My parents, ages 98 and 92, lived independently until 2 years ago. It wasn’t until my father’s stroke in 2010 that there was ever a concern about my parents. My parents married 44 years ago after the death of previous spouses and combined into a configured family of 7 children --- 4 children from my stepmother and 3 children from my father.
The seven children, now grown up, have spent their adult lives involved in the lives of their children and grandchildren, celebrating life markers as a combined family as well as being present to the larger family when there are deaths and divorces. All of us children have experienced our parents as contributing to our lives rather than requiring assistance.
Over the 44 years, there has been a natural separation between the two family units. The natural siblings are more inclined to be close to each other rather than their stepsiblings. Occasions that organized around the parents such as seminal birthdays or wedding celebrations drew both groups of siblings into broader family occasions. Relationships between the stepsiblings range from cordial to genuine connection and active routine relationships.
Each of the siblings lives in a different city from coast to coast – Phoenix, DC, Oklahoma City, Indianapolis, LA, Boca Raton, Atlanta. No sibling lives where the parents live. The closest sibling to the parents is 3 ½ hours away.
Our parents made plans for their long-term care. My father is the former President of the Board of Directors of the church-related graduated care community they selected to live in during the end of their lives. Their intention was to be as independent as they had been for their entire lives. They chose to live in a community of friends, professional colleagues, and extended family members – nieces, nephews, cousins and importantly, my stepmother’s only brother and wife.
Over the 44 years of my parents’ marriage, the family as a whole maintained physical distance with intermittent contact. Primary contact was between the parents and each sibling group. Over the past 20 years, as siblings became parents and grandparents themselves, there was less association with the larger combined family unit and between stepsiblings.
That changed with the strokes. My father had the first stroke, then my stepmother. Children naturally became more involved with the wellbeing of their biological parent and then with the stability of the unit. It was the stroke of my stepmother that tipped the balance of their ability to manage on their own as a couple.
This is the first time that the entire family had to cooperate around the reality-based needs of the parents around activities of daily living like cooking and cleaning. Skills emerged. My stepsister, who is a nurse, was the first to initiate an email to all the siblings with concerns about the demands of living and their ability to live without support. My oldest stepsister, who was to visit the parents shortly, spearheaded a plan (along with my nurse stepsister and myself) to talk with our parents about potential questions and options. It was important to me to give my parents respect and the agency to make changes rather than demand it of them. My oldest stepsister became the communicator and facilitator of the conversation with the parents. After that initial conversation, individual children were involved in conversations with each of the parents about alternatives. The nurse stepsister found resources. My stepbrother managed the contract and payment from each family member for services. My pragmatic businessman brother spoke with Dad about evaluating financial options for the move to assisted living or the next level of care.
These exchanges included sibling discussion emails. There was also an online meeting with the siblings which also included the parents who were in stepmother’s skilled care nursing room. All participated with their skills and ideas. Each sibling has taken on their part.
This time in the lives of our parents has required more time and energy from each of the siblings. An unforeseen benefit is that it has also given me a chance to work with my siblings and stepsiblings rather than simply visit. I have had a chance to see the gifts of my family members, to cooperate with them and to work together towards a common goal. There was no master plan, but the way each of us was, promoted a high level of cooperation.
This report of what unfolded does not tell you what I have thought and done to lower my reactivity and work on myself over these 44 years! It is a reality that these are two family units where each have had a common experience, the early death of a parent. There have also been efforts over time to “blend” the families in a way that the young adult children were not so inclined to do. Partially, it may be the differences between losing a father or losing a mother. The “natural” organization of a husband and wife includes the wife taking care of the home/her children and husband orienting to the wife. In this case, the children of the husband can experience being on the outside.
In my family, my father and stepmother each took primary responsibility for relating to their own biological children. The outcome of this is present now as the final dissemination of items in their home takes place. Both parents worked with their children to clarify transmission of the family belongings to their children. However, neither family knows what is whose for the other family! So it is optimal that a member from both families are physically present so misunderstandings are avoided.
I have known from the beginning of my father’s marriage to my stepmother, that making the effort to have significant personal relationships with my stepmother and stepsiblings would make a difference to my life and to future generations. There is no question that my biological brothers are more important to me, however, I also know that my relationship with my stepsiblings is not only essential in my life but is genuinely enjoyable.
This time period of cooperation for our parent’s benefit is satisfying and productive. AND it is different than it has been over all these 44 years as a family. Working together has evolved naturally. It has been fortunate that both parents are still living and giving the stepsiblings a chance to work together for both parents. Changes will occur when one and then both of the parents die. What will be the impact on the relationships between the stepsiblings?
Reflections on how family systems theory helped me.
Developing one-to-one relationships assists getting beyond automatic emotional reactions
Seeing the system (biological and step family) as a whole and taking responsibility for the part I play in it matters
Seeing that distance promotes polarities and animosity
Having knowledge of my stepmother’s family and history helps me to appreciate my stepfamily
Having genuine contact with stepfamily promotes in all of us the ability to cooperate when needed
This story is continuing, and in the next blog, I will focus on how relating to my aging parents is challenging me to think about my own aging process and death and the role of the larger family.