How to navigate a blended family

A former stepchild/current stepmother shares how to get this delicate balancing act right. Or as right as possible.

By Dana Epstein Altman
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As a former stepchild and a current stepmother, I’m going to let you in on a little secret that no parenting book, no shrink and no support group in the world will ever tell you. Successfully blending a family comes down to one very simple thing: you are either “all in” with every fiber of your being, or you’re not. (Spoiler alert/reality check: If you’re not, it will never work.) And this is doubly so when you’re all on lockdown together due to a global pandemic that is entirely outside of anyone’s control.

My parents divorced when I was 4. By the time I was 7, both mom and dad were seemingly happily remarried, and I was introduced to a brand-new player: the stepparent. The relationship I had with my stepfather stood in diametric opposition to the one I had with my stepmother. I’m sure you can guess where this is headed. One was “all in”—selfless AF—and the other was a classic narcissist. As a result, I learned the difference between unconditional love and conditional love firsthand; the rest is ancient history.

Many years later, as a happy divorcée/single mother of a seven-year old, I met the love of my life—a happily divorced single father of a fourteen-, twelve-, and six-year old—only I wasn’t quite ready to admit it. We started working together and very quickly developed a deep, yet platonic, friendship. Much to my surprise, our connection was more emotionally intimate than the post-divorce rebound relationship I was in at the time. As friends sometimes do, we started making “family plans” with our collective four children. There were barbecues, beach days and movie nights, all filled with good old-fashioned bonding. The beauty of that dynamic was that it allowed the six of us to interact organically, without the pressure of a romantic parental relationship in the background. (As a kid, I’ll never forget how surreal it was to meet Dad’s “girlfriend” and Mom’s “boyfriend”). When my now-husband finally declared his long-hidden love for me there was nothing awkward about it for our children. In fact, they were elated! After another year of spending much more “family time” together, we made it official, moved in to one big house and became the Brady Bunch without the boys—and much to my dismay, Alice.

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BLENDED FAMILY SURVIVAL TIPS

Raising children is never easy. Throw in the added challenges of divorced parents, abandonment issues, remarriage, blending a family, and a pandemic that offers few opportunities to escape the house, and things can get downright complicated. Having lived through both sides of the step-equation, I consider myself somewhat of an expert. What follows are a few survival tips, some of which I learned from having a stepmother—and a few I found out when I became one.

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GO ALL IN

Regardless of what they say or how they act, kids care about one thing: Are you committed to them? Their radar is strong, and if they sense anything other than your total and complete buy-in, the relationship will be strained from the minute you say, “I do.” Especially if they feel that your only priority is their bio parent. Obviously, you’ll need to earn their trust, and for some kids it might take a while—maybe even years. Figuring out what they need from you is imperative. For my stepdaughters, it meant showing up for them and doing what I said I was going to do. For my daughter, it was about being heard by my husband, and being treated the same as the rest of his girls. Once we proved ourselves to them unconditionally, our relationships became more authentic. Dipping your toe into the shallow end and never really learning to swim will get you nowhere as a stepparent. For it to work—and I mean really work—you need to dive into the deep end and be willing to stay there for as long as it takes. Bottom line? You can’t half-ass this one.

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ACCEPT THAT SOMETIMES YOU MAY BE TWO BIG HAPPY FAMILIES

When it comes to the fairytale ideal of immediately becoming one big happy family, manage your expectations. Remind yourself that each of the families coming together has a history filled with moments and memories that shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s okay to sometimes feel like two separate families because at one time, you were. Whether it was the fun family vacation at the beach, or the time the dog ran away, let them share openly and freely. Part of being a kid is reminiscing about the past—it’s good for the soul. It’s also a beautiful way for part of the family to learn more intimate details about the other and consequently make room to create new memories together.

Always put the kids first. Nothing is more important for their overall wellbeing.

ACT AS A UNIFIED FRONT

When you have a baby with a partner, chances are you learn to co-parent your baby together. You may not always agree on everything, but hopefully, over the course of time, you meet somewhere in the middle. That’s not always the case when you and your partner blend your own children, and you each have a distinctive way of parenting. Just like any relationship, communication is critical, as is empathy. But the single most important thing? A unified front. Always. Which is why you and your partner need to agree on the non-negotiables before you all cohabitate. This includes everything from understanding and respecting the role their other bio parent plays, to agreeing on the financial details of raising children together. Establish those ground rules as a couple and then don’t budge. Nothing makes kids in a blended family feel more anxious than mixed messages. 

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PHONE A FRIEND

You know how each stage of child development kind of gets you ready for the next? Well, that all goes out the window when you’re lucky enough to inherit older stepchildren. Do yourself a favor and find a close friend you trust who has parented kids at the stages you haven’t. Then put her on speed dial. Trust me when I tell you that without said friend, it’s not easy to know what you’re doing. Especially when you go from a little girl who needs you to arrange her playdates to an older teenager who needs you to book her first visit to the gynecologist. Enough said.

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NEVER TRASH TALK YOUR EX

In a perfect world, you would co-parent harmoniously with your ex, but unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. As the monkey-in-the-middle child of two mudslinging parents, I wholeheartedly urge you to never disparage your ex to your child. Ever. The relationship children have with their other parent is theirs, not yours. If they choose to share the good, the bad or the ugly, you can certainly be there to listen and support—but never to commiserate, react, or even worse, add fuel to the fire. The biggest life lesson born out my own parent’s divorce is my undying conviction to place ego aside and always put the kids first. Their overall wellbeing depends on it.

 

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