I watched producer, Garry Marshall's, Mother's Day last night with my stepdaughter, and learned this morning of his unfortunate passing yesterday. Thanks to Mr. Marshall, for two, fun-filled hours we sat back and giggled as we watched superstars like Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson and Julia Roberts stumble over the normal issues that arise with most blended families. Garry Marshall tackled it all: interfaith marriage, divorce, remarriage, gay marriage, step parenting and adoption. The movie was epic, and a hilarious reminder of where our blended family has traveled over the past several years. It gave us a chance to look at the behaviors of others on a screen, while considering our own real-life behaviors. As they say, we've come a long way, baby.
But, this post isn't a movie review. It is a reminder that though blended families are just like any other family (dare I say, maybe better??!!), we do have to work just a tad bit harder to make sure that our children are raised in supportive, loving environments. We have to interact with multiple sets of parents and children, and how we engage with each other sets the tone for these multifaceted relationships. As we approach the new school year, while some parents look forward to the routines of homework, after-school sports and other extracurricular activities bringing structure and productivity to their children's' lives, some parents are dreading the need to interact more closely with their blended family members.
Potential battlegrounds for divorced parents are in abundance when it comes to school, especially if stepparents are part of the picture. The look on Jennifer Aniston's face was priceless, when the new wife showed up to the school play and plopped down on the seat right next to hers. Aniston was unamused, making it perfectly clear that (in her mind) the new stepmom didn't belong at the play, at parent-teacher conferences, or anywhere. Of course, this humorous interaction merely set the stage, and offered the perspective of both moms: biological and step.
As the new school year is about to begin, I'd like to offer some tips for the newly-divorced or new members of a blended family to ease the transition and try to avoid unnecessary conflict.
First, get ahead of your anticipated disputes by designing, implementing, and complying with a detailed and customized Parenting Plan (easier said than done, right?) This document is your roadmap, and provides all parents (biological and step parents) the specific terms and conditions under which they are to operate, leaving no room for "innocent" confusion or misunderstanding.
Second, set expectations relating to school work. Who will be responsible for making sure that classroom assignments are properly completed and handed-in? Who is available to work on research projects that span across multiple weeks? Perhaps design this by subject matter (Mom helps with Math, Dad helps with English). Or maybe Mom will work with one child, while Dad works with the other. There is no "correct" answer but a well-designed Parenting Plan identifies roles and responsibilities so that academic performances don't suffer.
Third, discuss what you are willing (or, aren't willing) to agree to relating to after-school activities and sports. And please, DO NOT engage your child(ren) in the discussion until after you've fully discussed it with the other co-parents involved. Consider the necessary logistics of your child's participation in after-school activities or sports before making any promises that may or may not be able to be fulfilled. Will this unduly burden one parent, negatively affect time-sharing or prevent adequate time for homework? Are there safety and/or financial considerations?
Fourth, think about how you want to present yourself to your child(ren)'s teachers and coaches. Do you want to be the bitter, hateful parent, who seethes at even the mention of the other parent's name? Do you want to manipulate situations to keep the other parent(s) away from school activities (and in doing so, alienating the child from his/her parent?) Or, do you want to present yourself as cooperative, inclusive, and genuinely more interested in your child's well-being than in your own emotional turmoils? Participating in Parent-Teacher Conferences is an important element of parenting, and should be shared among all parents willing to be involved. Remember that the purpose of these meetings is for the benefit of your child. In order to avoid awkward, uncomfortable scenes, plan ahead: Perhaps Mom will go to all meetings relating to her son, and Dad will go to all meetings relating to his daughter. Perhaps they will go to all meetings together. Discuss stepparent involvement. Agree to an arrangement so that there are no surprises or uncomfortable moments.
As portrayed in the movie last night, no one enters into marriage expecting it to end in divorce. But when it does happen, the realities of how the family dynamic evolves can be scary and evoke a lot of emotion. As the evolution takes place and new family members leave and/or enter into the dynamic, a new reality settles-in with a blended family lifestyle. My last tip for the this post: spend less time fighting the evolution and focus on your family successfully transitioning into a healthy, loving environment.