When I divorced the first time, I had a five-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. I remarried seven years later and became bonus mom to an adorable four-year-old boy. On the day of our wedding, we received a lot of gifts, but until this day my bonus son D’angelo, affectionately known as “Dee” (now 23), is the best wedding gift ever!
According to www.smartstepfamilies.com, one-third of all marriages today form stepfamilies, a number so significant that in 1997 an unofficial national holiday was declared in its name. National Stepfamily Day is celebrated on September 16th in honor of the 1300 new stepfamilies who are created every day. As romantic as these relationships may appear on the Hallmark channel, many having had the experience know that not all wedding gifts are created equal and that – even in the best case scenario – some will find themselves wishing for a return receipt.
My sincere and passionate belief is that children are put on this earth to be loved and that the blending of the bonus family’s hearts is where the magic begins. I’ve also learned that bringing blood relatives together over the three major holidays can be challenging. So goes it with combining those who are related only by love. These unions can certainly be challenging – but not impossible – if treated with a sensitivity to touch and an awareness that the Brady Bunch was a fictional family that nowhere near represented what most blended homes look like.
How to Make the Adjustment as a Blended Family
Because many blended family scenarios involve divorce, it’s important to understand and be realistic about what to expect. For example, young children tend to adjust to stepfamily dynamics more easily and accept the bonus parent (in the words of one of my workshop participants) as “doable.” Preteens may experience more resentment, in part because challenging parental authority is already a part of the preteen’s job description. For this reason, questioning the bonus parent’s authority can easily give way to proclamations of “You’re not my mom/dad!” or “You’re not the boss of me!”
Teens have two things going for them – freedom and the mobility to act on it. Given this, they’re likely to be less exposed to the struggles and strife that sometimes characterize these unions. No matter the age or willingness to adjust, a key factor in the ability to blend is the children and teen’s relationship with their other biological parent and the relationship witnessed between their parents who are no longer together. Recognizing that these feelings may exist and supporting their expression can ease everyone’s adjustment to the blended home.
Tips for a Blended Family
For those of us who have chosen to love and to cherish a blended home, here are a few tips for making the adjustment easier for everyone.
- First things, first: Before the coming together as one begins, make sure you and your future partner are on the same page. This means having an understanding on such things as coparenting rules, authority, and how you’ll be allowed to care for each other’s children. The absence of such a commitment is often a frequent cause of the blended family’s demise.
- Do the one-on-one: Work to establish a personal, special bond with your bonus child. Create alone time in THEIR world. For the young child this may be as simple as a two-person board game or sharing popcorn during their favorite movie. Being a preschooler at the beginning of our stepfamily union, Dee and I would take walks around the neighborhood while he recited his alphabet and pointed to something around us that began with that letter. It was easy for my husband to bond with his bonus children, having a shared enjoyment in the type of movie for which I had no interest whatsoever. For future bonus teens, texting is a great way to have non-intrusive “alone time”.
- Set the children up for success: If you’re both bringing children into the marriage, help them form a joint (step)sibling identity – especially if they’re young. This lets the children build their own relationships – without either parent being in the middle. Because my preteen daughter had already established her big sister authority, we were able to choose activities like bowling or a movie, where we would be present without being involved.
- Open the door but resist the urge to bust in: Never require the bonus child to call you mom or dad unless it’s what they want. This can come off as an effort to dismiss or minimize the child’s relationship with the biological parent that is not in the home and will likely end in resentment on the child’s part. One of my fondest memories occurred shortly after our stepfamily union where, on one summer Saturday morning, Dee walked into the kitchen asking “Mommy, what’s for breakfast?” From there, our mommy and son love affair only continued to grow.
- Don’t view their resistance as rejection: Chances are your bonus child will have two homes where one parent has remarried and the other has not. Some children (especially teens) may experience a loyalty bind with the biological parent who is not in the home, resulting in a reluctance to grow close to the bonus parent. And where there’s conflict between the child’s biological parents, resentment of the bonus parent may not be far off.
An important word about extended family members: It’s important that adult family members acknowledge and accept your wedding gifts with respect, even where it’s sometimes difficult. I come from a very close family where it was not uncommon for the adults to buy gifts for their younger nieces and nephews.
For Dee’s first Christmas with us, my mom bought her biological grandchildren three gifts each, while buying him only one. My sense was that mom struggled with how to pull Dee into her heart, while also reserving that special place for her other grandchildren. There was never any doubt just how much my family loved and adored Dee and – in short order – she came to treasure his hugs as much as I did.
Accepting bonus children as one more sticky kiss, a fistful of dandelions, another treasured popsicle Christmas tree magnet for the fridge or an opportunity to view life through the eyes of a teen, can be a gift that keeps on giving. With these tips in mind and a willingness to relax and allow things to grow organically, blended families can not only survive, but thrive.
For more blended family and stepparenting tips, click here.