We've all read the heartwarming, viral human interest stories about blended family triumphs where ex-spouses come together alongside new spouses for the sake of their kids. Dads and stepdads walking daughters down the aisle at weddings; moms and stepmoms exchanging beautiful letters professing mutual love and respect and gratitude. They're sweet, aren't they?
Then there's my blended family. We don't look anything like that, and we never will. Some of us just don't blend very well — and the secret to making it work for us was accepting it.
Here's something I've learned in my almost decade of this stepmom gig. Even though my husband and I love our kids with every bit of us, you can't love a kid into liking you. It doesn't work.
Sure, you can try. You can bend one way or another. You can even excuse bad behavior and even brush off the eye rolls and the you're-not-my-mom comments.
But you can't do that forever. At some point, the pressure you've built up will break you. And you'll find yourself on the floor of your closet, pounding Oreos and chasing them with a sweet red wine because you are on the absolute brink of losing every bit of your ever-loving mind. Well, maybe the Oreos and the sweet red wine are just me.
Do you know why second marriages fail at higher rates? I’m convinced that in part, it's the kids. They test us — all the time. Then there’s everybody else. What no one really talks about with second (or third or fourth) trips down the aisle is that your relationship isn't solely between the two of you. The presence of your exes looms large and casts wide shadows over everything you do with your kids. If those other parents aren't on board with your new family dynamic, all the love in the world cannot make it work.
This dynamic is one of the reasons why parenting everyone the same is virtually impossible. Trust me, we tried. But the rules and efforts we made in our home didn't extend beyond its boundaries. And kids are smart; they know the two houses don't have the same rules. They learn to work it and figure out who will give them what they want and who gets snarky and says things like, "Deal with it." (You can quote me on that.)
The moments when we did blend were magical and gave us some of our favorite memories — but when they ended, our dynamic curdled like the milk in a long-forgotten sippy cup. Cooperation flew out the window and laughter morphed into raging fits. The familiar cries of “That’s mine,” “It’s not fair,” and “I’m allowed at mom’s,” filled the house or car or wherever we happened to be when the unraveling began. This scenario is probably more common than you realize, simply because those of us living in it feel a level of guilt and shame that’s hard to share. Instead, we suffer in silence and take it out on ourselves and our spouses. And boy, are we good at doing both of those — or at least I was.
After muddling through for a few years and trying to fit the blended mold where our new family unit thrived in love rather than simply existing in a constant haze of tension, my husband and I decided that letting the animals run the zoo wasn't working. We started talking to each about how awful our kids were making us feel instead of pushing it down and hoping it would pass. We discovered that boundaries were necessary — no more excusing or tolerating bad behavior. If a kid broke our rules, they lost a privilege. Full stop. We also let go of certain expectations, like making all the kids attend each other’s school events. We learned to pick our battles and spent some time coming up with a game plan for when things went south. We needed to go back to being allies, and let’s face it, you can't be on the same page if you aren't even in the same damn book.
My husband and I accepted the scrambled situation, and now we take things as they come rather than forcing ourselves to be more like everyone thinks we should. Our marriage is strong, and our kids are still alive. I consider it a win on all fronts.
Some of you have mastered this blended family thing, and that’s inspiring and encouraging. But those of us living a more scrambled-family existence need more understanding and support. We are trying — really trying — to make something work that isn’t for any number of reasons. It doesn’t mean we don’t want it to.
Take the wins when they come and enjoy the moments when the family blends. And for all the other times, keep a stockpile of Oreos and wine in the closet.
Jen Sinclair is a freelance writer and editor who lives with her husband, kids, and lovable mutt in Saint Augustine, Florida. She enjoys working on her novels and short stories, correcting other people’s grammar, and hiking around town with WFWA writers. You can find out more about Jen on her website jensinclairwrites.com and her social media accounts @JenSin1313 on Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram.