When my husband and I first combined households as a second marriage family, it was messy, to say the least. Often it felt like two households living side-by-side instead of one happy blended family. Many of our arguments were about each other’s kids, frustrated by each other’s blind spots when it came to our own kids. He couldn’t see that his son acted like his superior. I couldn’t see that my son was manipulative or my daughter had a sassy mouth. I had a really hard time relating with his son, and the same was true for him with my kids. We both tried our hardest, but when it comes to blended families, those bonded feelings of love aren’t always natural.
Luckily, time allowed us to build bridges over those deep chasms in our blended family. We learned ways to relate with each other’s children, and grew closer as a couple while developing much better relationships with our stepchildren. Here are some of the things we’ve learned along the way.
1. Find common ground
I had a hard time figuring out what I had in common with my stepson, until I took up running. Suddenly, he was interested too, and we started going on runs together. Before this happened, we barely spoke to each other. He was angry that his parents had split up, and I was overly cautious about overstepping my bounds with a kid who already had a mother. The running thing gave us something to talk about, and paved the way for other common interests as well.
2. Take nothing personal
There’s a double standard in my parenting that I’m fully aware of. If my kids say something snarky to me or challenge my parenting, I can see it for what it is and act accordingly. If my stepson challenges me, however, I can feel the heat rising inside me, absolutely sure that he’s not just challenging a specific rule, but my place in this family. These feelings didn’t grow overnight, but have grown out of years of the two of us figuring out our relationship and totem pole position in this blended family. I’ve had to teach myself to take a deep breath and see the situation for what it is rather than the story I’m making it out to be, and ask myself every time, how would I react if my bio kid acted this way? Practice makes perfect, and it has definitely gotten easier with time.
3. Put yourself in their shoes
None of these kids asked for their parents to split up and then find someone new. Granted, this is the reality, and respect is required. But grace is allowed, too. This is one thing both my husband and I have worked hard at: recognizing the mixed emotions all of the kids have had to work through as we blend our family. Both of us honor the kids’ relationships with our ex-spouses, and we actively step back when emotions run high. The only way we can do this is through empathy, and paying attention to the kids’ needs.
4. Set parenting boundaries
In our family, we’ve had to set two kinds of boundaries. First, the adults in this house are the parental figures, even if they’re the stepparent. But the second boundary has been between my husband and me—I am the primary parent of my children when both of us are present, and he’s the primary parent of his son in the same way. We learned early on that being an authority figure with each other’s children was a fiasco in the making. Think about it this way: You’re at your job, and a new manager comes in. You still have your old manager, who you really like and are familiar with what she wants. But this new guy is suddenly changing up the rules, requiring tasks you never had to do before. This new guy feels like an impostor, and he’s making you hate your job. Worse, your original manager is just letting him take over. How would you feel? My husband and I step back when it comes to each other’s kids, but in private we’ll chat about things we see that need addressing. It’s become this perfect system of checks and balances, and the kids are hardly the wiser.
5. Keep a united front
This is probably the most important rule, and one that’s saved our marriage. In the beginning, it was really easy to take our kids’ sides, protecting them from a stepparent that didn’t understand the right way to parent them. My husband and I fell into this routine, and those early years were hard. But eventually, the whole blended family thing started to mellow, and we learned to share regular private meetings in which we came up with agreed upon ways to tackle certain issues with the kids. These closed door meeting were vital, as it allowed us the space to plead our case, and to also share things we’d noticed that maybe the other parent didn’t. It also helped that when we left that room, we were on the same page. This united front was the catalyst for blending our family. I absolutely think it’s the core of how our family went from two households in one home to one combined family that just have different stories.
Are you in a blended family? What are some of the struggles you’ve faced in parenting and stepparenting? What are some of the triumphs? Share your story in the comments.
Crissi Langwell is a Petaluma local, blended family mom to three young adults, and author of 11 books. Her latest novel, Numbered, a dystopian romance that takes place in 2050, is available at bit.ly/NumberedKindle, Visit Crissi’s author website at crissilangwell.com.