“Choose joy,” my stepmother taught me. She also taught me how to do a plie (a “ballet” term for a delicate squat), apply eyeliner, and make a black radish and shmaltz sandwich. Her clothes were made to order by Selima the dressmaker, her favorite flower was the Lily of the Valley and she once was a June Taylor dancer.
She also was a Polish Holocaust survivor, who, as a little girl, spent the war years hiding out as a Catholic in an apartment upstairs from the local Gestapo headquarters. One day after her widowed mother warned that neighbors suspected they might be Jewish, little Miriam, who was then being called Maria, Their marriage was volatile and vibrant gathered her local friends. “Let’s play ‘Gestapo,’” she suggested, and the little girls rounded up their dolls and spent the afternoon pretending to torture and kill Jews. Miriam ran home weeping and confessed to her mother what she’d done to protect her family. Her mother kissed her from head to toe.
After the war she moved to the United States where she married, had a daughter in 1957, and opened a ballet school in Queens, teaching little ballerinas without talent or dreams of their own.
When her marriage ended in divorce, Miriam supported herself and her daughter, working in the showroom of a 7th Avenue dress manufacturer until she met my Viennese father, also a survivor, who had money and charm, but no dancing skills. Miriam vowed she wouldn’t go out with a man who couldn’t mambo. Undeterred, my father took dancing lessons until he could impress her, and on their first date he literally swept her off her feet.
Their marriage was volatile and vibrant, filled with a strange blend of old world memories, Orthodox religion, and Saturday nights at the Copacabana. Miriam was courageous. She was fun. She was lively. She knew how to make angels in the snow. Mostly, she knew how to have a good time. Miriam was my stepmother.
My stepfather was a widowed doctor who was my own American dream. Like my mother, Albert was a born and bred New Yorker. He wore Brooks Brothers suits to work, and khakis and cordovan loafers on the weekend. He had gone to college at Washington and Lee University in Virginia where he was a member of the Jewish ZBT fraternity. He went to medical school, spent World War II on a hospital ship, trained at the Mayo Clinic, and instead of opening a private practice, worked as a medical director for a large insurance company. He read crime novels and drank two measured cocktails every night before dinner. He polished his own shoes.
Albert had long forgotten the prayers and traditions of his Orthodox childhood, running from religion as an unnecessary remnant of a forgotten past. And yet, one of Albert's earliest memories was going down to Palm Beach on vacation with his father where they'd walked into the lobby of the Breakers Hotel to find a sign at the front desk which read, "No Dogs or Jews Allowed."
I married less than two years after the death of her father
They went to Cuba instead, he recalled, where the pre-Communist grand hotels had no problem taking American dollars from Jewish guests. In my stepfather’s later years, his past flooded back in surprising ways, as a gold mezuzah appeared around his neck one day, a tribal connection perhaps, or, as he joked, a way of warding off the angel of death.
Growing up with a mother, father, stepmother and stepfather wasn’t always easy. There was jealousy. There was anger. There was even resentment and pain. But there was also love and support and encouragement and advice, not from two parents, but from four.
My stepfather and stepmother are gone now, but memories of their words and ways flood back as I consider my own role not as a stepchild, but as a stepmother. My childhood experiences inform my adult decisions as I try to guide my own three stepchildren, along with my daughter, through the often rough waters of adolescence and young adulthood.
I married for the second time when my daughter was fourteen, less than two years after the death of her father. My new husband had been recently divorced and had custody of his children, who were then twelve, fourteen, and nineteen. The fourteen-year-old, I learned before our first date, was also a girl, born, remarkably, in the same hospital on the very same day as my own daughter. Talk about separated at birth: our marriage made these two girls steptwins, born only two hours apart.
Blending our family, which also included two cats (mine) and an enormous dog (his) is challenging, but I always try to remember how I felt as a child growing up in somebody else’s house. I desperately wanted to feel I belonged, that I wasn’t a guest. It didn’t always work. I didn’t have my own room at my father’s house, or even a permanent bed. I slept on a fold-out cot in my stepsister’s room, next to her princess-like canopy bed, fancier than anything I’d ever seen, except in the movies. She had a closet full of expensive clothes my father paid for, while I wore dresses my mother bought on sale with the meager child support he sent her every month. Years later, as I take my daughter and stepdaughter shopping, I remember that Cinderella feeling of my childhood and try to make sure my stepdaughter has enough.
