Here's my situation: I have a son and two step-daughters. My boyfriend and I recently got engaged after seven years together and five very hard years of living together as a blended family. Oh, were you expecting me to say blissful years, like I'm living in some sort of freaking fairy tale? Well, even fairy tale blended families have their share of poisonous apples being flung around, and ours was no different. I'm here to tell you there is hope and how to cope.
So you fell in love with this great guy who happened to have a couple of kids. Isn't that nice? Now you get to have more kids without getting fat again, good for you! After a few months together things start to get serious and you introduce each other to the kids, a little awkward at first, but everyone survives. You start planning picnics together, trips to the zoo, amusement parks, and even weekends away. This is fantastic, you both agree. Your relationship is clicking along nicely now and one day you ask the question: Wouldn't it make more sense if we all just lived together? Then we could be together more often! How terribly exciting that idea is to you! You start having sleepovers with kids at your place to see how it goes and to get everyone used to the new plan, and doesn't it go just swimmingly! Now you're off to the races looking for a house to share with your new, amazingly wonderful family. Congratulations to you! You are about to embark on quite a little adventure that will have you begging for death (of others, and your own), stuffing yours ears full of cotton to block out those loud kids of his, and stuffing your face with chocolate to drown your sorrow because when his kids are there, you are sent to another worldly plane where anybody that isn't blood related doesn't exist. It's going to be great! Right!? NOT.
Sorry for the tough love, but somebody's got to do it. I looked up blended families on Google to find some photos for this blog and I was horrified to see picture after picture of blended families looking happy and relaxed like they didn't just spend the weekend slamming doors, yelling at each other, and looking for excuses to get out of the house. WTF? Come on people! There is no way that I'm the only one who's had it rough. There is a reason why relationship therapists have a whole new schooling specifically greared toward blended families. IT'S TOUGH. Really tough. You don't know yourself or your partner until you've been subjected to the kind of stress and roller coaster of emotions that living together as a blended family brings.
Spawns of Satan? Nope, Spawns of You!
And then there are the kids. As soon as you move in together you realize that you've both created a lot of traditions with your own kids that your partner won't understand. You have completely opposite ways of parenting, and you think the other parent is doing it ALL WRONG, and that is putting it lightly. So you fight and fight and fight and fight some more over, well, everything. All arguments start with a comment about one of the kids, the parent of said child is offended, insulted, and utterly dismayed that you would accuse their child of not cleaning up after themselves, not washing their hands after going to the bathroom, talking too loudly, playing too many video games, watching too much television, yelling, chewing loudly, holding their fork improperly, not feeding the dog, feeding the dog too much, eating too much, not eating enough, and/or breathing too loudly. Looking back and listing it sure puts things into perspective. We are talking piercing a parents heart with such remarks, and what happens when somebody strikes us - we strike back harder. Every fight starts with something small and soon you are listing each others shortcomings as parents and human beings and quickly move on to listing the critical faults of each others children while simultaneously accusing each other of being complete hypocrites. Good times I tell ya, good old times. And here's the WORST PART - The kids usually hear every word, because you are so caught up in blaming each other for screwing up your kids, that you are creating a whole new set of problems - you should be ashamed of yourself, and you will be.
So how, out of this disaster of a situation, did we survive five years and decide that we were so stinking happy that we should embark on a another new adventure together by getting married? Mind boggling, I know. Let me share with you how we finally learned to cope with the stress of living together as a blended family.
Give Me Shelter ( And Lots of Space)
First of all, living with anyone is not easy, especially once you've reached a certain age and are pretty set in your ways. You need a healthy foundation for respecting your newly shared space and instruct your children to do the same. A good habit to do and teach is to always look back at a room before leaving it to see if you've left something behind that should be put away or cleaned up. Good in theory, of course. My Advice: I hired a cleaner. I'm no longer alone in my battle to keep the house clean, it has taken a lot of the stress off, I cannot stress enough how much stress this has saved me!
Men Are From the Planet of Selective Hearing
As a woman there are a lot of things that drive us crazy about the way men seem to want to live. Classic issues will arise about splitting chores and general tidiness. I can't stand having dirty dishes in the sink when there is a dish washer within inches of it. It's screams laziness and drives me batty. I was able to train the children to put their dishes in the dish washer, but my hubby is untrainable in this department. It's just one of those things that you have to throw your hands up and get over. The hardest part is that he completely disregards my reasoning that it sets a good example for the kids. It's an ongoing battle that I lost years ago.
