By Audrey Cade
The success of baking a cake is partly dependent on how well one follows the directions to measure and assemble the treat, and partly in the science of how the ingredients react to one another in the heat of the oven. Too little of one ingredient and it may not rise properly or taste right. If the pan isn’t prepared properly, the cake may stick. If baked too long or at too high of heat, it may burn!
Combining families is a similar undertaking. Without proper preparation, the members may become frustrated and overwhelmed. Not allowing the individuals involved to take the time they need to become acquainted, learn to work together, and blend into one beautiful creation may result in disappointment, resentment, and collapse.
What are the essential ingredients and steps to successfully blend a family?
1. What are we cooking up?
For starters, a little discussion about terminology. Some believe that the term “step” is too cold or harsh. “Stepmom” may induce visions of an evil witch from a fairy tale who enjoys nothing more than tormenting her husband’s children. Does referring to a child as a “stepchild” indicate less love or more distance between hearts in the relationship? This is largely personal preference.
Others contend that the term “blended” implies that all members of the new family unit are combined, as if the makings for a smoothie, in a blender until one can no longer distinguish between one ingredient or another. To some, blended means that two families became one, while others fear that this blurs the unique traits of each member too much and attempts to disconnect them from other family members elsewhere who are just as important to them.
The option of whether you are a “blended family” or “stepfamily” is entirely yours. My family refers to ourselves as a blended family. If someone requires me to get very specific about who each person is I may differentiate that one child is “mine” or my “stepchild,” but generally they are “our kids”, and I am comfortable being referred to as “my stepmom”, by my first name, or even “hey you” if that fits the bill!
2. No such thing as an “instant” family!
One thing a blended family and mashed potatoes do not have in common is that there is no instant variety available in families. One cannot simply add water (or the members of two families) and expect an instantaneously delicious and harmonious dish. Blending is not anything like asking someone to test out a new oven for the first time, this is family, home, and everyday life that we are asking children to transform.
As grandma used to say, “anything worth having takes time.” You probably know that the best tasting bread is homemade, crafted by painstakingly waiting for the dough to rise and bake to just the right golden shade. You can buy a bag of pre-sliced bread, but does it even compare?
Take your time, allow each member to take the time they need, don’t allow anyone to feel pressured to accept the new way of life or new family members before they are open to doing so.
The human heart has an endless capacity for love and inclusion. My addition to their lives is not at the expense of another’s.
3. The chicken or the egg?
Who was in my step children’s life first? Me or their parents? Of course, it was their parents! Those baby birds imprinted on the mother long ago, as she was in their life from birth. She is, and will always be their mother. The same is true for my children and their father. What I can offer as a stepmom, or my husband as a stepdad, is another loving, caring person in their life. I am not there to replace their mother.
Will I play a game with them, make them a Halloween costume, drive them to school, help them with homework, take care of them when they are ill, or buy them things they need? The answer to all of these is “yes!” In every sense of the word, I am a “bonus mom!” I do everything that a mother would do for them during the 50% of their life when they are not with their mother, but my role in their life is in addition to and not instead of anyone they love.
Their mom may be my husband’s ex-wife, but she is also the one who brought them into the world. She is very important to them, as she should be, and I respect that relationship. I am honored when they wish for me to share in important events in their lives and enjoy my presence, but I will never be their mom. What our situation proves, however, is that the human heart has an endless capacity for love and inclusion. My addition to their lives is not at the expense of another’s.
4. Follow the recipe!
A little mad science in the kitchen can be fun, but it can also be a disaster! Step parenting is not much different. One does have to be flexible about many aspects of life because many individuals and personalities can breed chaos. One area where you can’t afford to deviate from the plan is around boundaries and discipline.
You may all live under one roof, share meals at one table, and spend time together; but, there is a need to clarify and follow what is and is not acceptable in the care and handling of a blended family. On the one hand, you as a stepparent cannot be left in charge of stepchildren for hours on end with no authority to act on disciplinary matters while their parent is away, yet there are lines that should not be crossed.