Strangely, for me, the real test of my position in my two families was how my stepparents disciplined me. I wanted to be scolded along with their children, to not be ignored or singled out as different. That has certainly informed my own parenting style, for which my stepchildren are not entirely grateful. The day I crossed the line and screamed at my stepson with words that shocked even me was not one of the high points of our blended family, but as we laugh about it now, we agree it taught everyone that, at the very least, I was emotionally authentic. When I apologized for my outburst, I hope it also demonstrated my humility.
The real test was how my step-parents disciplined me
Now my stepson is eighteen and comes to me for advice about everything from the style of his pants to his resume. I can honestly say I’m proud of how far we’ve come. Here’s what I learned along the way:
1) You can never replace a mother or father. You are a stepparent, which is sometimes better, sometimes worse, but always different. The key is never to position yourself as a rival to the natural parent, in memory or in fact. You have to earn a place in your stepchild’s heart, and in his or her life. This takes time, patience, and support from your spouse.
2) Being good is sometimes bad. It can be emotionally treacherous to be a better parent than the natural parent, and if you are, don’t brag about it or expect praise. On a simple level, this means if you make great chicken soup, don’t be surprised if your stepchildren tell you their mom’s is better… even if it isn’t. Find your praise elsewhere. Your friends or your spouse can tell you how wonderful you are; your stepkids may not want to admit it. Bottom line: don’t expect them to; it wasn’t their idea for you to marry their parent.
3) Discipline is always difficult. At first, it should be the territory of the natural parent. However, you can’t tiptoe around your own house forever. Eventually you are going to lose your temper. As I learned the hard way, try to be fair, and apologize when you are wrong. Contrary to popular myth, love does mean having to say you’re sorry, especially when you’re a stepparent.
4) Share the wealth. Figure out with your spouse how you will support his children and yours. Sometimes the courts will have a say in this, with dictated levels of child support. Or, a non-custodial parent may lavish expensive gifts on his or her children, leaving the other children in the family feeling left out. You will have trouble building a happy blended home if one child continuously receives more than another. A possible way to make this work is to put additional money into savings for the future, on the assumption that adult children will have a better time understanding the problem. Another alternative is to try at an early age to teach “the haves” to share with the “have nots.” Sometimes, though, honest communication is the only answer. Try to explain the discrepancies to your children, and help them to express and to process their feelings.
It wasn’t their idea for you to marry their parent
5) Love is never equal, but there is enough to go around. If you have kids of your own as well as stepchildren, you cannot love them in the same way. You must, however, find a way to demonstrate your love and make your step-children feel valued. I learned, for example, that while my own daughter was verbally demonstrative, my stepdaughter needed physical affection more than words, especially in the beginning. A hug went a long way to making her feel comfortable, much more than what to her was an easy, but hard-to-trust, “I love you.”
6) Positive reinforcement works. Despite my own need for discipline from step-parents, praise goes a long way. My youngest stepson is not the best student in the family, but we all know that he’s the one we’d want to be stranded with on a desert island. He is strong and does many chores around the house. Hearing me tell him how much I appreciate his hard work makes him beam.
7) Don’t try to create clones. Your stepchildren were raised by someone else. As you continue the process, don't try to mold them into little versions of yourself, or carbon copies of your own children. Help them be the best versions of themselves they can be. When I was growing up, there was no way I would ever look like my tall, lanky stepsister. My stepmother gently guided me to be a prettier version of me. It did wonders for my confidence.
8) Stick to your guns but don’t overstep your bounds. If you have specific rules, don't demand strict adherence from your stepchildren outside your home, especially if they are shuttling to and from another house with very different rules. The key is, you are entitled to respect and observance of your rules in your home.
9) Your stepchildren are part of your extended family now, too.That means including them in family celebrations, adding their names when you sign holiday cards, remembering to include them in family traditions. This can be as simple as making sure the youngest stepchild joins yours in reciting the four questions on Pesach, and as complex as making sure that grandparents remember your spouse’s children on their Hanukkah gift lists.
10) Choose joy. It has taken me many years to truly understand what my stepmother meant. What I have learned, first as a stepchild and now as a stepparent, is that while we cannot choose our families, we can choose our attitude. Being happy is sometimes a choice. It means appreciating what you have, rather than wishing for something else. Your stepparents can offer great gifts, as can your stepchildren, if you love them for who they are, rather than for whom you wish they could be.
This Pesach, I lit three yarzheit candles, one for my father, one for my stepfather and one for my stepmother, may they all rest in peace. The next morning in synagogue, as I said the Yizkor prayers for my father, I also asked G‑d to remember the souls of my stepfather and my stepmother, two of my greatest teachers. May their souls be bound in the Bond of Life together with the souls of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah; and together with the other righteous men and women in the Garden of Eden.