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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.