BLENDED FAMILIES: THE NEW NORMAL
by chuck fresh and olivia black
“My life used to be better, before you got here,” said the insecure teen girl to her well-intentioned stepfather. Out of nowhere, she produced that well-aimed dagger and plunged it directly through his heart. This was more than six years after her mother and this man had begun their relationship. Although the stepfather hadn’t formally adopted his wife’s daughter, he had fully accepted her as though she were his daughter, treating and spoiling her not unlike he would his own biological children. “We used to be closer, us and mommy,” she continued. Apparently, this teenaged girl had forgotten the fact that she had been a mere seven years old the last time her mom was single, and seven-year-olds typically do require and receive much more attention from moms than teens. Apparently, her memories were frozen in time, and the spoils of the past six years didn’t matter.
“You weren’t like this before, Dad. You changed,” said the confused 11-year-old boy to his father in the same household. “Before you married her, you didn’t make me do chores.” Just maybe it was because he was 4 back then, and couldn’t yet reach the washing machine.
Something I call sibling shock introduces this kind of silliness you’ll face in today’s blended family. With the divorce rate hovering at or above 50%, chances are good you might be involved in a step-parenting or dual step-parenting situation at some point in your parental career. Although you had no biological responsibility for your partner’s offspring, you have entered into an unwritten agreement to be physically, mentally, and financially responsible for the upbringing of your partner’s child as well as any of your own. And, as an added bonus, you’ll be forced to interact with ex-spouses as your step-kids, giddy with glee and with bags packed, are immediately released from whatever menial chores you assigned whenever bio-Daddy or Mommy, the part-time parent and child’s absentee hero, walks through your front door.
In most cases, there’ll be a primary parenting situation, where one parent will be largely responsible for just about everything. The other parent gets to ride in on a silver horse every other weekend and steal your children away for fun and frolic, only to return them after a day or so when shit starts to get real. Mothers are typically the primary parent, but there are more and more fathers stepping up.
Being a step-parent is always a complicated situation, especially when blending children from each side. The only reasons the Brady Bunch worked so perfectly are because the other parents were dead, and each completely fictional scenario was always neatly tied up at the end of twenty-five minutes.
If I had to sum up being a step-parent in one word, I’d have to choose “awkward.” Two words? Awkward and thankless. There are so many moments when you’re not sure what to do, fearing stepping on paternal or maternal toes. You will always have to choose your words very carefully, and make sure you never join in the estranged parent’s dissing sessions, because you do not and never will have the standing to do so. The downside is that you, as a step, will typically never garner the respect the biological parent would receive. Unless you formally adopt, you’ll always be viewed as “mom’s boyfriend” or “dad’s girlfriend,” and your standing will be similar to that of an aunt, uncle, or adult family friend. Prepare yourself for the inevitable “I don’t have to listen to you, you’re not my dad” as the biological parent you’re replacing smugly chuckles in the background. Prepare to become a full-time caretaker with zero emotional reward. You’ll have to be strong and disciplined enough to deal with this kind of stress. Hopefully, your partner is worth the trouble.
It is important to set your baseline for respect immediately. It is a delicate balance that has much to do with the age of the children at the time you’ve stepped in, and the age of the children when the biological parents separated. If you’re a very serious retired drill sergeant and you hook up with a woman who has two teenagers who just separated two months ago, chances are you’ll be scorned eternally. Conversely, if you come in as the fun and laid-back friendly sort, the kids probably won’t respect you. You have to find a balance to achieve respect: the sweet spot at which you will be tolerated, and you will have at least some authority over the children. It is critically important that the biological parent fully and vocally supports whatever you both decide your authority will be. Talk it out away from your children – never have this conversation in front of them. The most important thing is to communicate with each other honestly. If her kid is being an asshole towards you behind Mom’s back, don’t let it fester. Tell Mom and demand that she immediately steps in, and discipline when necessary. The only way you’ll have a chance to succeed as a family unit is if all parents show unity – let them know early and often that dad and mom are unwaveringly on the same page.
