Because my 21-year-old stepson has moved back in with us for a while,  I thought this was a good time to re-visit the topic of zigzag evolution.  This was the child who moved out of the house before his senior year of high school, which was a huge zigzag at that time.  His moving back in has been a surprise and another zigzag.  He just needs some time to figure out what he wants to do next.

I think I picked up this term, zigzag evolution, from Patricia
Papernow’s foundational book, Becoming a Stepfamily.  The meat of
this concept is that stepfamilies do not evolve in a straight, predictable,
Rather, they zigzag, more along the lines of the one-step-
forward, two-steps-back analogy. 

While it’s true that all families zigzag to some extent, stepfamilies
typically have more obstacles to their evolution
: a shorter history
together, less “instant” (unconditional) love, and the challenge of
merging cultures and traditions.

Zigzag evolution explains why it’s so important not to judge the
success of your stepfamily on a short-term basis.  What looks like
progress one season might reverse itself during another season.
(See related post about Funky Phases.)

Here are some examples of zigzagging, either from my own experience
or the experiences of stepparents I’ve interviewed: 

A fourth-grade stepdaughter holds her stepmom’s hand (a first)
several times during summer vacation, but then doesn’t show any
physical contact that fall when stepmom volunteers in her classroom at

A stepdad to three girls suddenly becomes the only living father figure
when the girls’ father dies in an accident.

A teenaged boy who called his stepmom “mom” for seven years wakes
up one morning and starts calling her only by her first name from that
point forward.

A stepmom who has craved the love and attention of her stepchildren
for more than fifteen years finds herself retreating from them when
they, now in their twenties, start to show her that attention. 

How do you deal with zigzag?  Take these learning points to heart:

  • Key milestones and anniversaries can subconsciously trigger
    changes in behavior.
  • Not all stepfamily members move forward at the same rate.
  • Keeping a steady vigil over how your stepfamily is doing actually
    works against you.  Try practicing a “from the blimp” view of your
    family.  If you were flying in a blimp over hundreds of households,
    would your household stand out as the big, red “in trouble” household?
    Or would it mostly look like the other households? 
  • Talking to more parents about the issues they face with their kids
    can help normalize a zig or a zag.  Every time I’ve done this, I hear
    that many issues with children are universal and not just limited to a
    stepfamily setting.  It provides a little relief to an overly conscientious

I’m just here to remind you (and myself) that you can’t force evolution. 
The good news is that even a zigzag is, overall, moving forward, and
so will your stepfamily.

Mama J (Diane Fromme) is a writer, parent, and stepparent located in
Northern Colorado.  For more information on her stepparenting book,
go to

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5 Comments on Zigzag Update

  1. Jean McBride says:

    Love the term “zig zag evolution!” It is right on the money when it comes to describing stepfamily life. Also love the “from the blimp” view of your family. Great post, Diane.

  2. Kathleen Donnelly says:

    Hi Diane! I really enjoyed this post. How is it going with your step-son back home? Has there been other zig zags with him since he moved home?

  3. Mama J says:

    Hi Kathleen! That is a good question. The truth is, I keep waiting for one but
    there haven’t been any. Though it was a little hard to wrap my mind around him moving
    back in, I’m acutally glad he feels comfortable enough here to stay while he
    figures things out. I’ll keep you posted!

  4. Peggy says:

    Hi Diane!

    I first discovered the zig zag in Richard Bode’s book, “At first you have to row a little boat.” The zig zag, of course, refers to tacking and jibing in sailing terms. To sail straight, you need to zig zag!

    I’ve experienced the zig zag on a number of occaisions…my youngest daughter zig-zagged her way to a better life once she turned 18…a little tough love on my part, but she moved out and lived with her dad for 6 months, and then back with me for 6 months, then back with her dad before she took a job in Vail, Colorado.

    My youngest step daughter also did a zig zag, moving in with my husband and I when she was 19. Her mother moved, so she moved in with us. Once her now husband finished basic training and tech school, they found an apartment together. They are the brand new parents of Olivia and their “wedding” is this August. Once my son-in-law is deployed next August with my husband (they’re both in the same national guard unit), my youngest step daughter and my grand daughter will zig zag back to my house for a year.

    I wish my youngest step son would zig zag…unfortunately, he insists on following the same broken path he’s been following, thinking that it will magically work for him one day. My husband has full physical custody of him and he’s 17…he’ll be 18 next April. I’d like him to zig-zag out as soon as he graduates high school. I don’t think I can deal with him in my home without my husband around. (He has issues…)

  5. […] that are the healthiest to assist and honor the grieving child.  In reality, we all go through a zigzag evolution toward stepparenting nirvana.  (A shorter way to say this might be: nobody’s […]

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