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Forming a Family, Step by Step

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Sisters L to R: Mary, Jennifer, Mavis, Emily -- September 2013.

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." -- Lao Tzu

Last fall I flew to Carson City, N.V., to spend a long weekend with my sisters. I had seen each of them individually during my chemo and radiation last spring, but this was the first time we were all together since I was diagnosed with lung cancer.

When my husband Harlan and I first started dating, he found it challenging to understand the construct of my family. I have one brother, that was clear, but sometimes I referred to my (one) sister, and just as often I talked about my (three) sisters.

After my parents divorced my dad married Judith. Her two daughters, Emily and Mary, became stepsisters to Mavis, Lawrence and me. But we've all been a family since 1977, so really they are my sisters.

My sisters are just the first step.

I am a stepdaughter, stepsister, and now a stepmother. To my way of thinking, the more steps in a house, the more interesting the home.

Susan Wisdom, stepfamily therapist and author of StepCoupling, observes, "Combining families is challenging under any circumstance and many families struggle for years to find cohesion."

We had our period of adjustment. We were five kids coming from two broken marriages, mending through blending. There were some bumpy patches in the '70s, because we had a house full of teenagers, and because it was the '70s. But we started with baby steps and in time we found our stride. After all, home wasn't built in a day.

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L to R: Emily (16), Mavis (12), Mary (14), Jennifer (14), Lawrence (12) -- 1977 at the wedding of my dad and Judith.

Though I lived with my mother in Connecticut while my stepsisters lived with Dad and Judith in California, it's a testament to all of my parents that I never felt jealous or overlooked in any way. I knew I was loved coast to coast.

My own wonderful stepparents gave me a road map for how to walk the line between influencer, confidante, disciplinarian and friend. Watching my sisters learn to parent and being Aunt Jen to all of their kids and stepkids was excellent training for my current role as stepmom.

We four sisters are geographically dispersed now, but I talk to one or the other almost daily. When I got cancer my sisters stepped up, each one coming to visit, driving me to chemo, cleaning my kitchen, watching movies with me, and making me laugh over a glass of wine. Blood may be thicker than water, but sometimes a good cabernet is the tie that binds.

Throughout my life, having a solid stepladder has steadied me and helped me to reach higher. At first I might have tread lightly, but now my footing is firm. I just take it one step at a time.

This column originally appeared on parade.com. For more by Jennifer Glass, click here. "Like" Jennifer's Facebook page here. See her Fear.Less. video here.

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