By Sevgi Fernandez
The day of the “Nuclear Family” consisting of a father, mother, and their children as the “norm” has long been gone. As the divorce rate hovers around 50% and the percentage of single mother’s having children is at an all time high, the family structure is changing. As members of our gay and lesbian communities are having and adopting children, the family structure is changing. With these changes, comes the inevitable rise in blended/step-families.
As the product of a blended family and as a mother of two biological and two step children, I have an insider’s view to the challenges and complexities, gifts and rewards that can arise with the weaving together of two separate families. On top of that, my family is cross-cultural and interracial as many are these days, and with these extra differences often come additional complexities.
My husband and I found ourselves somewhat blindly stumbling through the early years of our marriage, both having entered into it with children from previous relationships. Through much trial and error, fear and courage, we found our way.
The successful integration of two families is intrinsically complex. If there’s one thing I’ve found myself repeating to the step-parents I work with it’s “adjust your expectations”. So often we tell ourselves things should be a certain way. Should is what I call a four letter word in step-parenting. It’s a way of thinking that often sets us and those around us up to fail.
Too often step-parents feel pressure to be liked and accepted, and when things don’t fit into the unrealistic expectations they’ve set for themselves and others, things start to fall apart. When we don’t feel the way we think we should or handle a situation as gracefully as we could, in comes the dreaded guilt. I’m here to tell step-parents “lose the guilt!” You’re not a bad person if you feel resentment or anger towards your step-child. Every parent, biological or step, has these feelings at times, but as step-parents we tend to beat ourselves up for it. It’s like we constantly have that image of Cinderella’s evil step-mother in our minds and dread that we may become her. It is normal for step-children and step-parents to experience feelings of resentment, anger and dread. I’ve never met a step-parent who hasn’t at some point asked themselves, “what did I sign up for, can I still run the other way?” With that being said, I’ve never known with a step-child that hasn’t at one time or another wished they could make their step-parent disappear forever. I’m writing this to let step-parents know that they are not alone and these are normal feelings when navigating the road to blending a family.
I try to remind my clients that relationships take time to develop, and that blended families need to allow for extra. We tend to be impatient especially when things are difficult or uncomfortable. A step-parent is entering into a system that has been in existence for some time without him/her. Rules have been in place, boundaries established and roles defined. That all shifts when a new partner is introduced into the dynamic. There is an adjustment period for everyone. Things will undoubtedly be frustrating and even discouraging at times. When we add in cultural differences, the potential for misunderstandings and conflicts rises even more.
So how does one navigate this road with so many variables? It takes a clear plan and a strong commitment. How do you develop a plan? You have to communicate. Too many families avoid the difficult discussions and that’s where the cracks in the foundation begin. Change tends to be difficult, especially if you’re not the one seeking it. When merging families, change is required for everyone but often it’s the incoming partner that is the one pushing for it. In order for a new member of the family to fit in, a place has to be made and this is often the thing many of my clients struggle with the most. Where do you fit in to a family that’s not “yours”? In my step-parent groups we do a lot of work on how to create a new family unit that includes everyone. There are some guidelines that I’ve developed to help step-parents along the way: –Take time to care for yourself. All parents need to make sure they nurture their soul and “replenish the tank” so to speak. Whether its spending time with friends, going to the gym, or just having some time alone, it needs to happen and become a regular part of one’s routine to avoid burning out and becoming overwhelmed.
– With the help of a group, coach, therapist or even a good friend, outline clearly what your needs are and the best strategy to communicate them.
– Find things that you can do with your step-child/ren individually that you will both enjoy. This will allow for authentic bonding.
– Get support, it’s so important for the step-parent to have someone outside the family to talk to. A place where he/she can safely vent and get another perspective.
As children we begin to form thought patterns that carry us through life. Often these thought patterns are what hold us up as adults. Usually when a blended family is experiencing a breakdown, it can be traced to the cycles that the individuals are stuck in. A huge part of my work is helping step-parents and family members to not only become aware of their destructive patterns of thought but also engaging them in the process of changing them. People often think that changing the way we think or process things is impossible but it’s really quite attainable with a few new skills: observation, conscious choice and practice. These skills help us to become mindful of our process and once we are mindful we can exact change. Step-parenting can be as rewarding as it is challenging, getting support is the key.
Conversations on Race
By Sevgi Fernandez
Filmmakers Geeta Gandbhir, Blair Foster, Perei Peltz, Joe Brewster, and Michele Stephenson have produced The Conversation, three short documentaries on race in the United States:
A Conversation with my Black Son
A Conversation about Growing Up Black
A Conversation with White People On Race
The point of these documentaries is to create a forum for dialogue and discussion on the issues surrounding race in this country. This is exactly what I am trying to create here on my blog and within my community at home. For the most part race and racism are not discussed between blacks and whites. We are seeing a lot of discussions lately online where it’s easy to hide behind anonymity and maybe for some it’s just simply easier because we’re not sitting face-to-face. Still these conversations are for the most part very polarized, there are of course a few that seem to be on the same page, but that is not the status quo. In this piece I’m going to share with you some of the quotes from the documentaries that spoke to me most in the hopes of sharing and continuing what they started; an open, honest and deep discussion on race and racism.
