by Valerie J. Botter
Blended families bring some of the most joyous and most difficult challenges for parents. As a divorce professional, a former stepchild, and a stepmother of children who also have other stepparents, a few consistent themes have emerged from my observations:
Find time for children to have one-on-one time with their biological parents and don’t rush the new relationship with a stepparent. Sometimes the enthusiasm of a new family unit can mislead parents to think that everything has to be done “as a family.” A new stepparent, especially one without children of her own, may feel left out if family plans don’t include her. Children need time with their biological parent to varying degrees. Children who have lost the experience of having their biological parents raise them together may need lots of time before they are ready to bond to a new parent. The palpable bond between a child and his biological parent needs to be respected, honored and fostered. This is especially true for children who are older when a parent remarries, for children that are used to having a single parent, and for children of high conflict divorces whose lives are shattered by the emotional and financial fallout of divorce.
Talk to your child’s other parent about your new relationship before integrating the children. If you have a decent level of communication with your child’s other parent, let them know when you are in a serious relationship and are going to introduce the children to your new partner and if you are engaged, before you tell the children. By doing so, the other parent will have time to accept the news and you will spare your children from being messengers. Imagine how a child would feel if she told her mother excitedly that Daddy is engaged and she’s going to be a flower girl at his wedding, only to see her mother burst into tears or explode with anger. Just plan your announcement timing carefully so your ex doesn’t scoop your chance to tell your child your news!
Don’t be surprised if your child is ambivalent about your new partner or engagement. Young children, especially boys, may feel pressure to divide loyalties when presented with a new stepparent. When my husband and I started dating, my husband’s son struggled with my role in his life. A therapist working with our family advised my husband to tell his son that it was ok for him not to like me, and advised his mother to tell her son that it was ok to like me! Then when my husband and I became engaged 2 years later, our son found the news unsettling. I’m sure the fact that our son lived a plane ride away contributed because each moment when he could spend time with his Dad was very important to him. I continued to make lots of space for him to have one on one time with his Dad and once he became an older teenager, we grew close.
Blended families take time to blend. I read a book about step-parenting a decade ago when I remarried and it said that the average number of years to blend two families was 7. I thought that our family would need less time because my our children had been been friends for 10 years. Nope. It took about 7 years, and now that we are about to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary, we’ve fully integrated.
Step-parenting is one of the most challenging and rewarding parenting tasks that I’ve experienced. I adore my stepchildren and enjoy a different relationship dynamic with them than with my biological children. That’s not to say that I am closer emotionally or intellectually to either set of children. They are all my children and I am so grateful to have my large, blended family.
Email Valerie or call 413-586-8651.