When Gabe and I started seriously talking about getting married, we decided to put the kids in counseling. Our reasoning was solid and very adult — they’d been through the separation of their parents in the last several years, each set had established a new household with new routines, and now more change was on the horizon.
We started with my crew. I made the appointment with a counselor who had experience with blended families, told the kids about it, and merrily drove them to their first appointment. I ignored their protests. They didn’t want to go to counseling and talk to a stranger about stuff. They didn’t have any questions about life after divorce. They certainly didn’t have any questions about blending our families. That all fell on my very deaf, I am your mother and I know best, ears.
The counselor, a well-dressed, middle-aged woman who looked a bit like an elementary school principal, stuck her head into the waiting room and called our name. I’d like to tell you they all got up and walked back into her office, shared their thoughts and feelings, and lived happily ever after, but that’s not exactly what happened. No one moved. Not even a muscle twitch. I am sure the counselor was thinking not only did she have to work with this group on blended family issues but also on basic name recognition.
I cheerfully led the kids back into her office, explained our back story (as I saw it), and at the counselor’s invitation, excused myself so they could speak freely about their views on our situation. Walking down the hallway, I was relieved that we were getting help. The kids could share their thoughts and concerns, I could learn about how to address them, and we’d ride off into the sunset. Check — family blended.
The woman who returned my children to me 45 minutes later looked a bit bewildered. She asked to speak with me privately, and it was then that I learned that no one had said anything in 45 minutes. I take that back – Simon had said one thing. She’d asked if they had thoughts or concerns about the upcoming changes to our family and he had politely responded that they did not. After that, silence.
We tried three more times. The kids were happy to answer questions about school or dance or Pokémon, but did not offer any insight into how they were thinking or feeling, and had no questions about blended families. I gave up. Maybe it would all be fine.
Fast forward several months later. As we’d been spending more and more time together, we noticed people staring at us. It’s our normal now — we are a huge family and people aren’t used to seeing that much anymore. Once people noticed the three distinct ages of our kiddos, and the fact that we have a boy and a girl of each age, they couldn’t help themselves: We began to hear Brady Bunch references everywhere we went.
“What’s the Brady Bunch?” the kids asked. “Why are people calling us that?” Gabe and I explained the premise of the show, and the pop quiz began. “Which one am I?” “Do they have pets?” “How old are they?” “Do they all get along?” We could answer those questions.
Two days later we received our green shaggy carpet-covered DVD box set, and sat down a to watch the first episode, when Mr. and Mrs. Brady get married. Four minutes in, we paused to answer the onslaught of questions about our upcoming wedding. Would it also be outside? Did the girls’ dresses have to match? Would pets be allowed? That’s how we worked our way through the first full season. Watching a 20-minute episode often took the better part of an hour. Lots of the questions were simple and safe to ask — would we have a treehouse? Would we have an Alice? Those paved the way for the harder, more nervous ones — would we have the same last name? Would they have to call me Mom? Would we change schools? Share rooms? It seemed that asking questions while they were all together, at home, facing a screen, they felt safe.
Watching a family blend made it easier to ask questions, and gave us a shared inventory of examples to talk about. The kids identified with the Bradys. They began to call themselves by the Brady kids names, and even asked if they could trick-or-treat as the famous family. The ridiculously outdated norms and styles made it an easy comedic target for the older two, while the younger four appreciated the simple, straightforward storytelling. We spent that whole winter curled up on the couch and spread out on the floor watching the The Brady Bunch.
By the time we got married and moved that spring, the kids had asked and we had answered what felt like a million questions. Lottie confessed to me once that she was feeling nervous, “just like Cindy did.” Sara was accused of dominating the family’s collective attention — Marsha, Marsha, Marsha. Our family, once a weird, unspeakable unknown, had a precedent. There were others like us out there. We were normal, and the feelings and concerns they had were normal too. We’d arrived at the destination we’d hoped for months earlier when we started counseling. We were right that preparation was important. We’d just gotten there a different way.
Kate is a blogger at ThisLifeInProgess.com.