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We almost didn’t survive our first year as a stepfamily

The first year of our marriage was wildly, ridiculously hard. Like, “when is this going to end I am not sure I can take another second of it” hard. Like, lie awake at night figuring out the easiest way to get out of this mess hard. Running away crossed my mind more than once.

Even after all our preparation, my husband Gabe and I had no idea what we were getting into when we married that spring, but hope believes all things. We spend the first two months of our marriage living separately because we couldn’t get the timing right on house sales and moves and cohabitation clauses. We had a family sleepover or two for our six children and waited. We were married, but it didn’t seem real.

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Move day walloped us. For some reason, we thought it would be a great idea to move both households in on the same day. That meant two full trucks unloading, six kids underfoot, and all the emotions of the move sloshing around for everyone. So. Much. Stuff. Summer arrived before we’d gotten half the boxes unpacked.

We took our first family vacation to the beach. It was a terrific success. This six kid blended family thing was going to be, as Gabe had promised, easy-peasy. The day after we got home, I opened the door to a sheriff serving Gabriel papers in a legal dispute. Two weeks later, our dog, a nervous shelter rescue, attacked our new neighbors’ beloved lap puppy. Two weeks after that, Gabe was unexpectedly laid off. The following week, I was laid off. We were still unpacking, starting school, adjusting to our new life together. We were overwhelmed by the day-to-day work of our life together, and drowning under the weight of the additional legal and professional issues we faced.

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That fall passed in a blur. We had to put our dog down and the kids were devastated. We worried about money. Our six-kid life swirled around us — activities, forgotten homework, bedtime stories. We were also navigating the formation of our family: Who parented when, what each child needed, what mattered to all of us or just some. It was incredibly difficult. We began to unravel.

We were shocked to find ourselves fighting. Not politely disagreeing, really fighting. And not once or twice that first year, but often regularly, even. We spent Halloween weekend barely speaking, which was quite a feat given that weekend included trick or treating, three parties, and a dozen hot dogs made to look like mummies.

How could this first year of marriage be worse than the last year of my marriage before my divorce?

Maybe I had made a terrible mistake. This couldn’t be the right thing for the two of us or for our children if it felt so hard. If being together was right, it should be easier than this.

And there it is. The lie. The “should.”  When I could quiet my anxious mind and really pay attention, I realized that “should” was driving the bus. This should be easier. We should be talking more. We should be calmer when we interact. Should, should, should. I started to shift my focus from what I thought should be to what was actually happening.

What was happening is that each of the adults in our house were adjusting to a marriage and living together. We were also adjusting to three new kids in the house. We were still figuring out how this house creaks and sighs in the night and how many showers we can take before we run out of hot water. We missed our dog. We left all our comforts of home behind, added a bunch of new people who were also feeling out-of-place, and mixed well. This situation felt hard and all-consuming because it was hard and all-consuming.

That realization that this new life felt difficult because it was difficult, not because it was wrong helped. Not immediately, and not in a Magic Eraser on a smudged wall kind of way, but it helped. Removing the “should,” eliminating my reaction, and focusing on what was happening and what I needed to keep going made things easier.

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The year marched on. We survived the holidays by removing most of the pomp and circumstance (no one noticed). Early in the new year, Gabe’s legal issues resolved successfully. Our new puppy potty trained. We still fought, but found a counselor and started seeing her every other week. We planted a garden. Gabe landed a job that he was excited about and went back to work. And then it was spring, and it had been a year.

We celebrated our family-versary by having brunch at our wedding site and taking the tribe bowling. Truthfully, I didn’t feel much like celebrating. I felt busted up and exhausted. That celebration was exactly what I needed. I watched our children talk and laugh about the wedding, how nervous they were and the fun they’d had. I watched them talking comfortably at brunch and nearly all order the same thing.  I saw them play together easily, enjoying each other’s company.

I saw our tribe one year later, with relaxed shoulders and real smiles and easy interaction. I saw the new life delivered by the hard, messy work of our first year, and restored my hope.

Kate Chapman blogs about her blended family life at

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