I get a lot of Brady Bunch jokes when I tell people that my husband and I have a ‘blended’ family of six kids. Four daughters of mine from my first marriage and a son and a daughter from my husband’s previous marriage meant that I had three kids in high school for six consecutive years. We married over thirteen years ago, bringing together our children with stars in our eyes and high hopes in our hearts. We wanted to rock step family life.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. Was it easy? Absolutely not. But if I had been aware of a few salient facts, I think the process might have been easier. Like marriage, having step-children (to whom I no longer attach the word ‘step’) is fraught with high expectations better left by the wayside. Once I figured out some basic boundaries, it became much easier to navigate. Hopefully, someone else will benefit from what were hard-won lessons for me.
- Bonding takes years. And years. And years. When I read in a book on step-parenting that it takes an average of seven years to be fully accepted by one’s step-children, I didn’t believe it. I thought I could do better. And I did, sort of. My son took to me quickly, but my poor daughter (step) had to compete with my four natural daughters. It was much more difficult to reach out to her, particularly when she had a perfectly good mother of her own.
The truth of the matter is that for all six of our kids, our marriage represented both good and bad truths. Divorce is rarely celebrated by the kids. They are often still grieving when a parent remarries. Some grieve for decades.
For others, a new parent may be great, but scars from their biological parent get in the way. All of my kids were thrilled about my divorce from their narcissistic father. No, really. They still thank me to this day. However, years with an abusive father made it difficult for them to bond with my husband. They didn’t know how. They love him now and are so thankful that he took over the care and provision of their lives, bringing them out of Kentucky to California. But it took lots of time, and they needed to believe I was happy before they could allow themselves to trust him.
If you are bringing together children from multiple measures, throw out your timetables and expectations. Love them with open hands, allowing them to dictate the closeness or lack thereof in your relationship. If you weigh down your relationships with your new kids with expectations, then don’t expect them to take wing and fly.
- You are not their parent with all the rights involved. The mistake I see couples make over and over is to become a solid parenting unit. This is crucial if all the kids are your natural ones. After all, they will play you. But the rights of disciplining a child come after bonding. If you expect the step-parent to play the heavy, or they take on the role themselves, you make bonding impossible. The only time this may be different is with very young children. We had one child and five adolescents. Big difference.
But, you say, parents have to have a united front. First of all, you will not agree with your new mate’s parenting strategies all the time. My husband’s methods and mine were very different. I am less hands-on than he is. My daughters are all fiercely independent. His children were used to a more involved style. He thought I was too easy; I thought he was a tad overbearing. What helped was redefining the rules of engagement. Firstly, the relationship between parent and child superseded our right to discipline. While we had basic rules for the governance of the household (good boundaries), when these were crossed, it was exclusively the biological parent who enforced them with their children. This really helped our relationships with each other’s kids. Do this until it doesn’t matter to the kids who disciplines them. Expect it to matter for quite a while.
Secondly, we supported each other in our respective parenting journeys. We outlawed criticizing each other, and instead confided our hopes, dreams, and difficulties. We could make occasional suggestions, but for the most part, we ran two separate families until such time as that became obsolete. The kids thrived under this and eventually moved towards one family unit much more seamlessly. Now his and hers are genuinely ours.
- Family cultures vary widely. My first experience with my 13-year-old son that threw me was when I attempted to give him a pack of vitamins. He thought they were funny and hid each of the vitamins separately in bizarre but noticeable places around the house. I was appalled. After all, these were really expensive vitamins and I took them quite seriously.
I laugh about it now, but it was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the different ways my husband and I did life. We did big family meals; they did tv dinners. We did lots of together time; they did lots of space.
Don’t erase the special things your spouse has with their children in favor of a new all-inclusive family tradition. By all means, create new traditions, but allowing all the kids to have their familiar rituals, at least in part, will go a long way in helping them adjust to what is a confusing and often painful new reality.
I wish that the suggestions I just gave you could be more specific. But what we like to pretend about family and kids is that there are a right way and a wrong way to have a family. We grow up in family cultures with unspoken rules that could fill whole volumes. It is really easy to get upset when our new kids and our new spouse don’t understand what we take for granted.
Now that our children are grown, they see our family as a place of real security. They love and support each other, though some are closer than others. My most important mantra became ‘It’s OK if things aren’t OK.” As a step-parent, you have a lot to prove, to yourself, to your new kids, and to your spouse. After all, the fear dogging every second marriage is a second failure, a second divorce.
I am grateful to God for allowing me a second chance to make a regular family life. It took everything I had in me to make it work. I believe my husband feels the same way. The irony is that by trying to make things perfect, I made them much harder. When I took my hands off and let everyone be who they were, relationships grew naturally. If you are new to the step-family biz, take heart. It gets better if you let things grow naturally.
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