by Bonnie Cushing
Friday, September 16 is Step Family Day! Although not a true national holiday, Step Family Day was founded by Christy Borgeld of Grand Rapids, Mich., to recognize and show appreciation for the importance and value of step-parents and their extended relations. It was first celebrated in 1997.
According to Stepfamily Foundation statistics, approximately half of all Americans are currently involved in some form of step relationship. Despite their substantial presence in our society, however, the negative myths of the wicked stepmother and the happily-ever-after Brady Bunch (as well as those commentators, politicians and religious leaders who continue to label any family that deviates from the “nuclear” model as abnormal) persist in plaguing real life stepfamilies struggling to integrate family members in an authentically loving way. Celebrating Step Family Day is one way to challenge society’s stigmas, while simultaneously promoting the health and well-being of families and strengthening the connections between them.
In her book Living Jewish Life Cycle: How to Create Meaningful Jewish Rites of Passage at Every Stage of Life, Rabbi Goldie Milgram outlines for everyone (regardless of their religious or nonreligious affiliation) what ceremonies and rituals can accomplish:
Providing support for desired or necessary change
Identifying the losses inherent in transitions
Acting as ‘speed bumps’ that invite reflection and integration
Affirming identity and location within the community
Promoting healing, balance and nurturance
Helping to connect with the mystery of existence
These are all tasks that stepfamilies face at some point in their lifecycle—and ceremonies offer an unparalleled opportunity to move a family along the continuum toward robust health.
What constitutes an effective celebration for stepfamilies to engage in together, whether it be on September 16th or any other day of their choosing?
(1) Open planning sessions involving as many family members as possible is optimal. This, in and of itself, will help build closer relationships and understanding among family members and provide a space and time for everyone to feel that their voice is welcome and needed in the family. For parents and step-parents, it is important to present your ideas as possibilities and not a statement of what you want or expect the children to do, as that can undermine the sense of cohesion and inclusion you are trying to create. I also recommend a feedback session after a celebration occurs to help refine traditions and continue empowering family members to actively participate.
(2) Taking into account the developmental stages that the children (and adults!) are in at any given time is critical as well (i.e. with teenagers, resistance and the need to be with peers are both predictable and appropriate).
(3) Building common ground by drawing upon both the old traditions of the families before re-configuration and new ones created by the family in its present incarnation can communicate that what came before is as important as what exists now. This affirms and softens the inevitable losses sustained by different family members and, at the same time, honors what is unique about your new stepfamily constellation.
(4) Being patient and staying with the process is essential. Ron Deal, in his volume The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family, uses the metaphor of cooking to emphasize the importance of taking the time necessary for successful integration. All the quicker cooking methods leave a lot to be desired. What Ron suggests is the Crock-Pot method—using time and a slow and evenly applied heat to allow each family member to cook at their own speed. Take heed—people are not fast food!
So, what forms can a Stepfamily ritual or celebration take?
Although I urge you to let yourselves collectively dream up your own kinds of ceremonial gatherings, here are a few examples of ways you can mark Step Family Day for your family:
(A) Organize a picnic at a local park. This can include favorite foods, games, and music of each family member. Including one or more other step families provides the extra benefit of combating the sense of being different than “real” families and counters the resulting sense of isolation.
(B) Have a “Movie Night” at home with special take-out food or a meal prepared together.
© Share an adventure such as parasailing, treasure-hunting, canoeing, or camping out together
(D) Create a communal piece of art—a collage, clay sculpture, finger painting, etc.—or stage a family talent show, with or without an audience!
(E) Create a Family Ceremony, such as one where each family member writes something meaningful about every other member of the family and places it in a box for each person. The notes can then be read aloud, along with a simple candle-lighting.
The point is to use your collective imagination, and remember—the sky’s the limit. This is your family, and you all deserve loving recognition!!
Bonnie Berman Cushing is a family systems therapist with 20 years experience, as well as a celebrant who has collaborated and performed weddings, civil unions, memorials, baby welcomings, public art dedications and other assorted ceremonies. She is proud to have been among the first eight North American celebrants to be certified by the Celebrant Institute and Foundation. In addition to being a licensed clinical social worker specializing in family systems therapy, she is a devoted organizer and educator for racial justice. Bonnie is married to David and is mother to two amazing people, Molly and Jerry. firstname.lastname@example.org
Ron Huxley’s Remarks: As a step parent I used to joke that I suddenly realized why they called us “blended” families. It was because it felt like we were in a blender on high speed. Blended families (not my favorite term for it) or step parent families (also not a favorite term) deserve to be honored and celebrated.
Although not an “official” holiday, it is still a time to say thank you to a step mom or dad for all the hard work they put into loving their own and others children.