The Myth of The Blended Family

Child divorcing parentsI have always disliked the term step-family. As both a step-daughter and step-mother, it conveyed to me “less than” or even worse brought forth negative images of evil step-mothers in fairy tales. Perhaps because of this, the term “blended family” was developed several decades ago. And while more positive, I think it unwittingly created problems of its own, to do with the difference between expectations and reality.

When I think of the word “blended”, I envision a smoothie made in an efficient blender, in which the various flavors are combined in a tasty new mixture, free of lumps. From my personal and professional experience working with such families, this is not often their reality. When divorced or widowed parents become romantically involved with a new person, they make expect their child to also “fall in love” with this new person. This usually does not happen, at least not at first. There are several reasons for this. Divorce (or death of a parent) is a profound loss and children may be reluctant to risk being hurt again. They may also view liking this new adult as a betrayal of their other parent or their prior family, which they probably wish still existed. Unfortunately, sometimes children are told that this new parent is “bad” and not to be trusted. Mu husband’s ex-wife referred to me as “the wicked witch of the West” which certainly affected my relationship with my young step-daughter. And, of course, this new person may be seen as a rival for their parent’s attention, which further alienates them.

Sometimes it is the biological parent herself who expects too much from this new parent-child relationship. Initially, during the “honeymoon” phase all may look promising—people are putting their best selves forward. But when the reality of child rearing sets in, complete with financial concerns, discipline conflicts, messy rooms and even messier kids, problems often appear. The over-all issue may be that our new partner is not as invested in our child as we are, nor as we would like them to be. I remember going to a play my then 6 year old son was in—I beamed when he performed his part well, only to look over at my husband to see a bored expression on his face. At that moment I sadly realized our very different emotional connection with my son. And although their relationship improved over the years, our worst arguments were always about how it could be better (don’t we always want the best for our children?)

Sometimes events outside this new family affect “the blend.” Struggles with career, finances, health and other problems influence how and h ow much our partner participates in family life. During our early years together my husband fought to get even minimal visitation with his own daughter. His anger and sadness about that often negatively affected his mood and his ability to be there for my son. I could feel the more positive energy in the home when his daughter visited, and his sadness when she left. In many situation, including ours, the children “blend” more easily than the adults and decades later, in our case, they remain close friends.

There can be many positive aspects to remarriage with children. Relationships develop that can be affirming and even life changing for both the adults and the children. My strong recommendation is to have realistic expectations—to realize that these relationships take time to develop and can be facilitated but not forced upon those involved. And if you can think of a better term to describe our families, please let me know.

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