As a child, I dreamed of a gorgeous wedding and a lovely home and kids. Obviously, it was nowhere in my plans to have a broken marriage and split custody. Even though I grew up with parents who had a loveless union and stayed together for the sake of the kids, I knew that one day I would have a different marriage. If you ever thought an unhappy marriage is worth committing to for your children’s sake, remember that they know what’s going on, and you’re teaching them to settle.
To learn how to deal with blended families it’s important to first be clear on what a blended family is.
What is a blended family?
A quick definition of a blended family would be a couple that has two or more children, with at least one being the natural or adopted child of both partners and at least one the step-child of the other partner.
In a step-family, a couple has one or more children, at least one of whom is the step-child of one of the partners, and none of whom is the natural or adopted child of both.
A blended family consists of a step-parent, step-sibling, or half-sibling.
According to Pew Research Center, 16% of children today live in a blended family. However, I don’t recommend divorce. Splitting up is painful, like a wound that never heals, but staying together can harm the kids. They feel the stress, hear the fighting, and learn to cover their emotions instead of openly dealing with a tough situation.
My blended family experience
The remarriages of 6 in 10 women create blended families. Though I am twice divorced and thrice-married, I was right when I was a kid dreaming of marriage. My marriages were different from that of my parents, who never even sat on the same couch.
I’m still on friendly terms with both of my exes. And, my sons from my first marriage speak to either or both parents at the same time. So, while I didn’t stay married, a divorce with respect is better than a home full of regret and simmering anger.
When I married for the third time, I gained three sons, bringing the “son sum total” to five shared dudes. My husband, Todd, and I have known each other for decades through work in the theater and entertainment events in the same area. We had both divorced at the same time, and it was a bonus that we already knew each other’s sons when we started dating.
I didn’t set out to have a blended family. I feared a lot going into the union because it affected so many people around us. All the boys, of course, but then there are the other parents, and their parents, and holiday sharing for reconstituted families. It can be overwhelming.
A step-family isn’t as uncommon now as when I was growing up. I began working at a law office in my twenties, and I recall one client’s case being so big that the papers filled two banker boxes. Every call and every letter had to be documented.
Here is the example that horrified me then and stayed with me thirty years later: the husband called to tell his lawyer to call his ex-wife’s lawyer to notify her that she forgot to drop off snow boots for their child at school. That is a message that went through two lawyers and cost about $200 back then.
Benefits of a blended family
The benefits of a blended family must be harvested and tended to like a new garden you share with a neighbor.
When we celebrate all the new holidays and make our own reasons to celebrate, it becomes personal to the newly added kids and parents, too.
Time goes by so very swiftly. There’s no reason to put up emotional walls. Take time to learn what is important to each child, let them be heard, and show them what matters to you as the parents.
Make it fun for everyone by making each week a highlight of a new topic for every member of the household.
The benefit is laughter, learning, and simple celebrations which all create loving memories.
Blended family issues
One of the issues with the newly joined families can be space. Ensure that each person has a place in the home for quiet time, even if it’s one spot and you take turns.
There must be rules to follow, such as the length of showers so everyone gets bathroom time. This can be done with a timer, which leaves little room for arguments.
Also, parents will need to divide time equally among the kids and have their own time together, too.
Mom and dad, make a pact and don’t bring the topic of kids into the bedroom. Make your bedroom a space for love and rest only. Set a time each night to meet on the deck or somewhere private to discuss joys and concerns from the day while checking the calendar for upcoming tasks. Or, if there are disagreements in the household, hash them out before going to bed.
How to deal with blended families
Rules are so booooring! But here is a place where rules and guidelines will keep your home running smoothly. A successful home doesn’t happen by chance. Check out some tips on making your family a success story.
1. Keep communication business-like
How do you feel about conflict, challenges, and constant compromising? Sounds like a wonderful experience to order off the menu of life, doesn’t it? (No way!) Yet a blended family and step-parenting offer all of the above, so let’s get real about it.
Keeping communication business-like is a way to save time, money, and heartache.
- Consider an online shared calendar.
- Limit texts or calls to only factual incidents or necessary communication.
- Give things time to settle before forging a friendship with your ex.
- Offer grace, if only in your mind, that your ex is doing their best.
Having transparent conversations about conflict and challenges with the children who are old enough to grasp these concepts is one way to head it off. Not every situation will result in winners all around.
There will be times when a child plays parents against each other or brings up your ex to achieve the outcome they desire. That’s a kid’s job—they test boundaries and push for what they want. It’s our job as parents to see that behavior and set rules and boundaries in a loving and safe environment.
