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The Secret To Blending A Family

May07

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I feel like this one needs to start out with a disclaimer. A really lengthy disclaimer is needed; a “I am not a doctor or a therapist or even particularly good with people” sort of disclaimer, perhaps. Your mileage may vary! Caveat emptor!

With that said, you may have noticed that there are a million or so books out there to tell you how to blend a family harmoniously. This is unsurprising; recent statistics reveal that 40% of married couples with children in this country are stepfamilies. Math isn’t my strong suit, but given the rate of divorce in the U.S., and the number of single-parent households, I suspect that households in which parents are married and raising only the children they made or adopted together are now actually in the minority, or close to it. Chances are excellent that if you’re a parent, you are also a stepparent, or have a stepparent, or your spouse is a stepparent. And I don’t know if you know this, but stepparenting can be really hard and even more thankless than “regular” parenting.

When I started writing here at Alphamom, I asked folks to let me know what they wanted to hear about, and the immediate answer from multiple readers was “please talk about blending a family.” My out-loud response was, “Sure, I’d be happy to!” My only-inside-my-head response was, “Oh dear God, why does anyone think I have any idea how to do that?”

History of our blended family

I got divorced from my children’s father when they were 3 and 5. I read all of the books about co-parenting and dating and how to Do Things Right, and in general I think there are Rules Everyone Has Heard which make a lot of sense: 1) Never badmouth your kids’ parent. 2) Handle differences in discipline with a simple, “Well, in this house…” and without commentary on why the other way is wrong. 3) Dating with young kids is a special kind of torture designed to make you feel as unappealing and baggage-ridden as possible, but of course you don’t go introducing the kids and your paramour unless you think he’s going to be sticking around. It all made sense.

Four years after the divorce, I remarried. My now-husband is an old friend from college, which was very lucky, because “meeting new people” post-divorce really made me want to join a convent, plus there was no awkward, “Hey, kids, this is… ummm… my friend…” because they already knew him. Phew! Eventually, of course, we told them we were dating, and then he asked them for their permission before he proposed to me. We had a small wedding with the kids standing up with us as Girl Of Honor and Best Boy. My husband had never been married before, nor did he have kids, so all of the “blending” was between him and my children. I assumed this would go pretty smoothly because, hey, it’s not like we’re integrating kids on both sides. Plus, you know, I had read books.

Haaaaaaaahahahahaha. Go ahead, you can laugh at me. I deserve it.

Our situation was complicated by the fact that the kids and I moved 1,000 miles away from their dad shortly after the wedding, due to my husband’s job. This was (and still is) hard on their biological father, and although it’s not ideal and there’s a lot I could say about that aspect of our story, let’s just agree that that part is not entirely mine to tell. Fortunately the kids’ dad has the means and the motivation to stay involved in their lives despite the distance.

What to expect when you blend a family

But back to our new, blended family. We read! We got advice from people! Some of the advice was universal: Let the parent take the lead, with stepparent playing a supportive but non-disciplinary role, at first. Go slow. Don’t expect instant harmony, and don’t put pressure on the kids to accept the new status quo right away. True to their individual forms, my son launched himself onto my new husband with a bear-hug tackle to proclaim his love approximately 3.4 seconds after we were pronounced married, whereas my daughter—older, less demonstrative, and more guarded in general—waited a few months before the first time she fixed my husband with a defiant glare and a “you’re not the boss of me.”

My kids had to deal with a lot of change. They moved, came to a very different climate (both weather-wise and people-wise), switched schools, and suddenly had a second parent in-house. And my poor husband gave up the role of lifelong bachelor to embrace his new insta-family, which happened to include two very chatty, high-needs kids and their neurotic mother. Lucky him!

We did what the books suggested. He hung back for the first year, maybe even longer. I gave my daughter a copy of Help! A Girl’s Guide To Divorce And Stepfamilies and encouraged her to come talk to me about whatever she needed. We adults secretly celebrated it as a breakthrough on the day she brought the book down to the kitchen table to mock it during dinner.

“This says that I should say things like, ‘Doug, this is making me uncomfortable’ if my stepfather is trying too hard to be chummy and it’s bothering me.” She looked up from the book to point at my husband. “Doug,” she said, “this is making me uncomfortable.”

He was just sitting there. Also? His name isn’t Doug. We all cracked up.

She then showed us a sidebar illustration of a cartoon girl with her hands out in a “stop” gesture where the perspective was such that the hands were the largest part of the drawing. I don’t remember the specific text, but for several years the universal diffuser of tension during family discussions became, “Stop! I have really big hands!”

