In the first year of our blending family, the Queen and I downplayed the ‘blending’ part. But in truth, we began long before the ‘I do.’ We made a commitment early on never to use ‘step kids.’ instead, it would be ‘our kids.’
We convinced ourselves this was best for the children. No one would feel like an outsider or suffer discomfort and anxiety. And maybe that is true, but as I think back, all of it was more about easing her and my discomfort and anxiety. We would intentionally gloss over specific details about our kids, especially their ages since they were older than our marriage. When someone would say, ‘you don’t look old enough to have kids that age,’ I would just smile and nod, hoping they were bad at math so not to ask unwanted questions.
We hoped to keep this part of our lives secret because of our shame and embarrassment. To say we were a blending family meant confession about our divorces. In a world of Pinterest and Instagram perfection, one learns anything that will not get a ‘like’ or ‘share’ is best kept hidden; and few things can make a person feel more unworthy than admitting marital failure.
We have come a long way since. How we look at our family now is different. We embrace what we are without the shame. But this was a change that happened only after many mistakes and hard lessons.
Research into blending family life suggests each family is somewhere on a journey. A road to family ‘harmony’ that starts out in the lofty peaks of ‘fantasy.’ Remarried couples with children almost universally imagine things will go a certain way after the wedding. Their marriage and family will look like this or that. These fantasies can take different forms, but couples generally envision their new ‘blending’ family will, and should, feel similar to what they once had – a prior family or the one they were, or hoped they were, raised.
Such dreams are understandable. We only know what we know. So, our expectations of family life, no matter its makeup, are most often based on what we have seen and experienced. But this thinking usually does not work for life generally and blending families particularly. Why? Because all blending families are born of brokenness- brokenness from death, decisions, divorce. And this brokenness changes things, making it impossible to put the pieces back as they once were. In other words, like the fairy tale, Humpty Dumpty can never come back.
Brokenness may change a person’s reality, but not their dreams. My divorce ended a marriage, but it did not end my hope for the marriage and family I imagined. I do not think I am alone in this. While these feelings are noble and sincere, they can lead to difficulties when we bring those expectations with us. We should understand that the brokenness of my, or your, past does not stop with the resentment of a former spouse or the frustrations of co-parenting. It is a brokenness that seeps into nearly every part of our lives. Here is a hard truth that I learned -the consequences of my divorce mean I can never have the family I wanted.
But just because it cannot be what I hoped, that does not mean my family cannot be beautiful, and perhaps even better than I could have possibly dreamed.
As the Queen and I pressed forward in trying to mold our new family into an image of what we once had or wanted, we began to experience problems. It now seems, based on what we have learned, that we made all the common mistakes. We disciplined each other’s children, we went for immediate changes in routines and traditions, we even tried to force family affection before everyone was ready.
The recoil was quick and caught us off guard. The kids fought back against the onslaught, and the mama and papa bear claws came out. Disagreements between my step kids and me put the Queen on the defensive as did problems with her and my children. Parents are wired to protect their kids, even if the person they are being protected from is who we love and have complete trust in.
Our marriage suffered. Resentment and arguments were common. We retreated to our separate corners and our family often felt like a battlefield of ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ But we were fortunate. We had surrounded ourselves with other blending families, and their support and encouragement helped us to see the error of our ways. (It has led us to believe that a blending family is more successful in community with other similar families). We needed to reset our expectations and start over. That began with the acceptance that the family we have can never be the family we wanted. As much as we longed to have the same look and feel of the ‘traditional’ ones around us, we had to give up that dream.
But something unusual then happened. When we stopped trying to create our family, it started to form naturally along the lines that were already there, we were just writing over them with our foolish attempts to make it something it was not. We began to recognize, and even appreciate, that our family is made up of two smaller families. A blending family is the collision of two tiny civilizations, each with its own traditions and histories. Any attempt to reject or change that will lead to frustration and chaos.
Finesse, not force, is needed to make the journey easier. Instead of forcing our family into what we want it to be, the better choice is to guide it, graciously and patiently, into what it is destined to be. It is a balancing of the old and the new. The Queen and I needed to color in the lines already in our blending family, versus wiping the slate clean and starting all over.
This spring will make our third year as a blending family. It is not an exaggeration to say that things are better than they ever have been. All of our kids have adjusted, the closeness and affection that we tried to force in those early days, are developing at a slower, more natural and comfortable, pace. This is not to say that we still do not have bumps along the way. We are not in ‘harmony’ yet, and we are not naïve enough to believe the road will ever be entirely smooth. But we are determined to stay the course on a trip we have come to enjoy; and while Humpty Dumpy is still there in pieces on the ground, we now know that what we are putting together will be a far more beautiful fairy tale.