Before You Blend…

 If you’re a parent who is widowed, separated from a partner or divorced and you plan to couple or marry another person with children, you are forming a blended family. Before you jump in, please consider the following:

  • Don’t rush

Take all the time you need to reliably assess the new relationship, especially if your last experience was a breakup.  Since none of us is perfect, and everyone puts their best foot forward during early dating, be sure that you are compatible with each other’s quirks and flaws. Really get to know each other first and be absolutely certain about your relationship.   That should take a while, at least a year.  Although you have met the ‘right’ person, don’t expect it to be an instant  attraction for your children.

You have likely exchanged pictures and told stories about the children’s personalities.  Share family rituals that your children are used to – mealtimes, play, homework, bedtime routines, chores, birthdays, vacations.  Discuss religion and how you handle extended family relationships and gatherings.  The more you know about each other’s families, the more you’ll be able to preview, and deal with, any problems that may arise. Your blended family will be able to establish some new family rituals.

Discuss your parenting styles and how the two of you can complement your differences. Then, plan some brief meetings, on neutral ground, with fun activity, to minimize any awkwardness. 

  • Meeting the children

Arrange a first, brief meeting for your partner and your children, without his/her  children. S/he can give full attention to your children and there’s no need to overwhelm them with other children at first.   A few more meetings with the other adult would be beneficial before all of the children meet for some activity that all could enjoy.

  •  Talk with your children

Imagine your children’s perspective – dealing with a new parent figure and his/her children.  There will be some new rules and rituals.  They may feel they are losing part of you, having to share you with a new adult and other children.   Be clear about how the adults will run the household –  baths, media, play dates, curfews.  Especially, in the beginning, it’s useful for a blended parent to say “your mom/dad said you need to …”  when doling out limits and rules.

Ask (but don’t dwell) about your child’s experience of meeting the new ‘blends’ in an age appropriate way. What was good and what was hard for them?  See if it’s reasonable and feasible to follow their lead for their next meeting.  When you tell them that they will be in a blended family, help them be comfortable with how they address that person.  Don’t expect it to be “mom” or “dad”.  Even if you are widowed, children, above a certain age, might feel disloyal to bestow that venerable title to other than their bio parent.  When there is a bio parent, loyalty feelings are rampant and that could cause dissonance with your former/partner spouse.  A blended parent can begin by being a special friend…love can follow.

*    Give it time to gel

Re-coupling and remarriage are adult decisions. There will  be some changes for each member of the newly blended family – school, a new home, friends, family rituals, etc.  Adjustment takes time and discussion.  Talk with your own children first and, depending on their ages, then there’s time to have a blended family meeting, with some limitations set by the adults.  Each child can share something that is hard for him/her and something s/he likes.  Allow time for the new relationships to gel…blended parents and blended siblings.  Addressing their feelings and facilitating some alterations will go a long way toward  bonding and what can be a wonderful experience.






Single Parents in Stepfamilies

While members of blended families are concerned with dancing to different tunes and not stepping on each other’s toes, there is another member of the stepfamily, who may appear, to some, as the wallflower (male or female) – the single parent who doesn’t have a Significant Other.  Single parents don’t think of themselves as part of a stepfamily but they are…an important one.

The single parent may be debated as an object of derision by the new stepparent and/or the former spouse, hopefully not.   S/he can be a welcome relief pitcher to take the kids when things are too unwieldy or an emergent problem arises.  That same single parent can be a wonderful source of information.  S/he may provide new  perspectives to a stepparent about the children’s development and past experiences as well as their quirks.  In good post-divorce situations, single parents  provide reinforcement for specialized study plans, behavioral guidelines, etc.  Lastly, but crucial, never doubt  that the single parent also has the love and allegiance of his/her offspring.  Children need to feel good about both parents to feel more positive about themselves.

Single parents have their own perspectives about their position in the stepfamily.  Some feel  out of the loop, somewhat of a “lonely only”, especially when their children are at the other home.  Isolation or a sense of loss may occur when one’s former spouse has more children with a new partner.  If your self-esteem is shaky, it may seem as if the other household has more to offer, teeming with life.  As one newly single mother reflected, “There’s more joy around the holiday table in numbers.”  Invite friends and relatives but  keep in mind  that a smaller grouping can allow for more intimacy and sharing.

The single parent, not residing with family, has to do it all alone. No one  shares the household chores and parenting responsibilities. There may be no one to fall back on  when s/he is not feeling well, has to bring work home from the office or is going to be late.   One inexpensive and reliable solution is to form a babysitting coop with friends.

