05/07/2013 02:33 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2013

My Stepson Is a Marine

Hurrying to work I saw this bumper sticker -- My Stepson Is a Marine -- complete with the Marine Corps emblem.

I was riveted and found myself reflecting for two reasons.

First, in the 30 years of my work with stepfamilies I've seen very few such public announcements of pride in a step-relationship.

Leading groups for stepmothers I've heard a lot about the confusion and pain they feel at first. Many years ago, a stepmother, new to parenting an 8-year-old whose mother had died, felt at sea trying to understand some of his irritating behaviors. Nancy wondered: Was his behavior difficult because he was struggling with his mother's absence, or because he now had a very present stepmother, or was it simply because he was an annoying 8-year-old?

There are few guidelines for stepmothers and stepfathers about how to understand child development or to parent effectively, instantly. They jump into middle of a kid's development and try to make sense of it. Usually with little support.

Nancy's story was a part of our group for many years as she gave birth to a baby boy and watched him grow to and through being 8 years old. "Now I can see how to sort that out," she told the group. "He was mostly being a very annoying 8-year-old but I didn't know anything about that then."

This mother and stepson came to mind on seeing the bumper sticker because it could have been her car. She's gone well beyond the teenage years with both her stepson and her son. Her stepson is now serving in the military and she is very proud.

My second reason for loving that bumper sticker is that the Marines used step language. There's this curious back and forth between using step and blended when talking about these families. I have troubles with the use of blended. Blended sounds like a smoothie. Stepfamily sounds like a fruit salad. Smoothies and fruit salads are both delicious but I prefer being able to experience each piece of fruit -- texture, taste and color.

Stepfamilies come together because of a loss for someone in the family. A death, a divorce, abandonment. And each experience of loss gives its own shape to the child or the adult. The 8th century Old English word steop means bereaved and being related through marriage, not birth. Although it doesn't have to be through marriage these days, everyone in a stepfamily has experienced some kind of loss and lives that loss into the new family.

To me it feels disrespectful to use the term blended; not celebrating the unique texture, taste and color, the unique history that each person brings to a new stepfamily. Losses acknowledged and respected help the new family learn to be safe and comfortable. And proud.

There can be pride in working though to finding connections; finding authentic relationships. Coming together out of varied histories, stepfamilies make a shared history. No need to hide (or "blend") the past, stepfamilies can move forward learning from the past.

Judy Osborne