If you’re from my generation you’ll remember the song that started… “Here’s a story / of a lovely lady / who was bringing up three very lovely girls…” Most of us could probably sing the rest of the song by memory. The story behind that sitcom theme song involved a recently widowed mother with three girls who married a widowed father with three boys. Except for a few minor bumps along the way, the new family with six kids gets along without a hitch. The kids respect both parents and like each other, for the most part. Sure there’s some jealously with Marsha over boys, or slight problems with Greg over at his job at the ice cream parlor, but the Brady Bunch seemed to blend almost instantly, proving that bringing two families together is easy and everything will turn out hunky-dory.
In talking with divorced and widowed parents who have gone through the great experiment of blending families, it is never as easy as the old television shows portrayed. Mixing stepparents with kids can be like mixing oil and water. There are challenges with loyalty (This is my dad and I only listen to him!) There are issues with discipline (Which parent punishes which kids?) Plus, there are trials with alignment (How can a single mom, whose main priority is her children, move to being a new wife, and placing her husband first?)
Blending families is difficult, but that that’s not to say it can’t be done. In talking with parents and kids of combined families, I have gleaned some helpful tips on making the whole thing work.
Seek Out Advice
Before you even say “I do” to a new spouse and kids, search out parents who have traveled the same road that’s now before you. Just like new couples benefit from pre-martial counseling, so new families should take advantage of pre-blending counseling.
Sit down with parents in your church, work, school, or from extended family and pick their brain. Talk about the pitfalls and the blessings of raising step-kids, navigating a new marriage, dealing with “exes” and all the other important topics before you step into the new family. Ask questions like, “If you could do it all over, what would you do differently?” Or “What obstacles were the hardest to overcome?” Then get practical, and down to the nitty-gritty. “Who disciplines the kids? How do you avoid favoritism?”
You might think that you have thought about all these important issues and you have all your bases covered. But there could be topics that come out of your conversation that you had never thought about before. So learn from other people’s mistakes or successes. Don’t go blindly into blending a family without talking with couples who have experienced the same family dynamics and can offer you valuable insights.
Solidify the Rules
Parents have different styles of raising kids. Maybe your new husband is more passive and permissive. Maybe your new wife has unique ideas on chores and allowances. This can cause tension, confusion, and animosity in the home. It’s important that whatever the rules are, make sure you set them in stone before bringing both families together. Also, take time to discuss who will dish out the discipline for the family and how it will be handled across the board.
A sweet girl who was staying with us in our Heartlight campus told me that she has been struggling with bitterness towards her stepmother and stepsisters, because her father treats her and her biological siblings differently. Since he doesn’t feel right disciplining his new wife’s kids, her father is especially hard on his girls, while the step kids (she feels) tend to get away with more.
Be careful to avoid favoritism in your home! Solidify the rules of the new blended family, and treat each person with the same grace and structure. Our natural inclination is to go easier on the kids that are not our own, or to be timid about showing love to step kids openly to avoid jealously. But to make a mixed family work, you have to handle each kid like your own. Lavish them equally with love. Expect them to follow the same rules. And discipline them like you would your own kids. It won’t be easy, and there will be growing pains, but in time the relationships will be become stronger if everyone gets a fair shake.
I wish that I could give each member of a blended family a quick solution that would make the process go easier and smoother. Sadly, there is no quick fix. Blending families is tough. There will be difficulties and hardships, especially for the children involved. There is deep emotional turmoil associated with losing parents that makes mixing families challenging.
I found out a few years ago that I have a kidney disease, which is treatable, but my doctor put me on a strict diet. Among others things, peanut M&M’s are on the do-not-eat list. Now, I happen to love peanut M&M’s. When I go to speaking engagements, all I ask for is peanut M&M’s and bottled water. But I had to stop cold turkey. One Halloween my granddaughter told me “Grandpa, you can’t have my M&M’s, cause you’ll die. But here, you can have my skittles.” It was a sweet offer. But ever since then, whenever I see skittles, I’m reminded that I can’t have what I really want—peanut M&M’s.
In the same way, when kids look at stepparents or step-brothers or sisters, they’re reminded of what they can’t have. They can’t have their mom and dad together. Now they have to share their parents. And that can be an overwhelming emotion to experience every day. So understand that it will take time to make a new family work. Experts say that they average time to bring two families together, cohesively, is seven years! Don’t expect that after everyone moves in together all you’ll need is a couple of months to work out the kinks. With those types of expectations, you’ll be setting yourself up for disappointment. Rather, go in with eyes wide open to the fact that it will require adjustments, work, and grace for many years to make a blended family successful.
Set Aside Time
Blending families is not a passive activity. It requires a constant movement forward to accomplish the goal. This means that more time will have to be invested into the family than ever before. That could involve less time at work and more time with your new family. Or it could demand giving up your seat on an important committee because your stepchildren need you. When bringing two families together, spending time with each member, letting them know that they have value and meaning, is crucial.
So take the time to go to coffee with your new stepdaughter alone. Take your new son to the movies, just the two of you. Words are important, but show that love in gifts of time with each kid. It will make a huge difference in each child’s life.
While blending two separate families can be a difficult job, it can also be deeply satisfying. Mixing families will never be as easy as the Brady Bunch made out to be. But with consistent work, effort and love, it can be just as successful.