I’ve noticed over the years that when it comes to divorces and blending families, there is no topic so passionately discussed as the issues surrounding step-parenthood. As a step-mother, I feel particularly passionate about this topic.
Our new generation of blended families brings something unique to the table that past generations failed to provide – depth of personal experience. Our generation of step-parents was quite frequently the adult byproducts of blended families themselves. Often times we can vividly remember how it felt to establish a relationship with this pseudo-parent as a small child – good, bad or ugly. This depth of experience can be a blessing or a burden.
For adult children of functional well-blended step-families, the expectation level that things will go smoothly may bring you jolting into a reality unlike anything you imagined. Maybe things really did go as smoothly as you remember from your childhood but more likely, your family was very adept at sheltering you and traversing the hardships with grace. Regardless, coming into difficulties unexpectedly is always difficult without the added challenge of clashing with your historically-defined reality. It isn’t unusual for spouses to blame each other or even the children for this deviation from the expected harmony.
For adult children from dysfunctional or traumatic blended family environments, you may bring into the relationship sensitivity and empathy for the child based on your own vivid memories of how it feels to be such a child. This sounds like a real set-up for success, right? Well, sometimes it is but often time it is this exact kindness and sensitivity that is perceived in a negative way by either the children themselves or our new spouse’s ex. Consider how it must feel to parent a child all his life only to have another women step in and dote on your child as if he were her own? This can cause all sorts of jealousy and loyalty issues for both the parent and child. There is no bigger slap in the face than an ill-received gesture of love.
Another aspect of the blended family that adult children of blended families are usually caught off guard by is the challenging issues involved with having a third party – one that most likely at least one if not both of you strongly dislike – intimately involved in your lives. This is often a stressful aspect of blended family dynamics that the children are, thankfully, oblivious to. But since we lived through blended families ourselves and never knew about this challenge, it often knocks us off our feet when it presents itself in our new marriage. When you are dating and dreaming of your futures together, rarely do you picture constant emails and phone calls from a very needy ex-spouse interrupting dinners out, quiet family days, vacations, etc. Rarely do you realistically plan to have to run your plans by the very person your new husband divorced, much less have your plans interrupted or ruined due to a conflict in schedules. You might realistically plan on how you will handle child support obligations, parenting time scheduling, holiday rotations and the like. But it is the little interruptions that gnaw away at the ability to beautifully blend the way you might have otherwise planned.
I’ve only hit on a few small challenges in blending families that tend to become unexpected challenges. Next time you find yourself struggling with yet another challenge to your family dynamic, take a step back and look at your expectations and where they originated. Remember that a child’s outlook is rarely the reality, thanks to caring parents shielding from the harsh challenges only adults are capable of traversing. Talk to your parents about their experiences – you might be surprised to hear that things were actually very different than your childhood version. Use your history to prepare you but remember that every family situation is unique. You can try to emulate the things you loved about your childhood blended family and avoid the things you disliked but don’t get so caught up in recreating a replica family or avoiding any disharmony at all costs because you will most likely find yourself feeling nothing but loss and frustration either way. Let your new family grow through your past and not be held up because of it.