Do I know how to successfully blend a family, six years into it?

I have no idea. We’re all still here, still married, and no one has gone to jail. My husband can (and does) discipline the kids, now, and I’m pretty sure no one has ever screeched, “You’re not my father! You don’t get to tell me what to do!” There’s a lot of love in our house. There has also been a lot of baptism by fire and more than our fair share of crisis and heartbreak and illness, I think, plus both kids are now teens (which is its own kind of crisis and heartbreak and illness).

Secrets to a Blended Family by Mir Kamin at Alphamom.com

The secret to blending families is…

…there is no secret. It’s scary and awesome and ragged and perfect and always changing. Love and laugh hard. Try again tomorrow. But that’s not blended family advice, that’s life advice, right? The one thing my husband started doing very early on which I do recommend to others is that he will tell a mouthy child, “Don’t talk to my wife that way, that’s disrespectful and it’s not okay in this house.” They’re good kids, but they’d never heard someone stand up for their mom like that, before. It makes an impression (in the best possible way). We do things as a family. My husband and I do things as a couple (not as often as I wish we could), too, because I think it’s important for us and also important for the kids to see. And he refers to them as “our kids” but always maintains a respectful boundary, reminding them that he would never try to (or want to) replace their dad.

It’s a work in progress, always. Isn’t every family?

About the author

Mir Kamin

http://wouldashoulda.com/
Mir Kamin began writing about her life online nearly a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she's become one of those people who talks to her dog in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she's continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she's bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.


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21 Responses to “The Secret To Blending A Family”

  1. Lucinda May 07 at 3:32 pm Reply Reply

    I love that Otto stands up for you that way.  My husband does the same.  Even though he is their father (we’re that minority you speak of), they are still surprised to hear him defend their mother.  It really makes a difference and teaches them both that we all deserve respect.  Great post, as always.

  2. Ladybug Crossing May 07 at 5:32 pm Reply Reply

    We firmly believe that’ll have a successful family, you  need to be involved in your kids lives. You need to participate in their activities, go on field trips, and suffer through the concerts among other things. Blended family or not, those families who communicate well seem to fare better. Dinner is most important – if we can find a way to have dinner together, we do. (During marching band season, it gets expensive, but the family dynamic is worth every penny.) We discuss the day, their school work,their friends, and more. We connect. It matters.

    • Mir Kamin
      Mir Kamin May 07 at 5:36 pm Reply Reply

      I couldn’t agree more! I guard our family dinners together with a vengeance. Blended family or no, prioritizing family time is what keeps the family functional. :)

  3. Alice May 07 at 6:29 pm Reply Reply

    As a stepchild, I also want to echo how powerful it is to hear your stepparent stand up for your bio-parent. I still get teary when I remember how well my stepdad comforted my mom during a particularly bad moment of anxiety. I was a surly, cynical teenager, but seeing someone love my mom that tenderly in a pretty tough situation just sold me on him. It’s been over 15 years since that day, and he’s lived up to that moment ever since.

  4. kapgaf May 07 at 7:40 pm Reply Reply

    Definitely a work in progress – and I feel for Otto (I’m stepmother to 5 children from two different families) and congratulate him on his parenting. I feel that it is the structure of society that can make step-parenting particularly complicated. No, a step-parent does not replace the biological parent but is nevertheless a parent with all the responsibilities that parenting implies (and, with time, all the rewards). Love is better than elastic!

  5. Jackie May 07 at 7:53 pm Reply Reply

    Great blog! There is no secret – and every family is different. Everyone has to be respectful of the unique-ness of everyone else and be aware that everyone has different needs and priorities – not an easy task! The ability to apologize and negotiate also helps, of course ; )

  6. Heather May 08 at 1:24 am Reply Reply

    I love that he stands up for you :) 

    • Isabel Kallman
      Isabel May 08 at 2:35 am Reply Reply

      me, too.

    • Mir Kamin
      Mir Kamin May 08 at 8:14 am Reply Reply

      Yeah, I think it’s good for the kids to hear, but it’s also been really nice for me. Let’s just say that’s a dynamic that wasn’t present in my first marriage.