Discomfort may arise from a number of sources for a single parent.  There are the vagaries of reentering the world of dating, with children.  Sometimes married friends drift away and/or maintain social contact with one’s former spouse (especially when former spouses are still battling and their friends don’t want to be in the middle).  Single mothers often find themselves dropped from couple-oriented social get-togethers and are relegated to seeing their married girlfriends at lunch.  Older, single mothers commiserate about being invisible, older, single women in a youth-oriented society.  Feelings about this social sitation may be intensified by having had a former spouse who left for or married a younger woman.  Remember. in today’s world, one is never too old…60 is the new 40.

Single parents  deal with a “two against one” mentality when trying to settle parenting disagreements with a former spouse and their new partner.   One can imagine when this sort of standoff might arise…”Daddy and Anne say I can stay out all night for the prom,”etc.  Maintaining a good, working co-parenting relationship with your former spouse reduces children’s manipulations.

Being  alone can be uncomfortable at public events when both sides of the family are likely to attend. Family gatherings may be awkward because they are usually smaller and more intimate. Religious rites of passage, birthday parties, weddings, having grandchildren and celebrating other special moments can be a challenge to one’s resilience, maturity and dedication to one’s children.  Working things through with a former spouse is a relief to everyone, on these occasions, and a special gift to your children.  You, too, will likely feel more at ease.

After a second divorce, different issues may arise for divorced parents who are both single again. Each parent may have renewed, upset feelings about the romantic life of the other.  It is useful to understand the source of such feelings and get past them.  Sometimes it may seem more permissible to intervene in what goes on at a former spouse’s house when there is not a new partner. When the war continues to be waged on two battlefields….not a good situation. Having two single parents  is especially difficult for only children and those whose parents go through multiple divorces. With no full-time partner to distract and absorb them, some parents seek emotional gratification from their children, instead of other adults.  ALL parents, married or divorced, need to adapt to a new level of ‘separation’ with a support system other than the  children.

Single parents in stepfamilies  benefit from forming  a new lifestyle.  The more you value yourself and feel competent, the more you feel entitled to happiness.  Developing a good self-image which goes beyond one’s role in the family. Friends, work and interests fill in some of the gaps left by a former spouse.  When we feel reasonably good within ourselves, we are in a better position to utilize outside supports.  If this is not your profile, support groups and workshops are an excellent solution to meeting others who “know what you are talking about”.  A stepfamily therapist can be invaluable. There are many avenues to be single, but not alone.  It’s worth taking a stroll !

Blended Family Myths

Today, it’s likely that nearly everyone in America, is either in, related to someone who is part of, or knows someone in a blended family.

The older term, stepfamily, comes from the Old English word, steop, designating a bereaved orphan.  Stepfamilies date back to colonial times when men and women were widowed, sometimes due to war.  Indeed, as I’ll describe later, a blended (newer term) family involves loss and grieving. A blended family, is formed when one, or both, partners, have a child, or more, from a previous relationship. Today, this term encompasses many different types of family profiles: non-married cohabitants, double remarriages [when both partners remarry], when one or both, partners are widowed or divorced. A blended family can also develop in a dating relationship.

For those who were enchanted or frightened in childhood, by fairytales, stepmothers tended to be in charge as their husbands went to work. In “Hansel and Gretal” the children are sent into the woods, to fend for themselves, as a result of insufficient food, equality and love. In “Cinderella,” the stepmother fears that her stepdaughter’s beauty and charm will disadvantage her own two daughters chance of being chosen for marriage by the prince.

Myths, as fairy tales, mislead and can make it more troublesome for those forming blended families, leading them to unrealistic expectations and not being aware of  complications inherent in the formation of a blended family. Some contemporary myths about blended families are:

