I didn’t set out to be a “stepmother;” I never thought I would have a “second” husband. The words, “divorce,” “single mom,” “stepparent,” and “blended family” were used to describe others’ lives, but not my own.
But when a husband decides he would rather be with another, I sign papers. I clean out his closet, place boxes on the porch and figure out how I will do it on my own, how I will survive this ending, this sadness. And with his leaving the labels rush in. I’m single, alone. I’m divorced, and it feels like a scarlet letter and everyone knows my shame. My wounded heart bleeds, and I wonder if it will ever recover.
Hearts do heal and soon mine loved again. I found one whose journey paralleled mine—he too was left for another, left with daughters to raise, alone. Our hearts knitted quickly; our love—strong and sure—still carries us 17 years later.
Today, as our last girl, our blonde curly one, enters her last year of college, we sit awestruck as if we’re finishing an obstacle course that seemed impossible to complete. We can’t believe how fast it went, can’t believe we’ve made it. We’re overcome by the closeness that embodies our family and are humbled by the grace we have received while blending our two families into one, close-knit whole.
Because of our story and the wholeness that defines us, we’re approached by couples who are working hard to blend their families, seeking information about how we did it, how we got here. We answer with great care because each family is unique, the members are individuals, the possible interactions with ex-spouses and extended families are too numerous to count. We avoid pat answers because sometimes they can do more harm than good. Instead, we offer suggestions or guidelines that are full of life and hope.
It’s in the looking back, in the asking what worked and what didn’t, that we have found many truths that are sometimes overlooked when blending families. These five truths served as anchors, steadied us through each challenge, guided us through each season. And they still do.
1. Invest in Your Marriage
We were only married a few months when my husband needed to have a heartfelt conversation with his (our) 17-year-old. Because teenagers unnerved me, I wished him well. I remember feeling anxious when he explained that he wanted me to join him. I thought it was a horrible idea. I imagined myself at 17, feeling the embarrassment of an unwanted participant in the middle of a confrontation. I didn’t want to be that unwanted party, didn’t want her to feel any more uncomfortable than necessary. But, after my husband explained the reason for his insistence, I joined him. Though uncomfortable and nervous, I was present and we were unified.
I’ll always remember his words, “It’s us now. Our kids have to see that we are one.” We were only a few short weeks into what felt like wild open waters of stepfamily life and my husband voiced a truth that became the bedrock for everything that would follow.
When blending our family these five truths served as anchors, steadied us through each challenge, guided us through each season. And they still do.
Cultivating a marriage relationship that is defined by oneness, clothed in unity, unshakeable in its togetherness is the first and most vital task in ensuring a successful, well-blended family. When my heart is pulled in one direction and his in another, he pauses and steps close. He stands right next to me, side to side, shoulder to shoulder. He leans in a bit, draws an imaginary, vertical line between us with his hand right where our arms touch, shakes his head no, and whispers, “Nothing comes between this.”
In blended families, it can sometimes feel as though we are torn between loyalties. We love our husbands, love our kids, love his kids, but who gets the love first? Who wins when it feels like sides are to be chosen? It’s a real struggle, heart-wrenching at times, but moving forward in unity will always produce the best result.
My husband has always breathed oneness into our marriage, and as a result, it flows into all of the relationships we enjoy in our family. You can rest in this truth, the family life you long for will flow from the oneness you cultivate with your spouse.
2. All Families are Blended Families
When issues surface like unexpected weeds in a well-tended garden, it’s a natural reaction to think that the blended nature of your family is the cause; that it feeds every single challenge that pops up. I remember these words beating me up so many times over the years, “This (fight, failure, disappointment, whatever) is happening because of my failure. If I never got divorced and/or remarried everything would be easier.”
Here’s the truth to that depleting and life-sucking lie: when any two people marry, they are a blended family. They are blending their lives, blending their families, blending their traditions and priorities and dreams. All families are blended families; all families face challenges. My heart settled, and my inner dialogue became more tender and more loving when I realized that my family would face challenges no matter the label it wore. To put it plainly, most of the problems we face are common to all family life, not just blended family life.
