Last night, as we settled into bed with a glass of wine, Gabe shared that Caden had recently hurt his feelings. He’d planned an outing he thought Caden would like, and Caden’s response hadn’t met his expectations. It was one of a long list of disappointments my sweet husband had suffered this week.
“It feels like nobody wants this blended family we’re working so hard to build,” Gabe said.
I jumped in, ready to fix it. Perhaps Gabe’s expectations were too high. My children love Gabe, perhaps he was just missing the signs. Perhaps Gabe was just momentarily discouraged; we’d been a family of eight nonstop for nine days without work or school, after all.
It was a tough conversation. Gabe was frustrated and pointed out I have often felt the same way. I was momentarily speechless. He was right. We have both sometimes felt like no one wants this thing we’re working so hard to build.
We stayed up until the wee hours of the morning working through the problem and identifying ways we could each better connect with the other’s children. We talked about parenting style and discipline and expectations. We talked about stepfamily dynamics and co-parenting and child development. We finally fell asleep some time after 4 a.m.
This morning, I can see more clearly. All that talk was just to drown out the truth. Gabe was right. No one wants to be in this blended family.
The truth is, no one wants to be in any blended family.
The children didn’t choose to marry and move and spend the rest of their lives with another family.
Our household is louder and noisier than it ever would be with three children. Our blended family reduces the attention each child gets. Attention that used to be theirs alone is divided between them, new stepsiblings and a new adult love.
A stepparent brings new expectations and unfamiliar traditions and habits. A stepparent is a living, breathing grief trigger, an adult whose very presence reminds the child that their biological parents are no longer together.
A blended family also includes a host of extended family. Extended family who tries to include the new partner and children, or include the exes, or all of the above. Extended family who rushes in with love and attention or stays away for fear of scaring children off. All of it well-intentioned and born of love, and all of it can sometimes feel wrong to children.
Imagine a child has been given a puzzle to assemble, with a pretty picture on the box. Then, we give the child a handful of extra pieces. “Make it work,” we tell them. “The picture on the box is different from what you have now. Figure it out.”
What child would choose that?
Adults are often wildly unprepared for blended family life. First-family examples surround us, but first-family strategies don’t work in blended families. Studies continually show that stepfamilies who begin their life together with a romantic, first-family approach fail.
The trouble is, adults in blended families typically have only first-family experience. Their friends and extended family have first-family expectations. Movies and books and magazines overwhelmingly tell first-family stories and give first-family advice. We want the first-family fairytale.
Resources for blended families are scarce and the stakes are high.
Adults in stepfamilies are instantly parenting unfamiliar, uncomfortable children — uncomfortable children related to a person they love deeply. The children have divided loyalties, and the stepparent’s role is nuanced and complex. Intimacy between people takes a long time, is built over repeated interactions, and develops at its own pace. It can be incredibly frustrating even in healthy relationships between two adults. It can feel impossible between an adult and an unrelated child.
Adults in blended families are given a puzzle too. Their puzzle is missing pieces and has extra pieces from some other set, and if you try to assemble it to fit the pretty picture on the cover, you are likely to fail. The challenge is to make a new picture with what you’ve been given, smoothing out the bumps and forced pieces as you go.
What adult would choose that?
The truth is no one wants to be in a blended family. Born of grief and failure, blended families are messy, and complicated, and exhausting. Marrying with children is “a feat of brazen, unadulterated hope.”
Hope is what kept Gabe and I talking until 4 a.m. Hope that we can keep working together and build a family that is a safe space for our children and for each other. Hope that our love and partnership will be an example for them as they grow. Hope that the children we love wildly will one day be able to freely accept that love and will feel it deep in their bones. Hope that this difficult journey we’re on together will eventually be just the start of our story.
Hope that our puzzle, as messy and complicated as it seems now with the frame barely constructed, will one day be a picture we all find beautiful.
May your hope be stronger than your fear, and stronger than today’s momentary truth.