It was first thing in the morning when he came into my office with hesitation and reluctance. It was clear to me that showing up at that ungodly hour was the last place this fourteen-year-old boy* wanted to be. His coming to see me was not his choice, just like his mother's wedding he'd been a groomsman in seven months earlier.
He sat on my couch, his discomfort apparent as he shifted his weight nervously from side to side, trying to adjust to the new surroundings and to me -- a woman who was a complete stranger to him.
He surprised himself by opening up quickly. His words spilled out, falling out on top of each other, words that had been suppressed for far too long.
A drunk driver had killed his father when he was only six. Memories of him had been diluted with time but they were clear enough to remember the Dad he loved and still missed. His mother had met a man a year before, a man with two daughters and a son. The man's son was the exact same age as him. They had nothing in common.
When his mother and the man married, his childhood home was sold, the home that was the preserver of the memories of his father. The new home was big enough, he didn't want to complain, and he had a room of his own. His mother's new husband, a father with full-time custody, brought all three of his children with him and the boy felt like an extra, an outsider, a P.S.
He had two older brothers who had moved on to the adventures of college and he had felt abandoned, left to navigate the wilderness of his new home and new life. His eyes betrayed his feelings of powerlessness as he leaned towards me, his hands nervously outlining the edges of his well-worn baseball cap. He mumbled, "I don't want to seem ungrateful, I really don't, but nobody asked me."
Nobody asked me. His muted pronouncement sounded like a glaring indictment.
He continued, "I resent how my stepdad comes into my room without asking. I hate how he tells me he loves me. I hate how he insists on weekly "family" meetings. He's not my family and neither are his children."
I nodded in agreement as I listened to him because I wasn't surprised. I'd heard his story many times over the years from other stepchildren who felt just like him.
When his mother and her then-boyfriend had told me during a session several months earlier about their plans to wed and "blend" their families, I could see the big red warning signs illuminate my office. They were blind to it. They were innocent and overcome with the hope that the pain of the man's divorce and the horrendous loss of the woman's husband were going to disappear with the merging of their families.
"We're going to be one big family and it's going to be wonderful!" they both exclaimed. "Our children get along so well!" They joked about being the next Brady Bunch.
Upon their return from their honeymoon, reality hit home like an unwelcome credit card bill after an impulsive buy. They had a household of unhappy campers, one of them being the well-spoken boy sitting in my office.
I worked weekly with the family for months to help them develop more realistic expectations and allow the patience of time and care to persevere. Checking in on the young man several years later, his feelings hadn't changed. He had learned to "put up" with the stepfamily he was drafted into.
Sixty-five to 70 percent of second marriages with children end in divorce. When couples marry for the second time and bring their children with them, there is a strong desire to "get it right this time". Everyone wants "happily ever after", especially when the first happily ever after didn't work out so well. It's easy to get caught up in our own desires, wish lists and magical thinking. But reality is more successful than fairy tales and it's best to have eyes wide open to the realities of stepfamily life, to stories like the young man in my office.
It's vital to include and consider the children. Not that they get to decide, but just so they know they are heard, that they matter, that they have a voice, that they count.
Having a "blended" family isn't a sign of success, but children who know they are understood, seen for who they are and respected, is. Educating oneself before entering the complicated nature of stepfamily life is wise and proactive. Continuing to educate yourself about what works in stepfamilies and what doesn't is more than necessary. Remember, it's an unnatural system you're inviting your children into, despite the large number of stepfamilies that now comprise modern family life. It's not a decision to be made lightly.
*This story is a composite of multiple clients to ensure their privacy and confidentiality.