Jake walked into a situation with two young girls, aged 8 and 9. Mom had been divorced for about a year, and their dad was still part of their lives. He was a commercial pilot, so his presence was scarce, leaving Jake to fill in the majority of the daddy duties. At this age, Jake felt it was important to have a certain level of respect and authority if, for nothing else, the girls’ safety. “Don’t stand on that chair.” “Don’t drown your sister.” “Don’t beat your dog with that iron rod.” But the girls would always look at their mom whenever Jake said anything, and mom never backed him up. Eventually, Jake became pissed, and that led to a rift between he and Mom. Her blind eye and lack of support allowed her kids turn into monsters over the next year, as Jake’s typically gentle counseling eventually turned into yelling. And Jake is definitely not a yeller. After they divorced, Jake called her ex and had a beer with him to discuss what a maniacal twisted woman their collective ex-wife was.
There are quite a few situations where, no matter what you do, the step and child simply won’t ever mesh. This tends to be more prevalent when the child is an older teen. For example, a 14-year-old girl might be mad that Mom left Dad, and she would resent God Himself if he walked into Mom’s life. You must remember that children have relatively few real or relevant life experiences to draw from. For years, movies, books and television shows have brainwashed kids into thinking life is a perfect little story. When something goes wrong, a stepparent gets to play the part of the evil person who has ended that fantasy.
Some kids can be very troublesome, requiring an inordinate amount of time and energy that you may not have to give. Other children are simply perpetual asses. What you have to do is decide whether your relationship with their biological parent is strong enough to overcome the sometimes hefty baggage that comes with it.
There are success stories. Jake’s following step situation was filled with mutual love, joy, and respect. He gained two lovely stepdaughters, whom he gladly accepted as if they were his own; and although he’s quite difficult at times, she adores his son with all her heart. They do have hang-ups and difficulties and sibling rivalries (both biological and step) at times, just like any other family, but overall, they have a strong family unit everyone seems to cherish.
If you’re the only one with baggage, it’s your job to make the situation successful.
A boy I know lives with his mother and grandmother. They’re nice folks, but Grandmom lost Grandpa recently, so she’s still adjusting. The equilibrium of their household shifted dramatically when Grandpa passed away. Today, Grandma is doing her own thing and not paying much attention to her grandson. The boy would mouth off to her, which is rude and unacceptable behavior. Grandma let him get away with it. His mother is a traveling salesperson, so she’s away from home frequently. And when she is home, she’s not always there. Her Bluetooth earpiece is now permanently attached to her brain.
When his mother is home, she feels guilty for being away so much. Since she has no other man in her life, she spoils her son with all kinds of electronic trinkets. When they walk through Target, he points at something, and it almost always ends up in her cart. Mom is unknowingly creating a monster. This kid is running around doing whatever he wants to do with little to no supervision. And that’s just not healthy for a little man. When he goes to his father’s house and attempts to settle into Dad’s safe little nuclear stepfamily environment, his son is usually belligerent for several days before he settles down.
At Dad’s home, both Dad and Stepmother pay lots of attention to him. He doesn’t have many friends in Dad’s neighborhood, so he stays inside the home for the most part. They enjoy family dinners, games, movies, and… chores. Since Dad’s more organized activities interfere with the freedom he’s used to having, obviously they have some challenges.
This type of situation occurs frequently in today’s blended families. You can’t control what happens at the other home. But you can set things straight at your home.
It’s rare that a baggage situation goes down without any problems. What’s important is that you stick to your guns and make sure your children know that your home has its own rules, and he or she damn well better comply when they’re there. Stepchildren will undoubtedly complain and make sometimes hurtful statements about preferring the much looser household, but that’s too bad.
Remember – stepchildren are an important part of the package deal. Thankfully, children are transient. They’ll grow up and hopefully leave home, so you and your partner can eventually enjoy each other. But the time in between can be very trying.
And there is always the possibility that some kids will never leave home. You won’t have this problem, because you’ve achieved F.U. nirvana!