I love the looks I get when I say we have six kids. People just can’t help commenting: “that’s insane,” “better you than me,” or, my personal favorite lately, “I can’t keep up with my two, how do you do six?” First, let’s be clear, we do six much the way a novice rodeo rider stays on a bull – we hang on and hope for the best. Sometimes it turns out great, and sometimes we wind up in the dirt, wondering what was in the water when we agreed to this wild ride. Over the years though, we’ve adopted a few habits that make managing this crew easier than it was when we started out.
You do you, I’ve got me
I rely on Gabe as a partner in almost all things, but not when it comes to the visible, day-to-day parenting of my three. I am the primary parent to them, responsible for their care and feeding. I make dinners, supervise laundry, maintain the extra-curricular schedule, help with homework, schedule doctor’s appointments, and take the lead on all the other tasks related to my sweeties. When we have my kiddos in the house, I am the pilot. The same is true for Gabe; when his kids are here, he leads and I follow. When we have all the kids here, we tag team major responsibilities, but still each lead a mini-team of our biological crew.
We like the benefits to this system. First, from a pure scheduling perspective, it makes us responsible for only three kids, not six. That cuts the work in half right there. Second, it allows the parent the kids are most comfortable with to discipline, communicate, and spend time with the dates they brought to this blended family party. It ensures that the kids maintain that really important connection and doesn’t layer the step-parent relationship with unnecessary complexity.
Communication is critically important to making this work. I say visible parenting because Gabe and I certainly confer and plan together, regardless of whose children are in the house. We are each aware of what the other is doing – we make sure to talk about our schedule for the next day each night, and we share a massive calendar of kid activities. However, the delivery of information to the kids is always from their primary parent, regardless of how we arrive at the information. The biological parent is usually responsible for logistics, with the step-parent in a supporting role. That tricky pick-up, drop off, be in three places at once scheduling conundrum? If Simon, Caden and Lottie are involved, I am responsible for figuring it out.
Wash, Rinse, Repeat
Almost without meaning to, Gabe and I have built a series of routines into our family management practices. Not hard and fast rules, but routines. For example, we have a set-up and a clean-up crew for meals we eat together. There is no set rotation – that’s too difficult to manage. Rather, the call goes out for set up and the first two to answer set the table, pour drinks, prep food for serving, etc. The other four are on clean-up.
Kids manage their own breakfasts and lunches, with supervision and within the stipulation that all meals must include protein and a fruit or vegetable. It makes for some weird combinations (roast turkey and pancakes, anyone?), but the kids learn about nutrition and have some control over what they eat. At dinner, if you don’t want what is served, you make your own meal and time it to eat with everyone else. All of them can do this, in fact, the most frequent flyer in this arena is Jack, at 7. He makes a mean quesadilla and carrots. On the downside, if you don’t try what’s being served at dinner, you don’t get dessert, no matter how much quesadilla you ate.
Routines extend beyond the dining room – kids know they must ask permission before entering another’s room, and accept that the person may say no. Toys and books in someone’s room are totally off-limits, while toys and books stored in the family room are open to everyone. Toys can’t move from the family room to your room (no hoarding all the purple magnetic tiles), but you can graciously choose to share what’s in your room with the family room (theoretically, I don’t know if that’s every actually happened). Screen time is limited. If you’re feeling unkind, you can work through that in your room. If you’re feeling loud and wild, you can take that outside. Bigs and Middles do their own laundry (with reminding and supervision as needed – no REALLY, you have to do laundry today), and Littles still get wash and fold service if they haul their hampers. Backpacks hang in the mudroom nine months a year, with shoes stored underneath in bins. Summer comes and they’re replaced by each child’s beach towel and flip-flops.
We didn’t set out to establish these routines. Frankly we were so overwhelmed in the beginning with the move and coming together that the idea of establishing rules and family meetings and everything else we’d read about seemed overwhelming. Rather, we’ve implemented these slowly. The kids remember and reinforce them as much as Gabe and I do, and we all appreciate the structure. We don’t strictly adhere to them though – if something suggests we should do something different, we do. Lottie recently chose spaghetti for her birthday dinner, which is not a popular choice with Gabe’s crew. Two of them made an alternative and didn’t try the pasta. They still got cake – pushing the point would’ve excluded them from our family celebration. These are routines we use to make our lives more consistent and stable, not to drive arbitrary compliance.
Find Time to Connect
All of our kids have struggled with the fear of being lost in the shuffle. I get it. This house is so loud and busy sometimes I get overlooked, and I’m the mama.
I try to connect, alone, with each of my kids every day that I have them. For Lottie, our bus stop walks furnish that connection. I am all hers, and the floor is open to all topics. I still tuck 12-year-old Caden into bed; often that’s the only chance I have to catch that social butterfly boy sitting still. If he hasn’t felt like talking at bedtime, I’ll pull him along with me grocery shopping or offer to bake together. Catching my middle child’s attention isn’t always easy – he’s often on the go – but it is always deeply worth my while. Simon, at 15 stays up later than the rest. I often tuck the others in and lie on his bed for a while as he catches me up on his math teacher’s antics or the latest Southpark episode.
Most of the time, these one on ones are completely devoid of headline. Mundane events rule the day. Sometimes I can’t believe I am upstairs talking about YouTubers when I am so exhausted I can feel it in my bones. But sometimes, I hear the real stuff. The I’m-worried, I-wonder, I-feels and I can settle in and be still and give them the attention they need.
I connect with Gabe’s children in a similar, but often less intimate way. I respect that their dad is the primary relationship, so allow him to have all the time he needs to connect. I don’t strive for daily connection with Sara, Amy and Jack, but try to get one on one time with them each time they’re here. Jack and I are working on his birthday list and Amy and I like to scour eBay for American Girl treasures. Sometimes the time is more formal – I love to back to school shop with the older girls. The individual connections we form in these small instances make us stronger as a group.
This one may be the most important. We allow lots of space. Everyone has their own room and you’re allowed to be there by yourself with no questions asked. We have a slackline and a piano and often find kids alone at each, taking time for themselves. Our mini-farm is a favorite spot for kids needing a quiet break. Gabe and I each take time for ourselves – whether it be on a night the other has their kids or 15 minutes alone in our room before settling the crew in for bedtime. We are a big family. There is lots of activity here. Sometimes there are lots of mixed feelings at play. Space always helps.
It’s OK for Someone to be Unhappy
On bad days, this is what Gabe and I whisper to each other before we fall asleep. There are 8 personalities at play here. Six of them split their lives in two different places. Six of them are managing school and friends and four of those are tweens or teens. That’s hard. They aren’t all going to be happy at the same time. Think of your work team or your adult family or your group of friends: when was the last time six of them were happy all at once? Probably not recently. That’s a high bar. So, that’s not our bar. Our bar is that the person who is unhappy doesn’t stay that way for long, and isn’t the same person all the time. That’s an achievable bar. That’s success.
It’s OK Even if That Someone Is You
Stepparenting and parenting children of divorce is difficult. Even with routines and time and space and appropriate expectations, some days are shitty days. This is tough stuff, and moms and dads in first families get discouraged too. Some days feel like no one will ever be happy and we’re not moving forward and this was the stupidest idea of all our stupid ideas. What were we thinking? That’s okay. That’s what it feels like for the rodeo rider in the dirt. Doesn’t mean she’s not a great bull rider, just means today isn’t her day. On those days, I curl up in bed and go to sleep and try again tomorrow.