National Blended Family Day
Stepfamilies have had a mixed reputation over the years. From Cinderella (a horrible stepfamily) to the Brady Bunch (here’s a story about a blended family that worked), it seems we’ve never been able to make up our minds about blending families. No matter what we think, though, blended families are an increasingly common fact of life. It’s still true that about half of new first marriages end in divorce, and with options like surrogacy and adoption, millions of children will find themselves in blended families.
In recognition of National Stepfamily Day (September 16), this post is about the many ways Americans create families and how to make your blended family happier and healthier.
Creating a successful blended family—with children from previous marriages, second marriages, or any other way we mix families—doesn’t begin or end the day everyone moves in together. In truth, blending your family successfully begins early on in a relationship, and it’s critical to get it right. The divorce rate among second marriages is higher than the divorce rate among first marriages.
Why? Because second marriages and committed relationships are very different than first ones. In a first serious relationship, it’s all about the couple. Everything else, even kids who come into the picture after the vows are over, revolves around this original unit. In a blended family, the actual couple is only part of the story. The rest of the story is the kids, their problems, their triumphs and passions, and the whole messy, complicated business of grafting old parenting styles and ideas onto a new situation.
One of the first and best things you can do with your blended family is work to reduce territorialism. For example, a new step mom and her children might find themselves less than welcome when they move into the new step dad’s house, where he and his children already have their patterns, space, and preferences. Ideally, every couple could start fresh with a new house—but for most people, that’s not possible. Instead, look for ways to give each family member his or her own private space, both physically and emotionally. It doesn’t have to be a private bedroom if that’s not possible, but there should be at least some recognition that everyone needs private space—and that might mean compromising.
In fact, compromise is essential to the process. Many new step-parents have outsized expectations of swooping into their new child’s life and earning their trust and love. It’s easy to overlook the fact that for many children, their primary wish and hope is to reunite their family of origin (or if a parent passed away, to fiercely protect that parent’s memory). It can be a heartbreaking reality that the original family is over. A new step-parent should never try to replace a biological parent, but instead offer support, love, and guidance. Also, try not to make too many changes at once. Too much change too quickly can leave children insecure and unsettled. Go slow and allow everyone to get used to the idea first then the actual changes at their own pace.
You need to avoid the trap of trying to rebuild a previous life the same as it was, just with a new cast of characters. It will never be possible, and trying to do it can keep the old wounds fresh. Your new union needs to have its own identity, its own patterns and narrative. Open communication is key. Allow the children to come to you with concerns and frustrations as well. Pretending this is an easy and perfect transition will only postpone the inevitable.
You may have fallen in love with each other, but that does not mean the kids have fallen in love with their new step-parent or step-siblings. These feelings take time to develop. When parenting stepchildren, it is important to defer to the biological parent. It may take time for both the children and the biological parent to get used to someone new in the parenting role. In time, with gentleness and patience, a new loving relationship can develop.
Blended families can be wonderful, fabulous, loving homes. It is important to go slow and be patient for everyone involved adjusting to the new normal.