
Waltz says truly that “Every step situation is different,” and we see this variety demonstrated in each essay in this collection, organized thoughtfully in six sections, from an initial meeting/honeymoon period (“Coming Together”) to the developing paths of relationships (“Self-Discovery,” “Evolution,” and “Acceptance”) to a conclusion which processes the experience as a whole (“Reflections”). Or attempts to, because if anything defies the normal narrative arc of romance (meet sweet, obstacles, overcoming them, happy ever after), it’s parenting, and probably “blended” parenting raises that to the nth.
But though we may wish for happiness and serenity in our own lives, it’s troubles, emotional drama, and dilemmas that make for interesting reading. Here they all are! As readers, we may not find our exact situation in these essays, but we can certainly be entertained and benefit from seeing how our narrators negotiate and learn from their own situations. For example, even if this isn’t a strategy everyone can use, C.S. O’Cinneide in “Family Role Play” finds that the cute toddler is able to diffuse anger, enabling the more adult members to connect: “No matter how ornery a teenager is being, when a toddler shows up in the middle of an argument dressed in nothing but a pink taffeta tutu, a pair of red rubber boots, and a hippo hat, it’s sort of hard for anyone to stay mad.”
While many issues keep recurring in these essays–insecurity; acceptance; loyalty/betrayal (perceived and real); loss of control; meshing of clashing of different family dynamics & traditions—one of the biggest seems to be what names to call these new family members, and maybe this is because it makes explicit the problem of forging a new identity. In “It’s a Mom Thing,” Celia Whitcomb points out that the 6-year-old “had no problem calling me ‘Mom’ like my other kids. Come to think of it, he may have thought it was my name, the way you can have two friends named Mike.”
The individual essays range from moments of desperation to transcendence, anger to humor, but it’s the combination of all the essays together that is most interesting, most useful. Maybe this is because at the root of the difficulties blended families can get into is the belief that one person’s perception is shared by all, and the juxtaposition of these essays provides more dimension than that my-way’s-the-right-way attitude. It’s telling to look at Kerry Cohen’s perspective in “I Love You More” and then to see her husband’s point of view in “Wave Pool.” It’s essential that the voices here are of parents and children, steps and not, so that we see how many sides there are, so that we can recognize at least some of the emotional and logistical complexity of these situations. When Elizabeth King Gerlach writes in “The Angel Steps Down,” of how life goes in blended families, “You have to be willing to plan, coordinate, and then go with the flow when things fall completely apart, which happens a lot,” the readers will understand how true this is.
Janet Bowdan teaches at Western New England University and is the editor of Common Ground Review. In 2006, she became the stepmother of two lovely girls, now 19 and 13, who get along very well with their 8-year-old “brother from another mother.”