“Holly had thought there was something fishy about taking a trip without bags, but her mother had assured her this was the way their father wanted it. He wanted them to have everything new – new clothes, new toys, new bags in which to carry home the loot. Maybe he’d just forgotten to tell Beverly. “We didn’t bring any,” she said quietly.
Beverly looked down at her. Goddamn Bert for saying she could manage this no problem. “What?”
It was terrible to have been made to say it once, unforgivable to be made to say it again. Tears welled up in Holly’s eyes and started their run across the freckles. “We. Don’t. Have. Any. Luggage.”
Now she would be in trouble with her father and she hadn’t even seen her father yet. What was worse, her father would be mad at her mother again. Her father had been calling her mother irresponsible forever but she wasn’t.” From Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
There were many reasons I loved Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, but the main one was its excursion into the world of step-families, which is a topic I’ve not encountered in fiction since outgrowing my obsession with Ann M. Martin’s Baby-Sitter’s Little Sister books approximately 25 years ago. Not long after Commonwealth, a Dear Sugar episode led me to The Sisters Antipodes, Jane Alison’s memoir about her blended family, and, in the podcast and the books, I found it both stirring and comforting to hear/read my own experiences reflected in the words of others. Apart from a few random scenes, I can’t remember life before step-family; it’s almost-always been my normal. It’s funny, then, to only now be realising how much of my normal is completely foreign to a good many people. (Noticing this reconfirmed my passion for everyone’s stories to be heard, not just the male stories or the white stories, to name only two voices too-commonly given space. (Of course, I went on to think immediately of churches who refuse to let half of their congregations speak, but then I remembered that’s no longer my fight, and moved on, relieved.))
My parents separated when I was three years old. My dad remarried when I was four (five?), gifting me and my brother our first stepsister and -brother in the process, and my mum remarried when I was seven, doubly relating the same step-siblings to me (saying “our parents swapped partners,” captures the essence but not the drama of what happened). A divorce and some years later, my dad remarried once again, and I gained an extra four step-siblings. I’d started my life as the eldest of two; by the end of primary school I was third youngest of eight. (To rub it in, I’d been replaced as eldest by a stepsister with the same first name as me.) And then more years passed, and both Mum and Dad had babies with their new spouses, and then each had another baby, and then my mum had five more babies, until I had an extra nine half-siblings to complete my patchwork family. (I’ll save you the trouble of doing the maths: I have 16 siblings all told.)
I lived with Mum, and then later with Dad, spending time with the missing parent over holidays or weekends. There were different rules for each house, which I’d have to remember to switch to as soon as we stepped foot in the front door (literally: at Dad’s we had to take off our shoes, but we didn’t at Mum’s). At Mum’s we had to say “bomb” instead of “fart,” and we were not allowed to say “crap.” At Dad’s, “crap” was okay, but they were farts, not bombs. At Dad’s we had to eat peas speared with our forks pointed down, and we had cordial with dinner (and toasted muesli for breakfast!!). At Mum’s we could eat peas scooped with our forks face-up, and all sugar was banned.
In the Dear Sugar episode, Jane Alison described her younger self as “a diplomat and a spy,” a label that stabbed me with its relatability. My brother and I would be sat down during holidays for an inevitable grilling over the other parent’s capabilities: How were we being disciplined? What exactly happened when we were “given the belt”? Why did we seem so uncomfortable with the questioning? I yawned a lot during those sessions (something that was once pointed out to me, which is probably why I remember it); now I wonder if my panicking over how well I’d perform stopped me breathing at the start of each inquisition, and the yawns were my body’s desperate grabs at oxygen. I wanted so fiercely to demonstrate my allegiance to both parents, but always felt I’d failed at least one of them by the time those questions came to an end. Just the recollection of the talks inspires fresh waves of anxiety.
