My youngest brother sent me an email today asking whether he should invite our stepmother to his wedding. "I don't want to upset Mom," he said.
Getting that email sent me mentally skittering back to my first wedding rehearsal dinner, to that horrific moment when the hostess insisted that we all "scoot around" the table, inadvertently placing my mother and stepmother next to each other. The tension at dinner made me want to hide the sharp utensils.
Fast forward twenty-five years or so. My stepmom's marriage to my father didn't last; he left her after sixteen years to return to my biological mother.
My own first marriage lasted seven years. When I married again, my second husband and I stood in front of the minister with our four young children -- two from each side -- and I became a stepmother as well as a wife.
That was seventeen years ago.
What have I learned since then? That we're not alone. According to the Stepfamily Foundation, over half of all U.S. families are now stepfamilies, with 1,300 new stepfamilies forming every day.
More importantly, I have learned that divorce, though the product of conflict between couples, does not necessarily have to ruin children's lives. Happy families of any shape, size or description are those where parents and children know how to open their arms to embrace everyone, especially during milestone events like holidays, graduations and weddings. How- - or even whether -- that happens depends on how we stepparents shoulder our responsibilities and model civil behavior.
I have my own stepmother to thank for helping me along this admittedly rocky path. She never -- not once -- said an unkind word about my mother, and she was loving toward me and my children.
I am also grateful to my two husbands, past and present; to my ex-husband's wife (who I promised never to write about, sorry) and to my second husband's ex. They all worked hard to put our combined six children ahead of whatever differences we may have had. All of us could have bitched to and about each other, but we mostly did not.
My ex-husband proved to be generous and loving through the years not only toward our own children, but to my stepchildren as well. And I love the fact that my youngest son -- who serves as a bridge between his two half-sisters and two half-brothers -- has a special "cousins" sort of relationship with my ex-husband's son. How could they not? They have spent holidays, birthdays and graduations together for much of their young lives.
I have also been very fortunate to have my second husband's extended family accept me as one of their own while keeping in touch with his ex-wife. My in-laws make a point of stopping to spend time with her whenever they visit the east coast. She is, after all, the mother of two of their grandchildren. For this, they feel that she deserves their respect and love.
And you know what? My in-laws are absolutely right.
Does this all sound like some sort of fairy tale, too good to be true? It is not.
I know many, many stepparents who have managed to take the high road during divorce and remarriage. It's not an easy job to love other people's children sometimes. We don't usually know our stepchildren as infants, and we don't typically have the same day-in, day-out time to build our relationships. Stepchildren can sometimes feel like strangers as a result.
But the rewards of loving your stepchildren far surpass the difficulties of raising them. I promise that your stepchildren will become dear to you if you put time into those relationships. My own stepchildren came into my life when they were very young. Today they are accomplished young adults who thankfully still make time to share their adventures with me. I am proud of whatever part I had in raising them to be who they are.
I am thrilled, especially, that all five of our children -- four of them now out on their own -- are still connected in important ways. One example: When my oldest daughter moved to San Francisco and felt homesick, my stepson flew her to his house in Los Angeles for a holiday. Our two oldest sons, who live on opposite coasts, stay in touch with each other and with their younger half-brother through video games and Skype.
This wonderful gift of connectedness between our children couldn't exist if any of us -- in-laws, ex-spouses, stepkids, stepdads, stepmoms -- had dug in our heels and shunned the possibility of so much family love.
So, to my brother, I quickly emailed back, "Of course you should invite her."
Our ex-stepmom played a loving role in our lives and deserves to be recognized. She did the best she could, as we all must do when it comes to teaching children -- and each other -- how to live with love, respect and dignity. It takes a village to raise a child, and often that village is populated by family members connected in surprising ways.