What’s in a Name? Taking the Step Out of Families

 Silhouette of Family

When my brother came to visit it was always one of the happiest times of my childhood. I knew that week would involve the beach, sun, and music as if, I too, was on vacation. I adored my brother and still do. The fact that he is my half-brother never crossed my mind. The fact that my mom was a stepmom also never crossed my mind. He is my brother, she is our mom, and that’s just the way it was. I actually never even thought about these complex familial relationships until I was challenged on my own role as a stepmom. 

My brother, Ryan, is more than 10 years older than me and we never had the chance to live together. Since he lives in another state I was only able to see him about once a year, but we made the most of it. I only ever remember Ryan calling my mom “mom” and my mom referring to him as her son. Even my maternal grandparents were his grandparents. I always knew he was technically my half-brother but he was a full-fledged member of our family just as I was so the “half” didn’t mean much to me. Fast forward 30 or so years and it still doesn’t mean much to me. This is probably why when I became a stepparent the “step” meant nothing to me and my stepsons just became my sons. Being a parent to my stepsons was not a choice. I simply modeled the behavior I had been taught my whole life. I believed that if I couldn’t love and be a parent to my spouse’s children than we had no business getting married.  

Looking back I realize I was naive and ignorant to the delicacies of being a stepparent because I went in with guns blazing. By the time we said, “I do” I was helping my stepsons with homework, talking to their teachers, involved in carpool, going to their baseball games and award ceremonies, and taking them on family vacations. As our newly formed family became closer, I silently judged other stepfamilies that didn’t have what we had. I didn’t understand how a stepparent would distance themselves from their stepchild or why a stepchild would reject a stepparent. “What were they doing wrong?” I thought. As I innocently tried to coach my stepmom friends who I thought were being led astray, they responded along the lines of, “My situation is different than yours” or “You’re really lucky it worked.” But I still didn’t get it. I didn’t get that my belief of how a stepfamily should function wasn’t the only belief and it also wasn’t the only way a stepfamily could work.  

Each stepfamily is unique in that we have different challenges, struggles, and strengths.

It wasn’t until I started doing therapy with stepparents and stepchildren that I realized the error of my ways. As a psychologist, I must check my own baggage at the door and figure out a way to support my client and their needs. Not every stepparent wants to be a parent, and not every stepchild wants a parent. Now as I’m writing this I’m telling myself, “Duh,” but this was a lightbulb moment for me at the time.  

The complexities that stepfamilies face is comparable to putting together a million piece puzzle all of the same color with a few pieces missing. Each stepfamily is unique in that we have different challenges, struggles, and strengths. We each have to navigate our own path based on how we were raised, our parental and family belief system, and our current relationships and circumstances. Although it’s helpful to learn from one another, there is no one way to follow this journey.

My journey has been paved with doubt, insecurity, and volatility but also with laughter, love, and happiness. I force the good to carry me through the bad. Although I’ve made many mistakes as a stepparent, they were all made out of naivety about the stepfamily dynamic and the love for my husband and sons. I call them my sons, right or wrong and regardless of what drama that may cause, because they are my family- not my partial “step” family but my full-fledged family. There’s just no other word to describe the relationship I have with them other than “son.” 


Traci MorenoDr. Traci Moreno is a licensed psychologist working as the Director of Mental Health Services for a non-profit community clinic. She has a Bachelor’s Degree from Florida State University and a doctoral degree from Alliant International University in Los Angeles, CA with a specialization in clinical and forensic psychology. Dr. Moreno’s background includes providing individual and group therapy, administering psychological testing and evaluations, conducting forensic evaluations for the courts and testifying as an expert witness.