We’ve been at this thing called “Blended Family” for over five years, and I can safely say that it’s been both a challenge and surprise for all parties involved.
The dynamic really began when my girlfriend (and future wife) asked me to pitch in two nights a week to watch John*, then 9, and Carla*, then 6, while she completed her degree at college. “When I’m not here, David is in charge,” she would say, and I took that seriously. I automatically turned on the Dad-as-Protector-and-Rearer mindset, and I dreamed of the day that these great, fun, welcoming children might call me Dad.
Well, “Dad,” as I’ve learned, is an earned title.
Figuring Out My Role the Hard Way
The real work began when we moved in together and uprooted the kids from Mayfield to Broadview Heights. That’s when it got real for the oldest, who, as it turns out, thought his family would always just be his mom, his sister, and him. A new neighborhood, a whirlwind of remodeling, different rules, and a new baby sister changed his assumption, but as the kids adjusted, I did not necessarily change with them.
Where it may have been okay to play the authoritarian while they were young, this approach proved damaging to my relationship with my oldest, in particular. It took me too long to wake up and pull back on the brand of coaching, criticism, and encouragement that I learned from my father. Turns out, his way did little more than mislead and disengage my step-son. It failed us both miserably.
This came to a head, literally, when I tossed a large plastic cup at John to stir him from his incessant bickering. I underhand tossed it toward his belly to catch his attention, something I remember my Dad doing from time to time. My stepson’s response was to pick up the cup, and in a burst of anger, whip it toward me as a fast pitch.
The cup bounced off the wall and split my wife’s forehead open in an instant. There was blood, tears, screams, and more tears. At this point, I had failed our blended family.
I’d let my will to steer my step-son overpower my genuine interest in growing healthy ties between us. We’d hit ground zero, but we started looking for ways to pick up the pieces.
Making Our Blended Family Work
We began with individual and group counseling, which gave us a better understanding of each other’s frustrations. John and I quickly realized that we didn’t want to fight, and we didn’t want to break his mother’s heart: we could agree to that. So, we loosely agreed to start cutting each other some slack. The trouble is that picking up the pieces is easier said than done.
We both work at it, everyday.
John has grown up a lot this year. He took on a full-time summer job at a nearby golf course, built a stronger social network, and learned that I am not simply “out to get him.” To better manage his ADD, he’s recently started exercising, practicing good nutrition , and stepping up his hygiene with Buddhist-like regularity. We’ve seen a real change in him.
As with any family, we still have work to do. My wife still gets caught in the middle. Our bickering can drive her crazy, but she is trying to understand that it is our way of navigating toward an understanding of each other. I remain convinced that John is a good candidate for law, as he loves the art of debate.
Two things that have helped my family grow: we’re quick to confront our issues and we’re quick to apologize.
This approach can be intense, but we quickly move on. For John, these immediate confrontations are a nuisance, but it helps everyone communicate.
Now, it’s the season of college visits, ACTs, applications, and fighting over the car. Life marches on. Our four-year-old keeps us on our toes, and our 13-year-old daughter has found the meaning of pure teen. But, we wouldn’t have it any other way in our blended, not broken, family.
*Names have been changed.
This article was one in a series about step-families, Click here to read one mom’s story. Click here to read one teen’s story. Click here for suggested responses to, “You’re not my parent.” Click here for expert advice.