The Ugly Truth About Blended Families

Born of grief and tinged with failure, blended families are messy, and complicated, and exhausting.
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Last night, as we settled into bed with a glass of wine, my husband shared that my son Caden had recently hurt his feelings. He’d planned an outing he thought my son would like, and Caden’s response was lukewarm.

We’re not new to this experience. Married for the second time later in life, with six children between us, we are often navigating tricky stepfamily terrain. Divided loyalties and missed connections and hurt feelings are standard stuff around here.

Still, my husband was particularly discouraged.

“It feels like nobody wants this blended family we’re working so hard to build,” Gabe said. I have often felt the same way.

We stayed up until the wee hours of the morning working through the problem and identifying ways we could each better connect with the other’s children. We talked about parenting style and discipline and expectations. We talked about stepfamily dynamics and coparenting and child development. We finally fell asleep sometime after 4 a.m.

This morning I woke up knowing my husband was right. No one wants to be in this blended family.

The truth is no one wants to be in a blended family. Born of grief and tinged with failure, blended families are messy, and complicated, and exhausting.

The children didn’t choose this family.

Our household is louder and noisier than it ever would be with three children. Our blended family reduces the attention each child gets. Attention that used to be theirs alone is now divided between them, new stepsiblings and a new adult love.

A stepparent brings new expectations and unfamiliar traditions and habits. A stepparent is a living, breathing grief trigger; an adult whose very presence reminds the child that their biological parents are no longer together. How children feel about the stepparent themselves is a catch-22 of overwhelming proportions: loving them presents loyalty issues with one parent, hating them loyalty issues with the other. The child is trapped in a loyalty bind at seemingly every turn.

A blended family also includes a host of extended family. Extended family that try to include the new partner and children or include the exes or all of the above. Extended family that rushes in with love and attention or stays away for fear of scaring children off. All of it well-intentioned and born of love, and all of it can sometimes feel wrong.

Imagine a child has been given a puzzle to assemble, with a pretty picture on the box. Then, we give the child a handful of extra pieces. Make it work, we tell them. The picture on the box is different from what you have now. Figure it out, it can still be fun.

What child would choose that?

Adults are often wildly unprepared for stepfamily life.

First-family examples surround us, but first-family strategies don’t work in blended families. Studies continually show that stepfamilies who begin their life together with a romantic, first-family approach fail.

The trouble is, adults in blended families typically have only first-family experience. Their friends and extended family have first-family expectations. Movies and books and magazines overwhelmingly tell first-family stories and give first-family advice. We want the first-family fairytale.

Resources for blended families are scarce and the stakes are high.

Adults in stepfamilies are instantly parenting unfamiliar, uncomfortable children ― uncomfortable children related to a person they love deeply. The children have divided loyalties, and the stepparent’s role is nuanced and complex. Intimacy between people takes a long time, and is built over repeated interactions, and develops at its own pace. It can be incredibly frustrating even in healthy relationships between two adults. It can feel impossible between an adult and an unrelated child.

Adults in blended families are given a puzzle too. Their puzzle is missing pieces and has extra pieces from a different set and if you try to assemble it to fit the pretty picture on the cover you are likely to fail. The challenge is to make a new picture with what you’ve been given, smoothing out the bumps and forced pieces as you go. What adult would choose that?

Marrying with children is “a feat of brazen, unadulterated hope.”

Hope. Hope is what kept Gabe and I talking until 4 a.m. Hope that we can keep working together and build a family that is a safe space for our children and for each other. Hope that our love and partnership will be an example for them as they grow. Hope that the children we love wildly will one day be able to freely accept that love, feeling it deep in their bones. Hope that this difficult journey we’re on together will eventually be just the start of our story. Hope that our puzzle, as messy and complicated as it seems now with the frame barely constructed, will one day be a picture we all appreciate.

Kate Chapman is a mom and stepmom to six children, ages 7-15. She writes about her modern-day Brady Bunch adventures at This Life in Progress. Drawing on her extensive experience as a professional coach, and her background in psychology and sociology, Kate addresses the tricky topics of divorce, coparenting and blended families. Follow Kate on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for tips on parenting through divorce and remarriage and the latest on her blended stepfamily adventures. Kate has curated a large collection of divorced and blended family resources on Pinterest.

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