2. Get ahead of the blending family curve; be proactive
How can we best get to know our soon-to-be step-children? Consider all the angles the children will be curious about. Take fear out of the life change equation.
- Seek the advice of a professional to design the blended home before it happens. This applies to both the mental and physical spaces needed.
- Have a concise plan on how to tell the children you’ll be combining homes.
- Let the children weigh in (to a degree) and know that they are heard.
- Learn the children’s health needs inside and out to care for them fully.
- Have clear rules and boundaries to respect.
- Always speak with love and respect so they aren’t fearful of the huge change in their lives.
3. Present a united front when disciplining the kids
When I was in my 2nd marriage, we were raising my 2 sons from my 1st marriage. We didn’t have kids together, and he didn’t have any of his own. My oldest son was about 12 when he needed a big reminder about consequences. I lashed out verbally and told him to pack up his entire bedroom. I’m not proud of this because it seems extreme, but in that moment, I kept a calm voice and brought him plastic bins with lids to pack up his whole room.
I guess it was the equivalent of taking the door off of a bedroom, which would have worked a little easier. The point is that after this punishment, I had no clue how he was to earn items back. Since we had a solid communication plan with my son’s father, we 3 parents when to a counselor the next day to map out the plan for earning items back.
This stands out to me because it was an issue we dealt with together. It was 3 parents looking out for a son who was getting a bit sassy and needed a reality check. I was proud that the 3 of us had our son’s best interest at heart and that we joined together right away to resolve the issue. Knowing the adults in their lives presented a united front stood out for both of my sons as well. By the way, the counselor’s advice? Let our son earn back 1 bin a week for good behavior. He then told us how truly impressive it was that we rallied together for the good of our child.
Our sons were told to work things out between themselves to learn the skills of negotiation and save my husband and me from constantly playing referees to preteen boys. Todd has great parenting skills that I envy still. He is diplomatic and truly listens, offering advice only if asked for it. Kids are going to bicker. Jumping in and trying to solve issues for them is really less helpful than allowing them to work things out when it’s safe and sensible to do so. This article delves deeper into sibling rivalry, describing what it is, why it happens, and when to step in.
4. Communicate, celebrate, and congregate often
Find a cozy space in your home where you can all sit in a circle and create a sacred time to chat about your day. Listen to the answers. Only fix things if you are asked to.
Express gratitude for the small things because one day the kids will look back and realize those small things were the biggest things of all.
5. Have a cordial relationship with the exes
When you’re ending a relationship, consider it something like a career change. I know that sounds a bit weird, but when we leave a job, we shouldn’t burn bridges.
It’s the same with a relationship. Be gracious. Know that you both tried in your own way. Being bitter will only hold you back.
Counseling, not social media, is where you should turn for advice on learning how to heal. Take a class about moving on and doing what is best for the kids you chose to bring into this life.
What about parenting someone else’s children?
My 3rd husband and I didn’t move in together right away after we married as we were separated by the Mississippi River and schools in 2 states. Though we were just a 10-minute drive apart, it was a world away when it came to setting up a home for all of us. We are extremely fortunate that our guys all knew and liked each other. But there was still the matter of learning routines, rides to sports, orthodontics, holidays, and all the rest of it.
One of my biggest challenges was that 2 of my step-sons are on the autistic spectrum. This meant learning the right foods, the details of obsessive-type behaviors that kept them calm, and a new way to communicate. I come from a long line of sarcastic people. It’s genetic, and it doesn’t bode well when one is trying to communicate with a child on the spectrum. We all learned the best way to communicate for clarity.
For me, this meant pointing out when I was being serious and not sarcastic. Example: “Abe, I’m being serious right now. I really like your hair today.” For the boys, it meant permission to ask when something didn’t make sense. Think of facts as black and white, and sarcasm is a murky and confusing shade of mud.
Our sons are now young adults out on their own, and we look back with pride on raising them together and helping them through teenage challenges like partners, jobs, and school. Together, we co-parented more successfully than we could in our original marriages. This success is something to be proud of, especially since about 60% to 70% of marriages involving children from a previous relationship fail.
How you deal with your blended family will determine how much work you’re willing to put into the foundation of your combined homes. There are many resources to check out, and I don’t mean posts on social media. Use your time wisely to seek a professional’s recommendations.
What is the biggest issue you and your partner faced when preparing to join your families? Why do you think some blended families fail? Let us know in the comments below.