How we broke the rules about family blending

Oct 5, 2015 at 2:31 p.m. ET
Image: Uwe Krejci/Getty Images

You’ve met a great guy, and it looks like this thing might have legs. You’re starting to dream and wonder… could this relationship go the distance? You realize at some point he’ll have to meet your kids, but you’ve heard and read so many conflicting things about how and when you should do this that you’re somewhat paralyzed.

So, you keep sneaking in dates on the days when the kids are with your ex or putting yourself on the edge of bankruptcy while your babysitter rakes in the money. You're getting tired and wish there was more fluidity in your life. When do the walls come down and these segmented compartments of life start to flow into each other?

The answer is right about now.

When my boyfriend and I were getting to this place, he told me that his daughter's therapist and his divorce mediator both told him not to introduce his kids to someone new until he was engaged. I looked him dead in the eye and said, "Would you ever propose to someone you'd never seen interact with your children? Would you ever propose to someone you'd never known as a mother, whose children you hadn't met?"

His answer was a clear and resounding, "No."

Before I'd met my boyfriend's children, I didn't fully know him. We'd been together, intimately, for seven months, but I didn't know what kind of a dad he was, how he parented or if I even liked his children. While he had met my son, it had been in a distanced and somewhat cursory way. I had no idea how he'd step-parent my child, nor how I'd step-parent his. How could we choose to spend a life together without these edges rounded out, those blanks filled in?

Our relationship had gone about as far as it was going to go without this next, crucial step. We were in love, and the relationship itself was great, but the compartmentalization was starting to weigh heavily.The relationship itself was calling out for more. It was time to up-level it.

My boyfriend said to me, with fear in his eyes, “I have no idea how to do this.”

Frankly, neither did I. Having been divorced for over six years, I have introduced my son to two other boyfriends — only one of whom I was dating seriously — and neither of them had school-aged children. Though I have written extensively on this topic, am widely considered the go-to expert coach on all things single mom and dating and was even named one of the Top 10 Dating Coaches in LA, when it was my turn to do this, I was totally clueless.

Here is what I did know:

  1. We needed to get to know each other’s children — and each other as parents — before ever contemplating taking bigger steps in our relationship.
  2. Our children needed as much time as we did to get used to the idea of a blended family. Dropping them into it once we were engaged didn’t give them the opportunity to get to know us the way they should — over time.
  3. Despite what the so-called experts were saying, our well-tuned guts were telling us it was time.

And so, with some “Yikes, are we really doing this?” and a lot of “Here’s hoping!,” we took the plunge.

Here’s what we’ve learned — and are still learning:

  • Take it slowly. Don’t create an insta-family. While someday this might become everyone’s new family, everyone — especially the children — has a right to get used to it, and has feelings about it. Having dinner once or twice a week is a nice way to allow the children, and the parents, to get used to this whole new world.
  • Keep it simple. Rather than spend a whole day at the beach or Disneyland together, low-key dinners at home allow children and parents to retreat to their own corners when necessary and find common games and toys to play with after the meal.
  • Don’t force it. The children might love this new world one day and hate it the next. They will have feelings, sometimes big ones, and those feelings might conflict with the ones they had yesterday. Don’t expect an instant love-fest. Younger children might be confused and feel their allegiance to their other primary parent is being tested. If they don’t want to hug you, that’s ok. Let them be the guide and set the tone. Their resistance to you is normal. Their love of you is normal. The fact that they’ll flip-flop between the two is also normal. Don’t take it personally. The more space you allow for all their feelings to be ok, the safer they will feel.
  • Work as a team. Communication with your boyfriend is everything. Each of you knows your children best, and one of the best ways to get to know his kids is through his eyes. The more you communicate, the more unified you will be — and feel. Any issues that come up should be viewed through the lens of how can we solve this problem together? This perspective will help you to not fight over an issue and maintain the unity of the relationship.
  • Carve out grownup time. Make sure you have enough time in your crazy schedules for grownup time and date nights. Kid time is great, but the foundation of the relationship is still the adult connection and it needs to be kept fortified. If custody schedules and finances allow, a trip out of town once a month can keep the passion alive and allow time for deepening the connection, both of which are vital to the longevity of a relationship.
  • You’re going to have feelings about this too, and that’s ok. I have been shocked by all the feelings that have come up for me during this process. I’ve felt distanced from my boyfriend on some days and incredibly close to him on others. I’ve had to face the fact that I’ve never experienced a truly healthy relationship in my life, and while I’ve worked my ass off to be able to have one, it feels really strange and unfamiliar. I’ve had to look at the fact that having been an only child raised in a single-parent household, this whole “family” thing is really uncomfortable, despite being my deepest longing. It’s important for my boyfriend and I to communicate about all of this and acknowledge this doesn’t always look or feel the way I thought it would — the five of us skipping off into a sunlit field of daisies. This is real life, and it’s real work.

This is just the beginning of what just might be a lifelong journey. It’s far harder than either of us ever thought, but my ex-husband, who’s already walked this path, says it’s definitely well worth it. I know my boyfriend is worth it, as are all of our children.