Navigating life with a blended family
Anyone who has been married understands the challenges of combining lives: merging finances, households, and traditions takes patience, love, and a sense of humor; it’s a constant evolution. When you marry someone who already has children or you blend families, it takes the need for patience, love, and a sense of humor to a whole new level. Being a successful stepparent requires the skill of a tightrope walker but it can be done and the result can be a wonderful and unique relationship with your stepchildren.
Be mindful of the feelings of others
Warrenton resident, licensed family and marriage therapist, and author of Peaceful Parenting: 10 Essential Principles, Marianne Clyde feels that mindfulness is a key tenet of any type of parenting. With a combined family of eight children and 17 grandchildren, Marianne has walked the sometimes unsteady path of being a stepparent herself.
Many think mindfulness is synonymous with meditation, but at its core it is the basic act or state of being aware of your feelings and the feelings of others. It takes time, but by being mindful you learn to respond thoughtfully without reacting impulsively. One of the steps toward creating a good relationship with a stepchild, said Maranne, is “ … to be mindful and to not feel threatened.”
Communication, communication, communication
Marianne explains that it is important for stepparents to understand that if a child seems negative, or defiant, or hesitant to heed the rules, it’s because they are trying to determine a) where they fit in the new dynamic and b) answer the question “do you love me?” As both parents and stepparents, we tend to have our feelings hurt when faced with negative reactions from a child. She offers that it is important to include kids in the conversation — talk to them about how they feel and let them know you’re listening and that their feelings are important to you. The bottom line? It’s an evolution. “Every day will be different, and you can’t allow yourself to get in a rut where the children don’t feel allowed to grow,” Marianne said.
Co-parenting with the ex
Lisa, a local mom with a blended family of five kids — three of her own and two stepchildren, all teenagers now — married her husband eight years ago.
“The biggest challenge of stepparenting is learning to co-parent with the exes,” she said. “If possible, sit down with the people you’ll be parenting with, even if it’s uncomfortable, and get on the same page.” Additionally, the “your kids/my kids” mentality can be tough to overcome. “It’s hard not to say ‘they’re my kids’ because I’m also one of their parents now. But sometimes the biological parent can take offense at that.”
What happens when a biological parent doesn’t want a stepparent involved? “No matter what, as a stepparent, there has to be a level of respect for the office of biological parent,” Marianne said. It takes courage to step back, but if you have open communication and ask the child how you can be involved in their lives, you can come up with a creative solution without arguing. “Each parent has different beliefs and expectations,” said Marianne. “Talk about how you can both be happy. Don’t be offended by someone else’s opinion.”
Be flexible with traditions
A common question in merging families is how to honor new as well as old traditions. When one family has specific holiday traditions and new ones are introduced, it can be challenging to honor everyone’s wishes and make each person feel validated and comfortable. To this end, Marianne counsels compromise and flexibility. “As the saying goes, ‘the rigid reed breaks,’ but if the reed is flexible, it can withstand the wind. Traditions are important, but not more important than the relationship with your children and stepchildren.”
Make time for your relationship
“It’s important to make time for your marriage. When you do, it makes everything easier,” Lisa said. Unlike first marriages without children, there isn’t the free time to travel and just be with each other, but it is just as important to prioritize your partner and make time for each other.
Focus on the positives
When Lisa married her husband, her three kids not only gained step-siblings and a stepmother, they also gained more aunts, uncles and grandparents (and more presents on birthdays!). When her kids were younger she explained to them that they now had even more people in their lives who love them. And having more loving people in a kid’s life can really enrich his or her childhood. For instance, if one household doesn’t have pets, and the other does, it gives children an opportunity to experience something they may not have otherwise.
“I was very interested in history,” said Ella, another local stepmother. “So I took my stepsons to Civil War sites when they were children, which they loved. They really liked learning about Stonewall Jackson. Turns out, they both majored in history in college, and I like to think that I may have had a little something to do with that.”
Thoughtfulness, open communication, and respect can smooth out the rough patches of being a stepparent. Said Ella, “Even when things seem hard and the problems insurmountable, remember that time goes by and the children get older. Every day is a step closer to hurt feelings from divorces fading a bit, a step closer to everyone adjusting to the new status quo, and a step closer to developing good relationships with your stepchildren.”