You and your spouse must have continuous conversation about the events of your house, how you believe different issues should be handled, and make every effort to remain on the same page so there are no surprises. Will you allow your spouse to administer a timeout or other punishment, or is every disciplinary action on the back burner until the other parent returns?
We function as a cohesive parental unit because we have well-defined household rules and talk daily about how to handle behavior.
Make sure neither parent is placed in a bad position where they are likely to be run over by unruly children, but be sure to define what your shared philosophy is on appropriate consequences for typical behavior. In my home, either my husband or I may verbally correct bad behavior (as defined by the house rules we created and clearly publicize to the kids), we may use time out for certain behaviors, and we usually hold discipline for major offenses for the parent to address.
We never lay a hand on each other’s children, and we do not expect each other to handle major incidents in place of one another. The kids are well aware that we have each other’s backs, so we will stand by the decision made by the other. In this way, we do not have children trying to play one of us off of the other because they know that we are a united front. We function as a cohesive parental unit because we have well-defined household rules and talk daily about how to handle behavior.
5. Keep it fair!
When presented with a choice of two cupcakes, who wouldn’t choose the one with lots of frosting and sprinkles instead of the one with none? Be forewarned that stepchildren can often feel like they got the skimpy cupcake even if every effort is made to be even!
Biological ties are powerful, and the invincible bond one has with their own children may make them blind to preferential treatment offered to biological kids over stepchildren. The best way to counteract this is through establishing a set code of conduct for behavioral expectations, then treating each member of the family the same- every time!
Every effort should be made to make each child feel equal to others.
Additionally, every effort should be made to make each child feel equal to others. For instance, don’t give one child a large room to himself while two or three cram into a smaller bedroom. Show the same level of support in attending extra-curricular activities, set and follow a budget for holiday gifts so that each child receives an equal value of presents, and generally make an effort to include everyone.
Make an agreement with your partner to keep one another in check so that if either of you start to become more lenient or generous with one set of kids over the other, you can make efforts to correct your actions. We still sometimes get “us versus them” accusations when they perceive that one set of kids is treated differently than the others. When this occurs, we will patiently explain that even though it may appear this way for some reason, there are definite reasons why select people have lost privileges, for example, and others did not.
6. Talk to other cooks (er, parents)!
Nothing can fully prepare you for the unique challenges of blending a family. Find supports within the step parenting community so that you can bounce ideas and frustrations off peers. There are many online communities for stepparents and blended families where you may vent or ask for advice. Seek out who you already know who lives this life and can offer support, and consider a magazine subscription, or joining a support group.
7. Make some family recipes!
Everyone has favorite recipes that are part of their family tradition and history. My kids always look forward to great grandma Audrey’s chocolate pie on special occasions or making gingerbread houses before Christmas. Your blended family can also benefit from establishing some routines and traditions that will become part of your own unique family identity.
In my home, the kids count on movie night with homemade pizza and treats every Friday night. We are involved as a family in our church and all the kids attend the same summer camp and attend 4H together. That is our family recipe- have fun crafting your own!
Your bold new venture of combining your family with your new partner’s is an exciting adventure that is sure to change your life! Be prepared for emotional ups and downs as your household adjusts to a new way of life. Exercise plenty of humor and patience, never forgetting that each member of your family recipe is healing from divorce and progressing at their own unique pace. Reach out to others, lean on your partner, and keep your heart open to lots of love!
About the Author
Audrey Cade is the author of “Divorce Matters: help for hurting hearts and why divorce is sometimes the best decision” (on Amazon) and the matriarch of a blended family of eight. She is an experienced “divorce warrior” in the areas of co-parenting, step parenting, parental alienation, and re-marriage, and enjoys sharing these experiences with others who are also committed to raising happy and healthy kids. Audrey’s professional experience is as a case manager social worker with the developmentally disabled, families with young children, and homeless populations. She holds degrees in Early Childhood Education, Human Service & Management, and a Master’s in Psychology. She enjoys family outings, a variety of arts and crafts, cooking, gardening, and writing. She is a featured blogger for Divorced Moms, has work regularly appearing on Divorce Force, and articles appearing in Step Mom Magazine, The Good Men Project, and others.