“Step-mothering is born of grief. It is, at its heart, an unhappy business,” writes Wednesday Martin, author of Stepmonster. To support her point, Martin explores the Old English form of the word stepchild (steopclid), meaning “orphan;” the prefix “steop” comes from the verb astiepan/bestipan, meaning “to bereave.” Long ago, when women commonly died in childbirth, other women were needed to raise the now-motherless children. Later, after stepfamilies became more common, our awareness of the losses embedded in stepfamiles faded. Yet, Martin argues, the link with grief remains: “the words, with their secret history, make it clear that something has been taken away. Death, deprivation, bereavement. Steps – mothers, fathers, and children – are still defined by that distance, that gulf, that space between them. The step.” (p. 226)

Martin’s powerful claims intrigue me. Yes, stepfamilies arise after first families end, and endings may lead to grief. Whether the end was due to divorce or death, most members of stepfamilies have endured heartache. And yes, as Martin suggests, stepmothers may grieve for their lost dreams of being in a “first family,” or of being a spouse’s “one and only” love. Stepmothers may choose to marry a partner with children, only to find themselves stuck in families where they feel unloved and unimportant, devalued and disrespected, or unfairly blamed by stepchildren, in-laws, or ex-spouses.

But there’s also more to the story. Even members of first families find themselves stuck, dealing with heartache, powerlessness, and grief. Such feelings may help explain why some first families ultimately fracture. In my own childhood memories, Dad was rarely present, shirking his promises of sexual fidelity and fatherly involvement. This may explain why Mom, busy raising three children all on her own, seemed perpetually irritated and resentful. We all grieved my father’s absence. He was our patriarch, our center, our sun. Our individual sadness looked like rage. Full of childish ignorance and indignation, I passionately defended my absent father to my angry mother. At these times, we found ourselves at odds with each other, not with him. In this not-so-ideal first family home, Mom and I both felt unloved and unimportant, devalued and disrespected, and unfairly blamed.

As an adult, in a leap of faith, I married a divorced single father and became a stepmom. We faced the challenges that all new stepfamilies face in creating a shared household. But the joys of our family life far surpassed everything else. My husband and eight-year-old stepson both offered me a kind of unconditional love that I didn’t even know was possible. Being loved by them, in our specific, unique family, helped me to heal from my past. Their love helped me become a more generous person, eager to care for others as my new family now cared for me. Parenting my smart and adorable stepson also helped me realize how much I yearned to adopt a baby. As a twelve-year old, my stepson became a big brother to his baby sister, and we grew to become a blissful family of four. When we were all together, no matter what else was happening, we enjoyed stability, silliness, and sunshine.   

After my husband died unexpectedly, I became a newly single mom to a teen daughter and an adult stepson. He was now a college graduate living in another city, building his own life. In grief, we clung to one another, to our shared sadness, and to our shared memories. In grief, we regressed to old familiar roles of mutual caretaking. My stepson, smart and capable, moved home for a few weeks to help me manage the overwhelming new responsibilities that I faced alone. Now, he was the only person in the world who could decipher his father’s computer passwords. Now, he was now the only one who knew about the problems with our electrical outlets, and also, how to fix them. My stepson helped me to manage these and other tasks. And he did so even as his experience matched with the origins of the term “stepchild:” my stepson had been semi-orphaned, mourning for his now-deceased parent.

At the same time that he helped me, my stepson also needed help. His pain was palpable. In the aftermath of our loss, he confessed to regret — for not visiting more often, for not having accomplished more to make his father proud. And now I was the only person in the world positioned to reassure him, to remind him of his frequent visits, his many accomplishments, and most importantly, of his father’s unwavering, unconditional love. When his grief was fresh and raw, my stepson needed mothering, and specifically, from me. I had been the one at his father’s side, the co-parent, the co-constructor of our shared family history. Even amidst all of our heartache, I felt incredibly proud to meet his needs for comfort, for care.

As in my childhood first family, the patriarch of our stepfamily home was now absent. But this time, unlike last time, the loss drew us closer together. With this loss came a greater appreciation for our unique relationship, our family memories, and for the ways in which my stepson and I can each provide for one another in ways that no one else can.  

In grief, and also in stepfamilies, we’re forced to embrace paradox. Paradox comes from two Greek words: para and doksos, meaning “beyond the teaching” or “beyond the opinion.”  Notice the preposition: “beyond.” In grief, we are beyond what is known; our loved one is beyond reach. In stepfamilies, we are beyond the first family, a whole unit made from what was once broken. To embrace a paradox is to accept a complex reality. We acknowledge that there are simultaneous truths, no one truth is mutually exclusive, and truths are not “either/or” – rather, they are “both/and.”

As Wednesday Martin suggests, “Step-mothering is born of grief.”  She’s correct. And yet all families grieve. All types of relatives, through blood or marriage, gather at funerals or memorial celebrations. Every type of family formation involves some kind of loss. Some choices limit other choices. Also, importantly, there are many different types of loss, of grief. Some types of grief are soothed, not sparked, within the stepfamily. For women like me, only my stepfamily could provide healing and comfort after enduring gut-wrenching grief.

note: an adapted version of this essay is featured in StepMom magazine, “A Stepmother’s Grief: Unpacking the ‘Unhappy Business’ of It All” (Sept 2021), https://www.stepmommag.com