Remember when you brought your first baby home and you were totally overwhelmed and sure you were doing it wrong?
Remember when all of a sudden your closest friends started to tell you their stories?
Remember how much better you felt when you heard they didn’t love their needy bundles of weepy joy instantly either, and no one actually has that elusive mothering instinct on day one, and that breastfeeding is actually hard when neither of you know what you’re doing?
I still sigh with relief remembering when I realized I wasn’t alone.
This happens for blended families too. We struggle and struggle and struggle alone and then finally speak up and divorced parents and stepparents everywhere nod their heads. “Yup. Sounds about right.”
I hear from so many blended family parents, whispering their stories to me, anxious they are doing this all wrong. Today, I’m telling you what I’d say if we were sitting on my couch sipping tea, you worried about your next chapter and me just a little bit ahead of you. I’m telling you what no one told me, and what I wish I’d known earlier.
Blended family life is complicated.
There’s just no getting around that. Bonding as a family while creating the foundation of a marriage is hard. Managing exes and coparenting is difficult too. Stepfamilies include lots of people other families don’t, and have complicated, emotional histories. Kids in blended families face challenges unique to their situation, and sometimes that makes them harder to parent effectively.
Your blended family isn’t the same as the family each of you built first. That doesn’t mean that it is any less of a family, or any less anything, really. It simply means that it is a different kind of family. The important part is to acknowledge that and move forward in the way that works for your family, rather than trying to fit your square peg into a traditionally round hole.
There’s no “back to normal” for blended families.
Certainly, back to normal exists for blended families in a “we-just-got-back-from-the-beach” or “we-traded-a-couple-of-weeks-and-are-back-on-our-normal-schedule” way, but that’s not what I mean.
Often, I hear blended families talk about getting back to normal and referring to a time when the ex was less feisty or the kids better behaved or their spouse a more active, present parent. Here’s the kicker: that time may not exist anywhere outside their heads. That idea may be more about a first-family ideal than their actual family.
I spent lots of time waiting for the other shoe to drop in our blended family and for “things to be settled,” and missed what was happening as I waited. Now, I urge new blended families to adopt the present as their normal, and stop wishing for a future that may or may not exist. There’s plenty of great stuff happening now.
Get comfortable with being awkward.
Awkwardness seems to ride shotgun in our blended family. What do we call extended step-family members? What’s the right way to introduce a teenager who calls you mom in the grocery store but corrects the receptionist at the doctor’s office who does the same? What’s the answer to “are all those kids yours?”
Loyalty binds pop up everywhere, making even the most grounded mama question her instincts. Do I say I love you first? Last? At all? Do I touch you? How often? I once awkwardly hugged my stepdaughter Sara, thinking how unusual it was for her to come straight toward me like that and seek out affection. I later realized she was trying to put a cup in the dishwasher.
That doesn’t even begin to address the ever-present coparenting tribe awkwardness, playing out on bleachers and at family birthday parties. Do you sit together even if you’re embroiled in a blistering court battle? On the other end of the spectrum, what’s the line between coparenting and socializing? Is it weird to cook out with the guy your wife used to be married to?
Blended family life is often awkward. Even when everyone is well-intentioned and open. Embrace it.
You’ll worry often.
In big ways and small, you’ll worry.
I sent Billy a text late one night. It wasn’t a big deal, but it was something I wanted to be sure to discuss with him about the kiddos, and was worried I’d forget the next time I saw him. After I pressed send, I realized I was texting him late at night on his wedding anniversary when he and Stephanie were out of town. Ugh. I worried I’d interrupted their time and worried it looked like I was intruding and worried some more. I thought I’d better send him another text to explain and then worried that might be even stranger.
I worry about my stepchildren constantly. Am I treating them fairly? What do they see that I don’t? Do they know how much I love them? Really? I worry about my children too. Do they feel stuck in between houses? Do they resent having to share me? Am I treating them fairly?
Mostly, I worry that we’re doing this wrong. There’s no manual to this family life, no Dr. Spock’s guide to raising children in a large blended tribe. I worry that, like Melissa McCarthy’ character adopting 9 puppies in Bridesmaids, we’ve over committed.
There are lots of ways to do this right.
Make clear blended family house rules, or don’t. Draw clear stepparent boundaries, or don’t. Shift your schedule to a different rhythm, or don’t. There’s no way to be perfect, but there are lots and lots of ways to be good.
Start with focusing on the children. Work to communicate honestly with your partner about expectations. Acknowledge that your family is entirely unique. Be kind to yourself, you’re a beginner. Try again when you get it wrong. Celebrate your success. Keep having tea on the couch with friends who get it.
You’re not alone.