Whether you are a single parent planning to remarry or a stepmother of three, you know that blending a family requires careful consideration and planning. We’ve asked adults who’ve successfully blended families as well as those who grew up in blended families for their advice on creating families who thrive.
It takes work to blend families — the sort of work that never ends. Accordingly, the rewards are also boundless.
I have been a stepmother for over five years. My stepson will turn 8 years old in a few weeks. His father and I also have two daughters, ages 2 months and 4 years. We have faced our share of challenges as co-parents; we have been to dinner with our son’s other parents and we have been to court.
Though I am a less than perfect mother and stepmother, I love my children, all three of my children, perfectly. This love inspires me to keep searching for ways to be better.
Luckily I have unlimited resources at my disposal. I have friends who are stepmothers and friends who grew up under the care of stepmothers. I have a multitude of friends online who are willing to offer their wisdom and advice. Endless blogs and message boards explore the subject. Even on the toughest days, I am never alone. None of us are.
Talk to someone who understands
It could be your therapist or your girlfriend with a stepmother or your cousin with step kids or your sister with no stepfamily. As a mother in a blended family, you will at some point need to vent about your situation. Your ex, your spouse’s ex, your kids, your step kids. And you should talk about it with someone besides your spouse. An outsider’s perspective is invaluable and necessary, a boon to growth and peace. Don’t hold it all inside or it will eat away at you.
We all have cell phones and the capability to text message. Use it. You can communicate with your ex or your spouse’s ex without picking up the phone and getting personal. Instead of guessing or making assumptions, simply communicate between households.
Take it seriously
At a certain point, parenting the child(ren) you share becomes like a business relationship. You are colleagues working together to raise a human being rather than a profit. And since people are more important than money, this should be the business relationship you take the most seriously.
Respect all parents
A parent putting down their child’s other parent (in front of the child) makes the child feel worse than if the parent had put down the child himself. Children want their parents to be absolute constants, super-human instead of human, incapable of failing or leaving or dying. It doesn’t matter how badly your child’s other parent is behaving, leave the adult problems for the adults to deal with and let the children have their childhood. Someday, they will know exactly how each of their parents is imperfect. Hopefully they’ll love us anyways.
Don’t get in the middle
Don’t get in the middle of arguments between your child and your ex. Don’t get in the middle of disagreements between your spouse and your spouse’s ex. And don’t get in the middle of the stepchild’s problems at school (et cetera) if both biological parents are already actively involved. The fewer parents involved in the drama, the better.
Treat them fairly
A friend who was raised by her father and stepmother advises that parents set equal age-appropriate expectations for all children — and stick to them. The act of parenting stepchildren and your “own” children at once (as I do) can be tough since we are biologically programmed to be more tolerant of our natural children. It is a practice in mindfulness, a challenge to step outside of our innate tendencies and ourselves into a place of greater awareness.
State the rules clearly
Parents should not expect their co-parents to have an identical parenting style. Accordingly, children who live in two homes must adapt to two different sets of rules. In some ways this benefits the child as they are taught flexibility and adaptability from a young age. But it can also be challenging for everyone. Have patience; be generous with your reminders and fair with your consequences. Reward good behavior with praise. Empathize with the children while also maintaining your expectations. Even if there is no consistency between houses, consistency within a household goes a long way.
The adult child of a blended family says that when kids start talking about what happens at “mom’s” or “dad’s” house, listen because they may be asking for more responsibility or slack. Children are highly sensitive and intuitive creatures. You can learn a lot about their needs and desires just by listening carefully.
Connect with extended family
My aunt who is a seasoned and successful stepmother encouraged me to always bring my stepson along to our family reunions. It can be challenging to coordinate so many busy schedules, but it’s been worth it. Not only is he a part of my nuclear family, he has also become an integral part of my big extended family. The more ways you can connect a family, the better. Furthermore, spending time with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins boosts self-esteem, which can be lacking in children of divorce.
Family traditions, inside jokes, vacations as well as one-on-one time between each parent and child are keys to cementing the family bonds. A ritual as simple as checking in with every child before bed will go a long way to make him or her feel loved and cared for. This is also the perfect time to repair any damage done that day, discussing disagreements and apologizing regardless of fault.
Show your love
Everyone shows love in different ways. Maybe you give advice, you tickle, you wrestle, you play catch, you cook dinner, you buy presents or you read aloud. However you show it, just do it. It doesn’t matter if you never kiss or hug your step kids. I bet if you look deep inside you will find some sort of funny-looking love for your partner’s children. Make the time for it.
Lastly, remember this: the most important factor in the success of a blended family is bountiful and unconditional love.