Love Me, Love My Kids

11th December 2014

Blending two (or more) existing families is challenging at the best of times. Adding Christmas into the mix just makes it worse.

Heather Harris talks to those in the know. It’s evidently a sensitive subject: all names have been changed – and no-one was willing to be photographed…

To blend: ‘To mix smoothly and inseparably together’. It’s a definition that works fine on the Great British Bake Off but in a family, the risk of curdling is a genuine concern. The trouble is that where the ingredients are human beings – and not sugar and butter (bear with the metaphor here…) – the chance of everyone combining perfectly to form a sweet and sickly result is nigh on impossible.

The term ‘blended family’ slipped seamlessly into our language from America in the 1980s and refers to the increasingly common situation where two partners with children meet and cohabit or remarry, thus producing a whole new family and a whole new set of dynamics.

This Christmas, over 10% of all families sitting round the lunch table will be stepfamilies. One in three people pulling crackers this season will be a step-parent, step-child, adult step-child, step-sibling or step-grandparent.

So what exactly is wrong with using the ‘b’ word to describe the newly formed unit? It’s optimistic and non-judgemental – and matches perfectly the white toothed, harmonious families on TV. Think The Brady Bunch, for example.

But according to the ‘shaken not stirred’ families I spoke to (none of whom, interestingly, was willing to be photographed), the term is positively poison. As Dr Wednesday Martin, author of Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel and Act the Way We Do commented recently, “Anyone in a remarriage with kids has likely been bludgeoned with the term by the media, well-intentioned friends, books on ‘blended family life’ and even therapists who specialise in treating ‘blended’ families. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more harmful concept. Because re-partnership with children or adult children is anything but an ambrosial smoothie.”

The suggestion, reinforced by the media, that a step-parent loves her partner’s children, ‘just like they’re her own’ and the children return the sentiment is a fairy tale as far from reality as the wicked stepmother herself.

Christine, for example, met her partner Peter seven years ago when her two boys were six and eight and his two boys were seven and nine. Neatly dovetailed. And all at the same school. How convenient. Roll on to now and they are indeed ‘blended’ successfully but the transition has been anything but smooth.

“We had to be incredibly sensitive right from the start and we have gone through some very difficult stages. There’s been a lot of talking and a lot of listening and a lot of biting of tongues! My two boys also moved schools,” says Christine.

Sounding incredibly calm and effortlessly sensible, she went on to explain how each child took the situation differently; she stresses that everyone just had to accept this.

“Peter’s oldest child took longest to come round to the idea as he was very close to his mum. He was never openly rude to me, just distant and cold.”
Christine and Peter helped the situation by declaring very early on in their relationship that neither was a replacement parent. The ‘Just call me Mum’ approach is one which therapists agree only works with very young children.

There was also an agreement that the children should be disciplined by the natural parent only, in a further effort to show that the new Mum or Dad was not taking on the role of existing estranged parent.

“This was really hard for us and there was a lot of self control needed when you were so tempted to step in,” recalls Christine. I also had to learn to be less controlling and Peter to be less short tempered, so when we were all together we displayed a uniformed approach to all four of them.”

Hannah and her partner, Ed, also chose this approach when they moved in together with Hannah’s 6 year old daughter, Lucy, and Ed’s toddler son, Ben. “Things have evolved naturally. Although we both come together to ask the other for help, we make decisions for our own children independently, and we each discipline our own children.”

Hannah acknowledges that the fact the children were younger made a big difference, and the theory is backed up by UK charity One Plus One, which provides help to strengthen family relationships, “Studies show that the younger a child is, the easier they may find it to adjust to a stepfamily. Older boys and girls are more inclined to find it difficult to adjust. Research also shows that boys seem to find it easier than girls to adjust to stepfamilies, particularly if the girl is in early adolescence.”

Andrew, a 17 year old who three years ago suddenly gained two younger siblings, a boy and a girl, found that it was discipline and different expectations that caused the most problems. “Looking back I realised I was very resentful of Jack, my Mum’s new partner. I felt he was always on my case to do jobs around the house and help out when his own children did nothing.”

He can now see that this was perhaps more to do with the youngsters’ respective ages, but he felt it caused a real rift in their relationship which he is still struggling to repair.

“I didn’t make it easy for anyone. I was very happy with just me and Mum, so was very resentful of this whole new family moving in. People kept telling me how wonderful it was to have a new brother and sister to play with but this just made it worse!” he added, agreeing that the term ‘blended family’ certainly doesn’t apply to his situation.

Dr Martin points out that “Experts agree that new families work when everyone resets their own expectations – and ignore those who believe they ‘ought to be’ any particular way.” This includes the couple accepting that there’s nothing wrong with a child preferring his/her own parent, or a parent feeling closer to his or her own child. It is completely natural…

… which, ironically, is something which a new family will never be. As they say, “You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family”.
But in Andrew’s eyes this is exactly what his mum had done – she had chosen these new people to be his family. And it hurt. “These total strangers who weren’t in any way related to me were all suddenly living together and we were meant to get on.”

Put like that it seems amazing that any new families get past the first months let alone plan a future together. In fact, according to Relate nearly 40% of divorces in England and Wales involve one parent who has been married before and 9% between couples who have both been married.

The strain on the couple themselves is something that Christine and Peter have solved with a practical approach. “We only live ten minutes away from our ex spouses so it is easy for all four boys to move between their two homes. We have all the boys at the same time. So three nights a week we have all four of them, which means we also get time to ourselves!”

Andrew’s natural father lived twenty miles away and the stress of having two homes was a real issue. “ I found that I always had the wrong clothes at the wrong house and whenever there was a party near my Mum’s, I was at my Dads. This made me even madder.”

And, of course, the Christmas season just exacerbates the whole problem, as one adult friend, who now has children of her own, remembers. “If I was at my Dad’s for lunch I was jealous that my step-siblings were having lunch with my Mum and almost taking my place in all the family traditions! One year we tried to solve this by all swapping over after lunch and going to the other partners for tea but that just emphasised the chaos!”

With Christine and Peter, over the years a pattern has developed where they have all four boys one year and none the next. Hard the year that they are on their own but, as they and all the other parents I spoke, to were keen to stress, “The important people in all of this are the children. We have fallen in love with one another. They haven’t!”

Clearly, ‘blending’ with a step family is not impossible but, like the turkey gravy, it will take patience and time – and no matter how perfect we want it to be, there may still be some lumps which we just have to swallow hard and live with.

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