Blended families

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When Denise Perkins, a single mom, sat down with her fiancé, Darrell, to tell his girls, then 8, 11 and 12, that they were getting married, the first thing they asked was if she’d “take their daddy away.” “I was shocked,” she recalls, assuring them, “We are all going to share him.”

Forty percent of married couples with children in the U.S. are step-couples; one-third of all weddings in America form stepfamilies. More than 100 million Americans are part of stepfamilies.

A blended family, by definition, consists of something that has been broken. But sometimes when Plan A fails, Plan B can be just as sweet in its own way, experts and stepparents say.

But sweets aside, how do you break the news? April, a relationship expert and author, says, “Explain that your marriage to their mom or dad ended, and that you’re very sad about that, but you will always have a special place in your heart for their other parent. Then explain that you’re so very lucky to have found new love and to be able to share that new love with your children. Don’t try to replace their other parent with the new stepparent. It will backfire.”

“Blending families can be a challenging enterprise,” says Andrew E. Roffman, LCSW, clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone’s Child Study Center. “It’s important to remember that you and your partner are the two people who are volunteering for this new family configuration. So recognize that it can take time for kids and others, such as one’s own parents, new in-laws, ex-spouses and even former in-laws, to accommodate to this change. The more time and space you can give for this accommodation and the less pressure you put on yourself and the kids to get used to it, the more likely that accommodation can take place smoothly.”

“Try not to alienate the other parents. Children who feel that the other parents are hurt or troubled will tend to feel that they have to take care of them. So if you establish a healthy relationship with your ex, the blending will be easier. Don’t give disciplinary duties to the new stepparent,” April Masini cautions. “By doing so, you may think you’re showing your confidence and unity, but in reality, it’s jarring for the children to suddenly be disciplined by the stepparent. Very gently and gradually, add in mutual disciplining. You may feel it’s a Brady Bunch situation, but your kids may not.”

Stepsibling rivalry is another land mine. “If anyone felt left out they could call a family meeting and no matter what anyone was doing we had to stop and meet,” says Denise Perkins. “Of course, my son called the first meeting because he felt the girls were getting more stuff than he was.”

“A certain degree of rivalry is to be expected, said Roffman. “You and your partner can do a fair amount of preventive work by establishing clear and fair house rules that apply to everyone. Being a blended family does entail, in many cases, that each set of kids has another parent outside this home that they spend time with, receive (or not) gifts from, travel (or not) with on vacations. Things are likely to never be completely fair and even. It may make matters worse to try to compensate for unevenness in this domain. What makes more sense is to work hard to develop good communication within the family so it’s possible to talk about and reckon with these challenges.”

Cassie Graham didn’t bring children into the family. At first, her husband wanted her to take a motherly role she was uncomfortable with. “In the beginning, my husband expected me to have innate mothering/organizational skills, which are typically developed over time. I had never had to keep track of family birthdays, appointments and school stuff. I went from being single to having four kids to consider. I also had to remind him that they have a mom, and she’s a good mom. I am not that person in their lives, but I used instinct and perception to guide how I related to the kids. I let things happen organically rather than force myself on them.”

For all the challenges, blended families have their own sweet spot. For Denise, it’s been “the love we share; we never use the word ‘step.’ We were also blessed to have two girls together. I always wanted a big family, lots of children, a dog and white picket fence.”

“I am now a grandparent and that gives me great joy,” says Cassie. “They don’t call me step-grandma. I’m just Grandma to them and that’s nice. When I talk about the kids, I refer to them as my daughter or son, not my step-daughter or step-son. It just doesn’t feel right.” HLM

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