Divorce

Why This Stepmom Doesn't Believe In 'Blended Families'

"I think what we’ve learned is that it isn’t about us, it’s about our kids."
Debra Carnes' family on Christmas 2015.
Debra Carnes' family on Christmas 2015.

As part of our Blended Family Friday series, each week we spotlight a different stepfamily to learn how they’ve worked to bring their two families together. Our hope is that by telling their stories, we’ll bring you closer to blended family bliss in your own life! Want to share your family’s story? Email us at divorce@huffingtonpost.com.

Earlier this year, Debra Carnes made a bold claim in a blog that ran on this site: There's no such thing as a blended family, she wrote.

"As you can imagine, it rankled many," Carnes told The Huffington Post recently. "In my mind, though, 'blended' sounds like things don’t fit well and it requires mixing until they all become one; I believe we all remain our unique selves and that’s what contributes to making our family what it is. Family is a family and I don’t think we need a label or definition to describe us."

Below, Debra tells us more about the approach she's taken to raising her family over the last two decades.

Hi Debra. Please introduce us to your family.

There are five of us. Me and my husband Tom and our three kids: Whitney (34) and Collin (31) from Tom’s first marriage and Payton (14), my daughter with Tom.

How long have you and Tom been together?
On May 26, we celebrated 20 years of marriage, returning to the big island of Hawaii where we tied the knot. While we went alone this time, 20 years ago our families were with us, including Collin and Whitney who were teens at the time.

The family at Whitney's wedding. 
The family at Whitney's wedding. 

What are some of the biggest challenges of blended family life?

We’ve had numerous challenges over the years. One issue is balancing major events that involve the “other” side of the family. We’d made it through sporting events, birthdays, graduations, a wedding and the birth of our first grandchild. Some have been easier than others. I think what we’ve learned is that it isn’t about us, it’s about our kids. Trying to place our concerns and issues on our children isn’t healthy and only makes it more difficult for all involved.

What's the best thing about being part of a stepfamily?

There’s never a dull family event! We’re quite an interesting blend of personalities and that makes for great stories and lively holiday gatherings. Also, now that my stepson and stepdaughter are adults, we can look back on how far we’ve come and often laugh about it. I think because of the challenges stepfamilies face, if you can make the glue stick, the bonds become very strong. We’ve come through quite a journey and now we can reminisce about our journey and how we are so much better off for going through it.

Colin, Whitney and Payton at Whitney's wedding. 
Colin, Whitney and Payton at Whitney's wedding. 

How do you deal with stress in your household?
That’s something that has definitely evolved. Before Payton was born, the relationship with my two stepchildren was strained. They spent little time with us and it created a lot of tension. A few months before her birth, my stepson who was in high school moved in and a few months later my stepdaughter transferred to a community college in the area before transitioning to a different university and she moved in. It was cozy. Then, we were dealing with a new baby and two stepkids. It was extremely stressful, but I’m certain Payton’s birth is what brought us all together and strengthened the bonds between all of us. She’s the glue. It doesn’t mean we don’t have stress now but it’s much different. Over the years we’ve dealt with stress through honesty, storytelling, laughter and engaging in our common interests, including boating and water sports.

The family in Mexico in 2007. 
The family in Mexico in 2007. 

What makes you proudest of your family?

Not only have our kids grown up, but we’ve all grown so much emotionally. Our love and respect for each other has deepened and we genuinely enjoy each other’s company. I am proud of the success of each of our children. I’d like to believe we contributed to them each becoming strong, caring, kind human beings. We’ve all weathered some storms over the years, but we’re stronger for it.

What advice do you have for other blended families who feel like a peaceful family dynamic is out of reach?

It’s there for the taking if you want it. You can fight against it and focus on how you think it should be or you can embrace how it is and run with it. I recommend the latter. It makes for a rich life full of amazing experiences and lots of love. And, please know there is no one-size-fits-all. Just make sure you remain who you are and that all your family members do the same. It’s well worth the journey, even though it won’t always be smooth.

Blended Family Friday