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Step-Relationships: Family Or Foe?

Often it's not the word “step” that’s the issue — it’s how others respond to it.

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illustration of stepfamily outside of house
Juliette Borda
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Cinderella’s stepmother treated her like dirt. Snow White’s tried to kill her. Lord knows what happened to the first red-headed stepchild. But that’s fiction. These real-life relationships are often wonderful, loving additions to a family.

According to U.S. Bureau of Census statistics, 42 percent of families have a step relative, and 1,300 new stepfamilies are formed daily. So step is here to stay.

To some, it’s just a descriptor (which has been used to define children and their new parents since the 8th century). To others, it shouts to the world: “We’re not really family!”

Jill C. has been married for 16 years; she has an 18-year-old stepdaughter and a 3-year-old biological son. “I call her my stepdaughter because it gives people the technical input,” she says. “But I give a background to qualify it: ‘Oh, but I’ve raised her since she was 2.’ ”

“People used to say, ‘Oh, well, it’ll be different when you have your own kid,’” says Jill. “I’d get offended. She is my kid! She is absolutely my kid in every possible way. They weren’t meaning to offend, but I would like people to know that just because we use ‘step’ it doesn’t mean that we’re not as close as the real thing.”

Leisa G., who has four stepkids, got inventive: “I wish there was another word to describe my relationship to my husband’s kids, because neither ‘step’ nor ‘mom’ seem accurate,” she says. “When I was first engaged, his girls introduced me as their ‘soon-to-be stepmom.’ The term didn’t seem right. They asked what I would like to be called and I said very flippantly, ‘I don’t know … countess?’ Since then they jokingly call me Countess. The term isn’t accurate, but it’s our way of describing our relationship.”

For some it isn’t the word “step” that’s the issue — it’s how others respond to it. Elizabeth S. and her husband have “a very easy relationship” with their exes. “We attend many games and events for [my stepson] with his mom and stepdad and there have been times when people I’m introduced to clearly don’t know what to do with me. Occasionally, there’s actually been visible discomfort! Nervous laughs. Darting eyes. Quick getaways. Truly amazing!”

“Yes, [‘step’ creates] a certain kind of boundary, but it’s the truth of what we are,” she adds. “We’ve been married for almost five years, and we’re both still finding our way in our step relationships. I think that’s a journey we’ll be on for a long time. I also think it’s perfectly natural. As the years go by, we’re creating new family history and shared memories, and as those bring our entire little unit together, they also help strengthen the individual bonds between us.”

Step-Girlfriends agree that dropping the term altogether is disrespectful to the biological parent, and that it’s the quality of the relationship — not the label — that counts.