“While children are angry at their parents’ failure and may judge them harshly, they are also aware of their parents’ suffering. Despite their own neediness and anger, the children of divorce express an extraordinary sympathy when talking about their parents’ failings, and as young adults they seem more aware of their parents’ limitations as human beings.” From Second Chances by Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee*
I spent a lot of my childhood hoping very hard that my parents would continue to like me, and that my new step-parents would like me, and that my new step-siblings would like me, too. In a burst of either honesty or jealousy (I’m still not sure which), one of my stepsisters once told me her mother (my first stepmother) had never cared for me, and I remember feeling utterly heartbroken by this news; I’d desperately wanted her love and approval, but I’d failed to win it. I wanted to impress everyone in my immediate family, but I particularly wanted to impress my stepbrother, on whom I developed an instant, mortifying, unshakeable crush. While I was happy to hear Dad would be marrying Aura, who he’d lived with for years by the time they were engaged, one of my first thoughts at the news was that this would officially destroy all of my longed-for plans of one day running away with her son and living happily ever after with him.
“Sometimes I wonder what it would be like not to have jealousy running in my veins. It’s like fuel, gaseous, and if you strike the right match, I flame. I can be jealous of anything… Jealousy is as rich as the weather and takes on different forms. One is to observe the person you love with the other; another is to be unable to see this but to know it’s happening, far away, know that you’re being displaced. The heart of jealousy: knowing you’re dispensable.” From The Sisters Antipodes by Jane Alison
I still haven’t figured out the correct titles for step- and half-siblings – do I introduce them as my brothers and sisters, or do I make it clear there’s a modifier attached to the name? Which version is the least weird/offensive, for both of us? Does the same rule apply to half-siblings as to step-siblings (step-siblings share less blood but far more history)? I don’t know. (Where are the hyphens supposed to go when I write about them? I don’t know.) I used to say Chris was my “real” brother, but the language felt uncomfortable and I started using “full” instead (it’s not much better, but it makes the rest of my siblings sound less made up). It was important for me to distinguish Chris as someone with whom I shared genes as well as family stories, but I felt guilty for the way describing him then took something away from the name I gave the relationship with the rest of my (half/step-)siblings.
When I joined Facebook the first time, around 2008, it was cool to create your family tree and post it on your wall. This craze was one of the reasons I deleted my account back then; I was already on the slippery slope towards another bout of depression, and seeing my name missing from a few siblings’ designs hurt more than it should have. When any of my parents talks about how many children they have I instantly calculate whether or not I’ve been included in that number. I can confidently say that my brother and my grandparents are mine and I’m theirs (their unchanging love for me has been a haven in the midst of a constantly-changing immediate family); apart from them, I’m not sure quite sure to whom I belong, or who belongs to me. This has been on my mind lately, because I’m not sure how these uneasy ties play out when it comes to dying; am I allowed to be there when my stepmum dies? Will I be invited to that sacred space, even though I share none of her blood? Would I risk asking, in case my presence takes something of that precious time away from my step- and half-siblings, who actually have a right to be there? I don’t know.
This post is bleaker than I expected it to be when I sat down to write it! There are upsides to blended families, too: if my stepsisters weren’t a part of my life I may have never fallen in love with The Beatles or Def Leppard, or laughed nearly as much as I have over the years (my sister Clair is one of the funniest people I know). If my stepmum wasn’t a part of my life I may have never explored politics and feminism, and my children would be missing out on a loving Nanna. I’m especially thankful for these women in my life. I wouldn’t remarry, though, if Alan and I ever divorce, and the fear of him repartnering and plunging my kids into the murky waters I’ve waded through over the years has had me work harder at our marriage than I would have without it. I don’t want my kids ever questioning where, if anywhere, they belong.
I used to feel terrible about how little contact I was making with each of my 16 siblings, and how many birthdays I was forgetting; for a long time I thought I had to stay in touch with each of them, checking up on their well-being regularly and generally being a “good” sister. (Also a “good” Christian: feeling solely responsible for their salvation didn’t help at all.) Over time I’ve let go of those expectations, as well as the bucket-loads of guilt that went along with them; it’s my friends who feel like sisters now, and I remember their birthdays instead. Maybe that’s how growing up works even in families that stay together? I don’t know.
Step-family-related stuff I've found interesting and/or helpful over the years
- These Dear Sugar episodes:
- *Second Chances: Men, Women and Children a Decade After Divorce by Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee