The Never-Ending Blended Family Dance
I don’t talk about the whole family-blending thing all that much. For one thing, I feel like I won’t really be qualified to comment on how my husband and I did until the kids are adults. For another, it’s a pretty fraught subject under the best of circumstances. I am suspicious of anyone who claims to know best practices or the secret when it comes to integrating households after a split and a new marriage and—most likely—a peanut gallery of former in-laws who feel their team has been wronged.
What I tend to say is this: My husband and I have been friends since college. My kids knew him (not well, but they’d seen him over the years) long before I divorced their dad, and well ahead of our romantic involvement and eventual marriage. And my husband is patient and kind, for real. While it’s been a bumpy road, watching the man I love help parent these children while walking the precarious line between “considering them his own” and “not taking their dad’s place” makes me fall in love with him all over again on a daily basis.
That’s what I say, and it’s true.
What I haven’t said before: A few months before we got married, I brought the kids down to Georgia to look at schools and houses and to check out the town we’d be moving to that summer. We spent a week, and it was perhaps the first “this is all really real” step in our new lives. My son was 7 and my daughter almost 9. My then-fiancé had spent time with them prior to this trip, of course, but this was a week of having them in his house, and a preview of what his new life would look like. The week was filled with fun and firsts and promise, and shortly before we left, just when I’d started to exhale, my daughter went outside one day, picked up an acorn with a pointy end, and essentially keyed her stepdad-to-be’s new car with it. She completely ruined the paint on one rear panel.
That happened seven and a half years ago. It’s funny now (“No, it’s not!” says my husband, with a smirk), but at the time, oh, it felt like the end of the world. She was unrepentant, and couldn’t explain why she’d done it. My husband is a bona fide Car Guy and so the damage itself was very upsetting, but also the feeling that this act was a giant “screw you” from his soon-to-be stepdaughter was disturbing, to say the least. A small, irrational, and very loud part of my brain was certain he would call off the marriage. Who in their right mind would not see this as a flashing warning sign?
Discussions were had. Tears were shed. The car was repainted and the wedding happened a few months later, as planned. My daughter continued to run hot and cold with my husband; in contrast, my son flung his arms around him the first night in our new house and declared, “I love you!” before going to bed. Our family was the perfect illustration of different kids coping in different ways.
A few years ago, my husband started taking my son on a “guys’ trip” each summer. Nothing big or long or fancy, mind you, just a few days, just the two of them. The intersection of their individual interests can be hard to find, but they manage it. My son has always been open to these experiences, and he is less likely to fall prey to all of the supposed reasons why he “shouldn’t” enjoy time with his stepdad.
My daughter commented, at some point, about how maybe she wanted to go on a trip like that. My husband was quick to respond that he’d love to take her somewhere, she just needed to say the word. She backpedaled, a dozen reasons why it didn’t matter to her after all driving her, most of which she wouldn’t even be able to articulate if she tried.
For seven and a half years, I’ve watched a push-pull dynamic play out between them. My husband’s near-limitless patience absorbs and withstands my daughter’s whiplash-inducing vacillation between camaraderie and disdain. Their relationship is complicated, unfairly skewed by history and other relationships which, in a perfect world, wouldn’t impinge upon them. He loves her unconditionally, just as a father should. She loves him back, even when she thinks she doesn’t, and even when she worries that she shouldn’t.
I don’t know how we got here. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, and I don’t kid myself that smooth sailing is in our future, either. Life is messy. I never thought I’d look back on the Car Incident and giggle, but I can, now, because I see it as testament to the grace with which my husband walked into a minefield, looked around, and said, “Okay, let’s do this.” I love this man because of everything he is to me, but I love him even more because of who he’s managed to be to my kids.
Today my husband and my daughter are packing up for their road trip. We bought snacks and they’ve spent hours planning out their itinerary and both of them are very busy acting like this isn’t a big deal at all. I’m playing along.
It’s true that love is patient, love is kind. And sometimes it’s true that love buys sour gummy worms and Jolly Ranchers and loads up the car and heads off to the next adventure, too.