3. Create an Environment of Love and Acceptance
This truth applies to all families. Who doesn’t feel better when they are convinced they are loved and adored? But for the members of a blended family, this ingredient is vital. To some degree, every member of a blended family has experienced loss. Unsure of the cause of that loss, questions regarding one’s worth or role in that loss loom like a giant shadow of doubt. This applies to mom and dad too! Everyone in the family may wonder in their heart’s most tender place where they fit or if they even fit at all. It’s that old saying, “Once bitten, twice shy,” that takes center stage here. The good news is these wounds that feed doubt are healed with large and continuous doses of love.
No one gets it all right all of the time, but here are some practical ways to show love intentionally and unmeasured:
- Set times each week to reflect on each member of the family and ask yourself if you have connected with them. If you have not, then do.
- When you think of one of your family members, let them know. It’s so important to follow through with your impulses to express love, care, and kindness.
- Any chance you get, affirm worth, affirm worth, affirm worth. Oh, and affirm worth! Everyone in your household should feel lavishly loved. Kind words, hugs and kisses, compliments and connections, let each one know they mean the world to you.
4. Flexibility Is Your Best Friend
My 12-year-old self, the girl who dreamed of a perfect life as a grown-up, didn’t dream up the life I now live. Much has veered from that original blueprint. Sometimes those changes felt like derailments, other times promotions. But, most of the time I was unaware that with each life event, I was evaluating my reality against my ideal.
I embraced the blessings, but when reality fell short of my ideal, I felt deflated. Over time, I realized this is a hard way to live. Holidays and birthdays, household chores and vacations, bedtime routines and family dinners need me to bend, to be pliable and flexible. Letting go of what I define as ideal and enjoying the reality that is us fills our home with life and joy.
5. Kids Benefit When You Respect the Ex
This truth easily falls in the category of easier said than done for many of us. Interacting respectfully with someone who has hurt you is never easy. But, showing respect is a demonstration of our character rather than a validation of someone else’s behavior.
As a parent, I want good things for my kids. I want them to be strong and centered and whole. I want them to be compassionate and full of integrity. And because of that desire, I choose to lead with that. I choose to remind myself in every interaction that I am responding as my children’s mother and not my ex’s adversary.
Here are a few practical things to consider:
- Your child’s venting session about their parent is not yours. Support their feelings and the way they process, but don’t use it as a time to undermine your ex or your spouse’s ex or your ex’s spouse.
- Understand that your child’s relationship with your ex is not your relationship with your ex. Remember the role you play.
- Don’t fill in details the kids don’t need to know. Undermining their respect for or image of their parent hurts your children.
The fear of doing it wrong, of somehow messing up our kids, haunts us all. The dynamics present in blended families seem to magnify those fears, but they don’t have to. Investing in your marriage, remembering that every family has blending to do, creating an environment of love and acceptance, staying flexible when life doesn’t go as expected, and showing respect to all of the people who love your children are five truths that serve as guideposts and allow you to enjoy and flourish in the family you are in.
For more articles on being a strong woman in a blended family, start here:
Stepmother: the Most Difficult Job in a Family
8 Things Moms Should Say to Raise Strong Kids
Ask Dr. Zoe – How Can I Connect More With My Teen Stepdaughter?
Here Are the 10 Commandments to Be a Great Bonus Mom
You, Your Man, and His Baby Mama All Need Grit and Grace
Grace Is Not Weakness; It Requires Strength
Ask Dr. Zoe – Dealing with Blended Families and Different Household Rules
Ask Dr. Zoe – My Teen Stepdaughter Doesn’t Respect Me
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You’ll love this episode of our podcast, This Grit and Grace Life: A Therapist’s Practical Advice for Blended Families with Dr. Zoe Shaw – 050!
Letting go of what I defined as an ideal family and enjoying the reality that is us fills our home with life and joy.