(Book Review) Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience edited by Samantha Waltz

By Melinda Guerra

I wish I could say that every blending follows the same basic trajectory — that if you do a, b, and c you’re guaranteed success — but, alas, when it comes to family, there never seem to be any universal answers.  Lucky for us, however, there are the wise and honest voices of parents and kids who’ve done it before.  And sometimes that’s what we really need.

—  Ariel Gore, in the forward of Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience, page xvii

blendedI’m a reader.  When I need to understand, process, or explain a thing, I always start by reading about it, trying to get in the heads of those who have lived/researched a thing previously, and learn from their insights before deciding on my own path.  Having made a decision, the reading continues; it’s always been easier for me to understand and give words to my own experience by reading about someone else’s, and as I settle into roles and ways of being, I continue to amass materials that inform my situation.

I recently married, moved states, combined books and belongings with my partner, and became a stepmom all at once.  In choosing life with my partner, I chose also to step into a life known by those who became parents because they became spouses, who grappled with unfortunate Disney caricatures, who navigated sometimes fraught relationships and conversations and blendings, who knew the unique (and terribly individual) journey of those who learn to create a blending that works for the members of its family. I’ve read a lot: writers ruminating on their experiences as a child with a stepparent, ex-spouses explaining issues with the stepparent, stepparents exploring the weirdness inherent in their new role, stepmoms confessing fears of being “the evil stepmother,” partners of stepparents addressing concerns, third parties listing “best practices” and “worst ideas,” and far, far more.  And when my husband brought home yet another book on people’s stories, I devoured the book in three days because I couldn’t help myself.

Samantha Waltz’s Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience is in turns lovely, funny, heartbreaking, infuriating, mildly terrifying, and incredibly validating.   Weltz has pulled together an eclectic and comprehensive group of writers contributing stories on their own experiences in the stepfamily, and the result is heartening and commendable.

Because there’s no great way to give you a comprehensive overview of the writing styles and stories of thirty contributors (thirty-two, if we count the stories in the editor’s note and foreword), I’ll introduce you to just a few of them here:

Kerry writes about blending a family, coming to terms with the differences in family culture, and finding a way to create a new culture together, reflective of the needs of not only the children in the family, but also the parents in it. Kerry’s piece is followed immediately by her husband’s, a story that shares his own perspective on what it meant to blend their families, particularly as relates both to bonding with his stepson who is on the autism spectrum, and also to dealing with his own commitment issues.

I hadn’t thought about how defensive I’d feel, how righteous about what I’d learned from Ezra.  How dare the rest of the world, how dare Jim and his ex, not trust what they couldn’t know, what only other parents of children with special needs could know. They hadn’t had to learn what I’d learned, because their children – their goddamned annoying children who hadn’t even learned about inside voices! – had developed typically.  

— Kerry Cohen, I Love you More, from Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience, page 69

Melanie sets her story in the Himalayan foothills, on the eve of her stepdaughter’s wedding, an event which has her with her husband and their two sons, along with her husband’s ex-wife and her husband, making daily trips together between the resort and the day’s pre-wedding activities.

But being a stepparent often means discomfort, at least it has for me.  Discomfort, even though I got along well with my stepchildren who were thirteen and seventeen when I married their father, nearly seven years after their parents’ divorce.   Rearranging plans to fit an every-other-weekend custody schedule.  Stepping into well-entrenched family traditions that were baffling to me.  

–Melanie Mock, Circling the Sacred Fire, from Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience, page 62

Alaina’s story gives us the perspective of a kid in the stepfamily experience, introducing us to extraverted stepparents who brought all manner of “firsts” into her life, a half-sibling who flustered her, and her learning to create a family from the people she found around herself.

Being an overachiever, I was off the charts on the family-upheaval scale before I even hit high school.  Between the time I was nine and thirteen, my parents divorced, Dad moved out, Mom remarried, Mom and I moved twice, Dad remarried, my dad and stepmom had a baby, and they moved across the country.  It was as if I’d stepped onto a merry-go round spinning at top speed; looking out at my life, I was dizzy and disoriented by the familiar images turned into a confusing blur. Puberty did not help.

— Alaina Smith, Finding My Family, from Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience, page 97

Deb’s story is less about being a stepmother than about being a parent to her stepgrandkids, whom she raises when her stepdaughter can’t.  It’s one of the longer pieces in the book, and we follow the snippets from the lives of the kids as they grow up with sporadic visitations by their mom, and from Deb’s life as she processes the terribly rough patches she had with their mother. 

In March 1989, my coworker Eli invited me to accompany him and his two adult daughters, MacKenzie and Sammie, for a day of skiing.  His wife, the girls’ mother, had died unexpectedly six months earlier. I was too worried about falling on my ass to consider how his daughters felt about my intrusion into their world so soon after their mother had passed. I was twenty-nine, the same age as MacKenzie, and only eight years older than Sammie.   Five months later, Eli and I moved in together.

— Deb Stone, Waiting at Windows, from Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience, pg 185

Sallie’s piece is about her difficult relationship with her stepmother, her confrontations about the way she treats Sallie’s dad, the way Sallie cares for her stepmother in the time after her stroke, and what it means for Sallie to learn to let go of the expectations she had of what her stepmother would have and should have been.

Dad is fifteen years younger than Pat.  She’s lost her golf partner and his help now that he’s aging, but she doesn’t get to take it out on him. They had no children together; they have no other family left alive. My husband Butch and I are all they have, and we will help them, both of them, but I cannot, will not, stand by when she’s so abrasive, so mean. He’s a kind, gentle, loving, intelligent man. My heart breaks to see him suffer the pain, the humiliation she causes him.

— Sallie Wagner Brown, Epiphany, from Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Life, page 208

Amy loved and married a man, and found herself as a stepmother to a child she loved dearly.  Twice.   Her piece gives two stories of very different relationships with those stepdaughters, and how both experiences have shaped her understandings of what it really means to be a stepparent.

I honored her request to never contact her again — so much in her life was out of her control. I wanted her to be a willing participant in any relationship we might have.  But back then, and still now, years later, she has not chosen me.  I go online to find glimpses of her and I track her from college, then to one graduate school, and then to another, lurking in the unseen ether of her life.

–Amy Hudock, A Tale of Two Stepdaughters, from Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Life, page 231

Nancy writes as a parent who was raised under the manipulation wielded by her father and her maternal grandparents in the wake of her mother’s death three months after Nancy’s birth, and the way the pulling between the two – though in a fight for her affection – left her feeling torn and exhausted.

Manipulation, a strong word. Is it warranted to accuse these loving relatives of such behavior? The real question is, is this a willful manipulation? Do they engage in this subtle slander, this emotional abuse, consciously?  And that is the big question. One would think that an adult would be smarter than to do that, more heedful of the best interests of the child than of his or her own.  But, as I’ve told my teen and preteen sons, sometimes grown-ups don’t act very grown-up.   

— Nancy Antonietti, Nightshade Love, from Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Life, page 236

There are, obviously, more contributors: those who look on their experiences in blending families as happy ones and those whose pessimism because of poor experience makes the pieces hard to read; they come with stories of marriages starting in the wake of death, affairs, and sexual orientation realizations, and their blendings are fun, rewarding, hard, and awful.  Some of the writers write better than others; some of them have stories I can appreciate more for different reasons.   The book is put together well, and if you find yourself in a place where you’re interested in stories of those who have blended their own families, this is a worthwhile one to check out.

If you are reading Fourth & Sycamore from the Greenville area, you can find Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience (306.87 Blended) at Greenville Public Library.