  7. Mona May 08 at 6:57 am Reply Reply

    Great post! I grew up in a blended family- my mom had my brother and sister from her first marriage, married my dad and I’m the kiddo from the “blending”… Every family IS unique and as an adult, I know realize there were probably more complications than I knew of as a child, because our blended family never felt weird for me. My brother and sister’s bio- father was not very involved in their lives of his own choice, our dad raised them, paid for their braces, college, etc. They have always called him “dad”. While every situation is different, we had a couple of rules that we did not dare violate- in particular, there were no labels in our family. No “step’s” or “half’s” were allowed- just mom, dad, brother, sister. I’m sure that doesn’t work for all situations, but it was certainly a positive for our family, and my perspective growing up!

    • Mir Kamin
      Mir Kamin May 08 at 8:14 am Reply Reply

      I love happy blending stories! Thanks for sharing this, Mona!

  8. Debr May 08 at 9:55 am Reply Reply

    I started reading Woulda Shoulda when I was smack in the middle of ‘how do I date as a divorced Mom.’ That was 6 years ago. I loved the idea of the happy ending, remarriage, where my son would be raised in a household with 2 parents. I’m now 10 days from remarrying. I have been blessed to find the true love of my life and get to be step Mother to his two wonderful children, who my son already calls his brother and sister. Right now, we’re all basking in the love…but know there will be challenges along the way. Your blog has provided so many great insights over the years, so I wanted to share my good news, and thank you for all you’ve put out there.

    • Mir Kamin
      Mir Kamin May 08 at 10:36 am Reply Reply

      Wow, congratulations!! Challenges aren’t bad, y’know. We call them growth opportunities (sometimes through gritted teeth). Sounds like you’re headed for lots of love and lots of growth. :)

  9. js May 08 at 1:07 pm Reply Reply

    Well, obviously I’m here because I love your blog. But this is a post I’ve been wanting to hear from you for a long time. I was hoping you has the magic! I have a pre-teen girl baby my husband has been step-parent to since she was 5. It very recently hit me that I was so busy being her Mom, I never really considered how difficult it must be for him sometimes. That sounds naïve, but they just took to each other right away and I breathed a sigh of relief and life marched on. Her relationship with her Dad has recently become very difficult (it was always hard but she has BIG feelings now and it’s gotten that much harder) and I am very worried for her. I push my husband to have a strong bond with her, sometimes too hard, but he has pointed out that though he loves her, he missed some of those hard baby times that can form or strengthen a bond. We have discussed having a child of our own. Not because he feels he is missing something but because it’s an experience we want to share together. Again, all I can think about sometimes is how it will affect my daughter. Now, it may be harder than we anticipated to get pregnant. It’s so hard, all the time, and my husband is great. My daughter is great. We love our family time. But I hate change and it feels like the ground is always shifting on me. This is one of those times it helps to hear I’m not the only one. So, thanks!

    • Mir Kamin
      Mir Kamin May 08 at 1:43 pm Reply Reply

      You are definitely not the only one, and believe you me, I wish there was one right answer to make it easier for all of us. ;) 

  10. Valerie May 09 at 11:54 am Reply Reply

    You’re pretty. 

  11. Rachel May 10 at 11:42 am Reply Reply

    Thank you for this, Mir. It does help to read about you & Otto making it work (and that the Girl’s Guide book is probably not a good purchase for my daughters). I’m getting married next spring, have 3 daughters (older two are the ages of your two), and my fiance never married or had children.

    I was raised with a stepfather and stepmother, so I have some ideas of what works and what doesn’t, and we’ve been going with those since he started spending time with my family, but I know it isn’t going to be easy – and we aren’t moving outside our town.

  12. Karen Jun 22 at 6:26 pm Reply Reply

    Thank you for posting not only the statistics, but the impact divorce has on a family. It is not easy having a blended family, as I was raised in one and unfortunately for me, it was uneventful and painful. It takes work on everyone’s part and sometimes, more often than others it is a thankless job. I have a friend who has been married for over thirty years and recently she began receiving a Thank you from her stepchildren. I have seen the hell those stepchildren and even adult family members have put her through. But I must say, she has always put her emotions aside and continues to give her stepchildren and their children her unconditional love. There are so many stepmothers in our society that give with all their heart. I want to say thank you for making a difference in those children’s lives.

  13. LuckySevenFamily Mom Jun 29 at 11:06 pm Reply Reply

    “Try again tomorrow” sums it all up! For each blended family, some will find certain things work, others will find the same idea may not work so well… It’s great to see acknowledgement that there is no “right” answer and blending a family takes a lot of love, work and commitment.  Thanks for a great article!

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  1. Still bumbling through it | Woulda Coulda Shoulda - May 07

    [...] this means that I have a new post up over at Alphamom, all about the secret to successfully blending a family. My advice is worth exactly what it costs [...]

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