This is the last installment of my interview with family therapist Chuck Semich, which I began on September 12th with an article entitled Fathers and stepfathers, sons and stepsons…it’s all about our men. Having written articles about step parenting since February 2010, which often investigated issues from the female point of view, I wanted to explore a distinctly male experience of marriage, divorce, remarriage, parenting and step parenting.
Chuck Semich’s private practice and advice column, Counseling Corner with Chuck Semich, for reMarriageworks.com, (whose founder and publisher, Paula Bisacre, I have previously interviewed for this column), and life-long personal experiences as a son, stepson, father and stepfather provided the perfect opportunity for me to understand more clearly a man’s perspective on the myriad complexities of family and stepfamily relationships.
Each stepparent faces unique challenges specific to the composition and circumstances of their particular family. For instance, as Chuck Semich has pointed out in our previous interviews, men and women process emotional issues differently, which takes understanding and finesse in handling; stepdaughters and stepsons might bond in different ways with their stepparents; or there might be unresolved or unfinished business between the divorced parents that affect not only their children but their bonds with their new spouses.
It would be an understatement to say that the divorce rate in this country points to the need for a cultural re-examination of how we define marriage and our relationships and what we expect from them, how we relate to those we love, what we ask of them in return, how we define what it means to mother, to father and to parent, and, perhaps most importantly, how we hold onto our sense of ourselves as individual members of our families and not get lost in the complexities of blended family/stepfamily life.
Surely were we to bring to our life-and-self-enhancing partnerships a heightened clarity of our own needs, as well as a heightened awareness of the needs of our partners and children, these relationships would be healthier and more nurturing, laying the groundwork for becoming the powerful unions we envision them to be when we make a commitment to our partner.
Speaking personally for a moment, what I have taken away from my interview with Chuck Semich is the power of his own very clear commitment to personal growth – to learning, to communicating with his stepchildren and his wife, and to sharing those lessons with his extended family, as well as with a greater audience through these interviews.
Many people are going through tough times at the moment. Chuck Semich’s ultimate message is one of love, patience and communication. If we could all give and receive more of each of these things every day, the world would be a better place.
What might be the positives of having exposure to a stepfather or a stepmother…or being a member of a stepfamily or blended family?
There can be many benefits from being part of a healthy blended family. Some of these are more positive adult role models for the children; more access to loving, caring adults, leading to higher self-esteem; a wider pool of resources for the children, offering a broader set of choices and solutions to day-to-day problems; exposure to a variety of family cultures (different meals, more forms of recreation, etc.); and a larger extended family, which could mean more gifts at birthdays and certain holidays!
The day after Jae passed away, the entire blended family, including all our grandchildren, gathered at our house for dinner. As I looked around the room, I could sense a deeper level of closeness among them. I felt a great sense of gratitude that their love for Jae and her love for them had created such a beautiful family.
You have experienced every role I can think of a man having in life: you are a son and a stepson, a father who got divorced, who then remarried, who therefore became a stepfather, and who lost his wife at the beginning of this year. How are you doing? Is there something that you have learned now that you would say to all of the men with whom you have worked over the years about dealing with love, loss and profound change?
It has now been nearly eight months since Jae died. I still grieve daily and, one day at a time, I am feeling more accepting of my loss. I have been helped tremendously in this process by an outpouring of love from all of our children. Jae’s children have made it absolutely clear to me that they want me to continue to be, even more than ever, a “father” to them and a grandfather to their children.
This is the grand payoff for the effort that Jae and I put into making our relationship as healthy and as loving as it was and to creating a successful blended family. At this time, I’m considering ways in which I may want to “re-invent” myself after the loss of Jae, with whom my life was totally bound up. I don’t have anything particular in mind, but I remain open to all the possibilities. I’m in no rush to make major changes. Meanwhile, I’m playing a lot of tennis and keeping active in other ways. Spending time with our kids and grandkids will, of course, be a priority. Since Jae’s kids live on the West Coast, I’ll be doing more than the usual amount of travelling.
What I would (and have been saying) to married men is this: “Your relationship with your wife is your most precious possession. Treat it as such. Honor her daily with little gifts, compliments, and as much of your time and attention as possible. Leave your ego out of your dialogues with her. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. And, to the extent possible, live in the present moment.”
Is there something you would say to women about the men they love, as they too deal with loss, divorce, custody battles, death…and profound change?
What I would say to the women is similar to what I am saying to men. I would add this: “Offer them your support during a crisis without being intrusive or controlling. Trust that they will manage the crisis as best they can. If they get cranky and irritable, or if they seem to be distancing themselves from you, let them know in a gentle but firm way that this kind of behavior makes it hard for you to be supportive. Remind them that you are their best friend and a place they can always go to for comfort and help. Then let go.”
I want to ask you – because it is discussed in the step mothering community a lot – about the kind of love a biological father has for his children and the kind of love he has for his new wife. It is difficult for a stepparent to feel that they come second to their spouse’s children. Is it indeed a different kind of love? How can stepparents better deal with this issue and what should remarried parents tell their spouses about the quality of the love they have for them…as opposed to the quality of love they have for their biological children?
Excellent question. Remarried couples are frequently caught up in this dilemma. What often occurs is that the stepparent seems to force the biological parent to choose between him/her and the children. That, unfairly, puts an enormous amount of stress on the biological parent. Raising children involves more than the love between parent and child. It is a major responsibility. The stepparent needs to understand that and not throw any emotional roadblocks in the way of the execution of that responsibility. Love is love; responsibility is responsibility. The issue of “coming second to the children” is a non-issue. It’s apples and oranges. If the stepparent is feeling neglected, the dialogue that should occur might begin as follows:
“I know you are busy with the children, and I admire the energy you put into raising them. At the same time, I’m wishing you and I could have more time together. Let’s talk about how we might be able to do that.”
When Jae and I married, her kids were 9 and 14. Nearly every weekend was taken up by her son’s traveling soccer matches and/or her daughter’s figure-skating competitions. To make matters worse, Jae was working three nights a week. As you can see, that left little time to nurture our relationship. Our solution was to dedicate one weekend a month (sometimes even for just one night) to our relationship. We would arrange for the kids to sleep over with friends, and we would go away – either camping or to a bed and breakfast somewhere. Those weekends provided a foundation for a terrific relationship after the kids left home.
To more specifically answer your question, I suggest not speaking in terms of different types of love – that should be obvious. Instead, the biological parent should focus on his/her dual responsibility – to the couple’s relationship and to the children. Follow that with a suggestion for a continuing dialogue on how they might nurture their relationship with quality time together during the years that involvement with the children will be most heavy.
This would be a good opportunity for the new stepparent to commit to helping out as much as possible with the children.
Thank you Chuck Semich for your time and for your open and heart-felt answers. I wish you well.
Click here to read Part I, Fathers and stepfathers, sons and stepsons…it’s all about our men, click here to read Part II, Divorced dads don’t cry…or do they?, click here to read Part III, Self-Awareness: the key to building successful relationships with stepchildren.
Additional information and writing by Giselle Minoli can be found at www.giselleminoli.com, where she posts essays on many subjects of interest to both women and men.