Families in a Blender

You're not even a real cousin!

These words stung. They were shouted at me as a little boy from the mouth a frustrated cousin who was, I'm sure, quite tired of something I was doing or saying.  At that age, I could be quite a handful.  But somehow, despite our ages, he knew exactly where to hit.  We laugh about it now, sometimes so hard that it brings us to tears.  One of us will do or say something out of line and the other will respond by letting them know just how out of place they are in our family. 

I come from a blended family.

But that doesn't quite capture it.  Although sometimes it did feel like we jumped into a giant blender, forced to coexist while the world spun us around a sharp and merciless axis.  Like most blended families, we had to find our way.  We were one of millions of new kinds of families who were breaking cultural trends on a unprecedented scale.  My parents knit together two cultures to create what they hoped would eventually become a single unit.  They married when I was five, and sometimes I have to remind myself that I used to call my father by his first name.  Now its just dad.  But blended families are hard, and I think I've made a career of trying to discover how to make it work.  Here's what I have found.

Don't clash. Blend.

This is a picture of my grandfather. He is a man of many talents.  He's been a businessman, a military man, an artist, a father, a grandfather, and a writer.  He and my grandmother now make jewelry in a little shop behind the house they've lived in for more than 60 years, and my grandfather spends most of his time with tools I'll never understand, blending precious metals.  

One day, I enlisted my grandfather to help me build a desk.  (He's also a carpenter)  While I cut and carved, Poppy went to work on his jewelry.  I sat there in his shop, watching him, and it struck me that our families were kind of like the silver in his hands, forged together in a crucible.  Each with their own culture.  

When two families come together, it is an exercise in patience and transition.  Each family, with their own unique values, traits, and characteristics must find a way to fit all the pieces together.  Only its not like you have a bunch of rational adults living in one house.  Most often, you have young children and teenagers, whose prefrontal cortexes are not developed enough to rationalize the emotional challenges that accompany divorce and remarriage.  What families need are parents who approach their new family with care and caution.

Proceed with caution

Sometimes parents think that they need to establish themselves as the pack leader straight away, to make sure their stepchildren (I hate this term) establish a healthy respect for them.  This may not be the best approach.  Avoid the temptation to become an authoritative figure by allowing the natural parents to take a disciplinary role with their children. Observe the culture of your new spouse and his or her children. Learn from it.  Adapt to it.  Why?  Your children already understand you as their caretaker.  They might give you pain for it, but they generally understand that you are the boss.  The new members of your blended family, however, simply recognize you as a new adult in their lives. You are not quite part of the tribe yet.  That's okay.  This is a naturally slow change. It will be important for you to gain the privilege of authority before you exercise your authoritative role.  

In the same way, parents can support each other by becoming a united front.  Children will test their limits with both of you, and it is healthy for them to recognize this new adult in their lives as a constant figure of love and affection.  The best way to do this is by showing your children that your new relationship is strong and united.  Take conflict elsewhere.  Back each other up.  Etc. 

This can be a tricky road, so be careful, and seek help if you want it.

Your children knew you first, but that doesn't mean that your new marriage needs to be sacrificed on the altar of your child's discomfort.  What I mean by this is that because this is such a major change, children will likely be uncomfortable in some way.  If you've decided to make a new blended family, you know that this is what is best for your children.  So discomfort, while we wish it wasn't so, is unavoidable.  In response, be consistently together.  Be on each others' sides, and support one another.  

As parents, do not hasten to discipline your new children, but allow that role to continue in the hands of your new spouse. Be patient and invest the time to earn your new role as an authoritative parent.  As spouses, do not restrain your affections for one another. Reassure your children by expressing the strength of your new marriage, and over time, perhaps your new children will forget that they ever called you by your first name. 

Dr. Mathis Kennington