Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Pssst ... "The Brady Bunch" was only a TV show

I have a friend from high school who is blogging about her experiences as a 40-something woman who divorced and rekindled with her high-school boyfriend, and they've embarked on a new life together. It's a yours-mine-and-ours life; together, they're raising her children and his children. If her posts are any indication, it all seems to be working out pretty well.

That makes me envious, because I can tell you, I've been there and done that -- in fact, I'm still doing it -- and it's not easy.

A disclaimer: This is where blogging gets tricky. This is my blog, not my husband's or my children's or my stepchildren's. So I'm going to try to make this work in a way that doesn't violate the privacy of anyone I care for, while continuing to be true to myself as a human being who wishes to share her experiences in the hope that they might help someone else. Wish me luck.

I have two children; Kevin has four. When he and I first became friends 10 years ago, I had been divorced for about three years, and he was newly alone. Both of us had been through the wringer emotionally, and neither of us was looking for a partner -- especially, as we often laughed, because between us, we had a "Brady Bunch" family -- three boys, three girls, three dogs. (Unfortunately for my domestically challenged self, though, no Alice.)

We were horrified at the logistics that would be involved with merging such a household, so we took things slowly. After a while, though, it became evident that we needed to make a decision. Each of us was 42 by that time, and referring to him as my "boyfriend" was grating; besides, the kids were in favor of the whole thing and were urging us to make it legal. On a Friday night, with family and close friends around us and gourmet pizza later on, we did.

If this were a movie, now would be the time when the camera would freeze and the sound system would blare the sound of a phonographic needle scratching across a record. Because as soon as we married, everything changed.

Divorce wreaks havoc on children, no doubt about it. Each family handles it differently, and some fare better than others, but some things are common -- namely, kids don't like sharing a biological parent with an interloper. A study a few years ago found that given the choice, kids would rather have parents who stayed married and fought all the time than parents who were divorced. That's pretty controversial and is open to debate, but I wholeheartedly believe it.

So kids fantasize about willing their parents to reunite, a la The Parent Trap, and what's standing in the way of that? If you're the stepparent -- you. You, with your lack of kitchen skills, your tendency to expect things to go your way, your computer and your books and your stupid furniture. Your unfamiliarity and your irritating way of correcting people's grammar; your preference for staying up too late, and your commanding a share of their dad's attention. You, the mom who is not their mom.

You. You are the interloper. You are the obstacle. You are the problem.

And I totally get that. When I was 18 and my mom had been dead for more than a decade, my dad remarried. Although I was away in college, I still didn't like it, for all the reasons listed above and more. And I'm sad to say the discord persisted for years ... you know why? Because even though my mom was dead, "blending" was still really tough -- and I was a grown-up. Imagine what it's like for a child.

I realize that sometimes, divorce is inevitable. And some people make the valid choice to become parents without being married. But -- although I'm a liberal and a Democrat and decidedly not a fan of Dr. Laura -- I believe that if you're going to commit to have a child with someone, making every effort to stay together is the way to go. If that can't happen, though, you have no choice but to pick up the shards, love your children extra-fiercely to try to mitigate the pain, and keep going.

And then, if you happen to fall in love again (with someone who has kids), things become oh-so-complicated ... because you're suddenly associating in close quarters with children you didn't raise. You weren't there to read to them every night, soothe their tears, make sure they watched educational TV and eat their carrots. You weren't there for ear tubes and tonsils and first days of school and first sleepovers.

But suddenly, you're expected to behave as if you were. And they're expected to behave as if you were, too ... when all they really want is for their family, their real family, to be the way it was before.

I don't pretend to have any answers. But if you're embarking on such a chapter, perhaps some things I've learned the last several years -- and big mistakes I and others have made -- can prove helpful to you.
  • Don't expect too much, and don't take things personally. Easier said than done, but chances are, the child who says she hates you is hating her situation, and it wouldn't matter if you happened to be Fraulein Maria or Claire Huxtable or Lorelei from Gilmore Girls. She'd still call you bad names and pray that one day, you'll simply forget to come home from work.
  • Don't offer your input as to how the child should be raised. Remember: You weren't there for all the events that shaped the child. Granted, you shouldn't allow abuse of any kind, or theft or destruction of property. But if no one's bleeding and your stuff's not missing and you and your kids are not being directly impacted, stay out of it. The child has parents, and decisions regarding the child's behavior and its consequences are not yours to make. Concentrate on your own kids.
  • Don't expect to feel overwhelming parental love for a child who's not yours. In rare and happy households, it happens. That's not to say you don't care about the child, but don't feel guilty if you don't feel as much as you think you should. Also, if it becomes clear that you and an older child just don't get along and probably never will, refuse to play games. Respect the child's feelings, minimize contact, and don't allow the issue torpedo your marriage. (And if you're the parent of a younger child who is hostile to his or her stepparent, set some ground rules, and seek the help of a counselor if you can't seem to gain any ground.)
  • If he or she is open to it, try being your stepchild's friend. It's a dopey cliche, but in some cases, it works. Being friends with your stepchild and genuinely enjoying that child's company is a joy.
  • Use common sense. Don't bad-mouth your stepchild to your spouse. If your spouse is a decent parent and is brow-beaten into choosing you or his children, it's a guarantee that he won't choose you. Talk to a sympathetic friend or family member, but leave your spouse out of those conversations.
  • Remember why you married your spouse in the first place, and even on the very worst days, reassure him or her that the two of you are still the two of you, and you're going to tough things out together.
There's a difference between being a Realistic Robin and a Negative Nancy, and I don't mean to cross the line. I daresay that in the most tumultuous blended household, there are still good times to be had. I just wish that someone had told me years ago that my expectations needed to be in line with my reality.

If you're part of a blended family and your experiences have been different from mine -- or if they've been the same, and you want to vent -- please leave a comment. Given that the divorce rate still is hovering around 50 percent, my household can't be the only one dealing with this, and I'd love to learn from you.


  1. Just so you know, each day has it's challenges. Our life is NOT perfect, but Loren and I agreed from the very beginning that we were a united team. We also agreed, as you discussed, that we would parent our own children and not each others. We also talk about everything. And we talk every day. We set aside at least a half hour everyday just to touch base on what's happened since we got up in the morning. It truly helps. And we love each other very much.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Mary ... and thanks for inspiring this blog! (Anyone who may be reading this -- click on the "Two Become Seven" link above to read Mary's blog.)