Gabe and I talked non-stop before we married. Each busy during the day with our work and three little ones, we chatted via text, in endless chains numbering fifty messages or more. After we kissed the kids goodnight, we settled into our nightly phone date and often didn’t hang up until after midnight.
We talked about the highs and lows of our days, long-lost childhood memories unearthed by something the kids said, and our dreams of a future together.
Dreams is the key word there.
Our conversations centered around our hopes for our future family and, because we didn’t know any better, looked a lot like a first family fairytale. We envisioned summers spent at the beach, watching our six play in the waves while we read novels in the sand. We anticipated cozy holidays at home, with children running down the stairs and our huge extended family gathered around our table. We talked about building a business together, buying land in the country, and even maybe having a baby.
We occasionally talked about the logistics of a blended family. I was nervous about parenting six children, and insisted we read books and talk to a counselor. In our romantic haze though, it was easy to dismiss the seemingly dire warnings of the books we read. The authors didn’t know us, after all. They didn’t know how much we loved each other, how well we communicated, and how alike we were.
Fast forward to the weeks after our wedding, and both of us were wondering what on earth we’d gotten ourselves into. Our reality was wildly different from our dreamy late-night fantasy. Our first year as a blended family tested us in ways we couldn’t imagine because we didn’t talk about the nuts and bolts of managing our blended family before getting married.
In hindsight, I wish Gabe and I had asked ourselves these three questions before tying the knot.
What is our family culture?
Before getting married, I prioritized family time over other activities. As a single mom, I spent weekends with my children. We made pancakes in our pajamas, blew bubbles on the deck, and stayed up late reading together. We ventured out often, to art museums and local parks. Our weekends belonged to us, stretched wide open to be filled as we liked in the moment.
Gabe’s family was deeply rooted in the community. Active in church, the four of them spent most of Sunday on the go to services, Sunday school, and choir practice. Saturdays were dedicated to sports and school activities. It was important to him that the children be involved in activities, and he often juggled an impressive pick up and drop off calendar.
That difference, hardly noticeable when we were dating, came screeching to the forefront of our married life. I expected my four new family members to be home on the weekends so we could enjoy time together. I was surprised and felt rejected when that wasn’t the case.
Our family cultures varied in a hundred other ways. I read to my children nightly, snuggled in my bed. Gabe kissed his kids goodnight and shut the door. Gabe served dessert, I never did. Gabe encourages the children to play outside on sunny days, I don’t mind mine sprawled on the floor building with legos or listening to music.
As we discovered these differences, we sometimes got stuck on the lens we viewed it through rather than just observing and talking about it. Each of these choices is appropriate; it’s the value and implied message we assign to them that made each of us uncomfortable. If Gabe and I had discussed our family cultures more explicitly, we could have avoided hurt feelings and more than a few arguments.
What do we expect of a stepparent?
On days when Gabe had his children, I would sometimes plan to meet a girlfriend for dinner or my mother at the gym. I had a strong support network in place in my life as a single parent, and it still served me in our marriage. I saw no reason to change my behavior.
Until Gabe told me how hypocritical I was being. He unloaded one night after I’d come home and he’d put his children to bed. He was home every night for dinner with my children. He was available to help with homework and watched TV with us, steadfastly present even though it was clear that my children preferred interacting with me exclusively. Why wasn’t I doing the same? Why was I avoiding his children when he was so committed to mine?
I was flabbergasted. I wasn’t avoiding his children. Because I work from home, I saw them each day for hours before he arrived home from the office. In my mind, by leaving when he got home one night a week, I was helping him connect with his children. What’s more, I had no expectation he be home with mine. In fact, I would’ve preferred some time with Gabe out of the house in those early days.
It took us nearly a week to return to our normal interactions after that argument, because it was so loaded and built up for each of us. It would’ve taken one romantic dinner date to discuss that topic explicitly before we got married and we would’ve covered discipline, boundaries, and more before dessert.
How will we manage money?
I still get anxious remembering our seemingly endless discussions about money after we got married. We breezily agreed to share money equally before we said I do. We each worked and supported our families prior to our marriage, and saw no reason to keep our money separate.
After we married, we had thousands of reasons. The simple exercise of budgeting nearly derailed us. We each had large spending categories the other did not support. Managing money with our coparenting partners further complicated the issue. We reached a solution after several tense evening walks around our neighborhood, but would’ve avoided the full mess by explicitly discussing spending and priorities, as well as preexisting commitments, before we blended our family.
Dreaming is a healthy and wonderful part of the romantic days before a couple forms a family. In first families, the dreaming can continue beyond the honeymoon. For blended families, because their lives are already very much in progress, reality hits as soon as the families share a household. Covering these questions early in our engagement would’ve saved Gabe and me endless arguments and avoided resentment.
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