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Excerpt: Focus on Living

from Chapter 10: Zigzag Evolution

You’ve read about stepfamily dynamics and raised your awareness about the wants and needs of grieving children. In preparation for what, exactly, is this heightened awareness? For living more peacefully, and increasing family joy, even in the midst of the “one step forward/two steps back” evolution of stepfamily relationships.

Living in a stepfamily is like watching a newly crumpled piece of paper re-expand into a new shape. The unfolding process is not linear or predictable, and the slow pace at which it re-expands is maddening, especially if you’re monitoring it every minute.

When my daughter was born, one of the baby gifts we received was a decorative plaque which I hung up on one of her bedroom walls. It says: “Children are not things to be molded, but people to be unfolded.” How do we let this process happen without losing hope?

Zigzag evolution
The stepfamily equivalent of watching the crumpled piece of paper unfold is what Patricia Papernow, author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships, calls zigzag evolution: “The family will not move forward at the same time, as a single unit. One family member may be moving forward while another family member may be taking a step back.” Remember that this is normal stepfamily development!

I recall the summer day, just before my stepson’s last high school year, when he came to us and discussed his desire to move out on his own. This request came on the heels of a few house-rule run-ins we’d had over the summer. I became so emotionally obsessed with his request for separation and our inability to work it out at home that I had to withdraw myself from the entire decision-making process. With Brian’s permission he did move out, and almost exactly one year later returned home for a few months before starting college. At that time he confided that living on his own was really hard, and he openly recognized some of the good in our parenting methods.

Zigzag evolution is a chaotic course. We can either fuel the chaos or temper our response to it. The latter path requires great patience and yet it is the path that will allow family members to unfold at their own pace.