  • Love develops quickly between a stepchild and stepparent. Love that has depth requires the test of time  as a child understands that s/he is listened to, cared for and respected. Demonstration of the aforesaid entails many hours of listening, tolerating, sharing time and experiences together. Still more complications are involved when a stepparent comes to the family with their own child/ren. Both parents and children need to understand and accept that there will be emotional differences in such situations. A stepparent puts undue pressure on him/herself when s/he expects to love a stepchild in the same way as his/her bio child, with whom one has had a history of a myriad of attachments and experiences. Blended love does not need to rival to be significant. As long as family members don’t expect instant bonding, they have the leisure to become a ‘new’ family more organically.
  • Stepmothers are wicked. The role of the stepmother can be the most difficult,     especially if she is the parent  at home the most. If there is role confusion, for both child and stepmother, things can quickly spiral downward. When the new couple can work out their respective roles, this can be communicated to the child/ren in word and deed. Stepparents who understand accept a child’s feelings of loyalty, for their bio parent (and likely wishes for his/her parents to be reunited) may not take rejection and testing so personally. A stepparent should also be sensitive to a child’s potential feelings of disloyalty, and ensuing guilt, if the child does  like her/him.  Informed stepparents understand that their role is to be that of a special friend who cares, listens and carries through limitations set by the bio parent. A new relationship with the child/ren, independent of the bio parent is the reward. And so it grows…
  • Children will adapt to their new blended family more easily if their bio parent withdraws. Nooo ! Such situations only create abandonment problems. In blended families, more is more. Children benefit from the love of each of their parents, blended and bio. When there is a parenting partnership among all of the parents everyone wins, especially the children.
  • A stepfamily formed after the death of a parent is easier for children. When a child has lost a parent, both remaining parent and child need to first mourn the loss of that parent and the first family. Otherwise, there is a possibility of a ghost in the house. Idealization of a deceased parent is also difficult for a new parent. The new parent needs to be comfortable, not competitive, with a child’s effort to hold on to that first parent.
  • Part-time stepfamilies are easier. Change and relationships take time. With
    children going back and forth between two families, it takes longer to build relationships, gel and stabilize, especially if the rules are very different in each household. Each stayover is a transition – different home, expectations, limitations, rituals and people. Aside from how the adults handle the situation, there are also variations of the children’s ages, personalities, interests and sibling bondings.
  • Divorce and remarriage damage children. On the bright side, this does not need to be true !

Blended Families

Are you in or do you know someone in a blended family? The chances are that your answer is ‘yes’. A blended family is formed when one, or both, partners have a child, or more, from a previous relationship. Today, this term includes many different types of family profiles: non-married cohabitants, double remarriages (when both partners remarry) or when both partners are widowed or divorced.   This term can also include a dating relationship.

First marriages are full of hopes and dreams. The couple usually celebrates being alone, together, and has time to adapt to each other before having a child. Then, the family develops rituals, mealtimes, bedtimes, vacations, holidays, family fun, dealing with illness, etc. Experience by experience, there is memory building and all that entails.

The old term ‘stepfamily’ comes from the Old English work steop designating a bereaved orphan. A blended family is born of loss – of a parent, perhaps extended family, home, school, friends, family rituals, etc. Stability needs to be a addressed. Children’s fantasies are often initially, “My parents will get back together” and may be an extended wish. The adults may think “My new partner, spouse will never love may kids as I do” or “His/her kids won’t love me”. So, loss is natural and requires grieving and adjustment, for all. The new family needs a cumulative foundation of security to bind it in difficult times[ adolescence, for example]. There can be confusions of roles and relationship boundaries between the adults, adult/bio child and adult/blended child and the blended children. Each of these dyads emanates from a unique family culture. The blended family is rife with echoes of the past and needs to establish new family rituals.

Prevalent blended feelings include loneliness, confusion, anxiety, anger, failure, resentment and insecurity. Family members may feel underappreciated and overwhelmed. Such feelings may be experienced at different times by various family members so they may be out of sync with each other at times. There can also be confusion of boundaries between new family members. Children learn, and then test, the limits of the new couple. Still another emotion is hope,  the seed that needs to be nurtured. Patience and persistence can prevail!

Inherent in a newly formed blended family are complexities of role definitions and structure, for example, the insider/outsider positions. The bio parent and child/ren form an insider grouping while the blended parent and children are outsiders. Bio parents and children have a lifetime of prior experiences, good and bad, tried and true. They have developed ways of relating to each other that are, if not always the best, are at least familiar and often predictable.   Parental loyalties and guilt can tug at the adult relationship. Whose home and community are hosting the new couple? Perhaps they have chosen a new area. If not, one partner/spouse has to adapt to new surroundings, people, perhaps a new school and house of worship as well, definitely an outsider position. Sometimes it can feel as if there is a maze of differences to navigate in a blended family, by all members. There are internal and external (former partner/spouses, extended families and friends) to be dealt with and resolved.

The blended couple takes the lead and guides their children to enjoy and appreciate some new ways of doing things. They can help the children understand that their loss, of first family, can develop into something additional, not a replacement of their other parent. The blended family, new and special, offers more family members to love them and be loved by them.