In, A Conversation With My Black Son, we see quite clearly the realities that black children and their parents have to face when it comes to survival. There are things that no white person ever has to teach their child simply because of the color of their skin.
For example in this documentary the parents are discussing the inevitable conversation regarding the police. If you’re a black person, particularly a black male or the parents of a black male, there is a very necessary conversation that must be had. It’s a conversation I’ve already had to have with my eldest son. If you’re a white person, you don’t have to have a discussion with your children about how to deal with the police. If you’re a white person the police are there to serve and protect, no conversation needed.
The following are some of the quotes I pulled from, A Conversation with my Black Son:
“It’s not IF you get pulled over, it’s WHEN.”
When to have the conversation about how to handle the police:
“Around age 13 or 14, once they hit that growth spurt and their voice deepens”
“He is going to turn into a “large, scary, black man” and that’s not who he is, but that’s how he will be perceived.”
Joe Brewster one of the filmmakers recalled a time he was pulled over and said the following:
“As I’m putting my hands on the steering wheel so I don’t make the police nervous, I realize how nervous I am, and then I realize my children were nervous.”
Watching him retell this ripped at my heart. You could see the pain at the realization that his children were scared. How is it that this is STILL happening in this country that touts the “American Dream” and “the land of the free” where there’s supposed to be “Liberty and Justice for ALL”.
So how does this all translate?
“There’s an unspoken code of racism and white supremacy that says, my life does not matter”
“The last thing that you want to do is for your kids to internalize some of these perceptions and really feel that their inadequate”
How do we as parents combat these messages that society feeds our children? They get it in school, they get it from those whose job it is to serve and protect them. As they grow up, they’ll get it in the workplace and when they seek medical care. How is it that they are supposed to NOT internalize “my life does not matter”?
In the documentary, A Conversation With White People About Race, one participant stated, “we need to examine the fragility of the white ego when it comes to the discussions of race and racism”.
Watching this doc was the first time I can recall really seeing a group of white people honestly and openly discuss race, racism, and how they fit into the world. The following are some of the things that were shared that stood out to me the most:
“I didn’t know I had a racial identity. I don’t have to think about race.”
” I don’t have to talk about race. Because I’m white, I get to chose when and if I acknowledge race. I can stay in the parts of town I want to, and I don’t have to leave my white bubble if I don’t want to. This is the biggest reason why I haven’t talked about race in my life. I simply don’t have to.”
As people of color, race and the color of our skin is and always has been a factor. We don’t have the choice. If you’re asking the question, “what is white privilege?”, this is an excellent example.
“Racism doesn’t necessarily require hatred it requires ignorance and fear”
I suppose this depends on one’s definition of racism. Some view racism as the act of being hateful because of someone’s race. Others view racism as having privileges and power and superiority based on race.
The Webster’s dictionary defines racism as a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.
What I think is important to learn from this is that regardless of what your definition of racism is it’s important to understand that it may be different for others. We cannot assume that it has the same definition for everyone. I think assumptions when it comes to race get us into a lot of trouble.
“Racism isn’t based on the individual necessarily, it’s based on policy and heritage. We don’t have mass incarceration because of one racist individual it’s based on policy, institutionalized racism.”
The following quotes are from two separate sources. I appreciate their introspection on the issues.
“I’ve said offensive things about race before and will probably do so again. I’ve stayed silent when I should have said something, and I’ve spoken up only to feel extremely stupid later. Now, I’m choosing to not let the fear of screwing up or saying the wrong thing get in the way of facilitating a conversation about race. It’s that important to me.” Whitemomblog.com
On Theblazingcenter.com, Barnabus Piper writes:
Most of us grew up unaffected by the racial divide, least unaware of how it affected us. Now, though, the divide has been brought to us and we’re at a loss. We don’t want that conversation. We’re uncomfortable with it. Our responses tend to fall into two main groups.
This first group contains the bigots and racists. They don’t want to talk about race (or maybe they do for all the wrong reasons) because they want to be the only race. This bunch deserves a whole lot of ink, most of it not very pleasant, and none of it here. They are despicable products of unfortunate upbringings.
The second. The majority of this group, is not outright bigoted. Instead they are outright ignorant and therefore subtly prejudiced. They are unexposed to minority cultures (not just black, but all non-white cultures) and unaware of the complexities, difficulties, and hurts there. Really most of white America is part of, or has been part of, this group. They are the comfortable majority, and thus they determine the status quo. Life is good, so why rock the boat? It’s not that they don’t “care” about the needs of others — you won’t find a more cause-oriented bunch of advocates than young, privileged white people — but those needs never really intersect with their lives at a personal and relational level. And they’re happy to keep it that way because any other way is uncomfortable and intimidating. It’s a passive aggressive approach to racial separation, and one most don’t even realize they’re participating in. Their ignorance is blindness they mistake for bliss.
So how do we challenge the bigots and the hate? How do we educate the blissfully ignorant?
When I think about this seemingly insurmountable task I wonder, “what can we do?”. I feel like I’m at a loss. How do we change a system that requires those who benefit from it to help us change it? That’s the question I leave you with today readers please, please share your thoughts on this…..