My Advice: I put his dishes in the dishwasher myself because a tidy sink is clearly important to me and not to him. It saves me the anguish of nagging him about it and honestly takes me less than five minutes to do. I hate him less when I'm not looking at his dirty dishes in the sink. Sometimes you have to admit that the things that drive you crazy are your own issue and you have to deal with it yourself to stay sane.
Pick Your Battles, Win Your Wars
Instead of fighting over every little thing, sit down and talk about it. Sounds easy enough right? Good luck finding the time when you are both so exhausted or sick of each other that any free time is spent avoiding the other person. However, once you do sit down and go over your lists of things that drive you to drink, you'll both realize they are all small and inconsequential and, yes, even petty. You'll be embarrassed to say half of them out loud. This is where you choose the ones that are most important to you, discuss, resolve, and make house rules (and stick to them). Become a united front once the rules are drafted and delivered to the kids. This whole process will bring you closer together as a couple and as parents.
My Advice: When the kids are gone, we make a nice dinner together and use that relaxed time to get the issues out of the way before moving onto 'desert', wink wink, nudge nudge.
Time is on Our Side
You will not survive as a couple unless you do the following: coordinate your weekends with and without the kids. You need time to reconnect, relax, and remember the person you fell in love with - sans kids. Don't feel guilty about it, this is the person you chose to be with, sometimes you just need to be reminded as to why. Each weekend that you go out for dinner, see a movie, go for walks, and cuddle on the couch will allow you both forgiveness for all the crap you put each other through the previous week while under the stress of getting the kids to and from school and sports, and getting everyone fed, homeworked, and to bed. It will also give you the strength to face the week ahead, together.
My Advice: Do things for each other. The first one up makes the coffee and breakfast. Don't stress the To Do List on your weekends alone. Focus on each other, the repairs can wait. My friends know that I don't like to make plans with them when it's my weekend without the kids, it's an unspoken rule with the hubby as well - that it is our sacred time to reconnect. Our relationship comes first. Also, we take naps together on the couch Saturday afternoons, it's heavenly.
The Ex Factor
Just don't go there. You will need to communicate with your ex almost daily as will your partner - because you have kids with that person. Wrap jealousy in a burlap sack, tie it to a brick, and throw it in the river - it is the last thing you need right now! They are your exes for a reason, remember that.
My Advice: No matter how crazy or unreliable either exes are, do not make statements about them in front of their kids. Haven't you done enough damage by constantly fighting with each other? Don't drag the exes into your household scraps as well.
The Little Angels
Don't forget that even though they may drive you bat shit crazy some days, they are still just kids. They have been through a traumatic experience with their parents divorce. They are hurt, confused, frustrated, and need attention. Give it to them. This is usually ends up being the woman's department - love all of the little buggers as much as you can. Hug them if they'll let you, spend time connecting with them and letting them know that you have their back. Talk to them. Don't be afraid to admit that you are wrong to fight as parents and that you are working on making things better. Keep in mind what they have gone through and what they are currently going through. Consider how your relationship will effect their relationships when they get older. Set a good example, feel guilty when you fight, and let them know you care.
My Advice: Apologize. If you say something out of anger or lack of a filter in front of the kids, apologize to your partner and to the kids for your behaviour, at least it's something. You're not a monster, you just act like one sometimes.
Need I say more? You have to take this into consideration. Even couples without kids have to deal with this monthly curse on us women. Add the stress of your current situation and it can get really ugly. I give my hubby fair warning not to poke the bear when I feel it coming on and he has learned, well, not to poke the bear. It's like an unspoken truce - we avoid each other and will not discuss the kids during this time. I go to bed early and spend time catching up on my shows online. Even the kids can sense the eerie calm in the house during this sacred week. It's kind of funny now that I think of it. But it's serious stuff! I've flown off the handle over laundry being left in the dryer on my best day, can you imagine what I'm capable of during the week before my period?
My Advice: Pamper yourself, enjoy time alone, recuperate, and give fair warning. Don't forget to apoligize and explain to the kids if you are less than tolerant with them at this time as well. It's part of life.
THERAPY THERAPY THERAPY
I will give you one reason why every couple should go to therapy: So you can witness your husband taking advice, that you've given to him multiple times over the years until you're blue in the face, from another woman, and actually listen to it. Frustrating? Yes, but effective. For some reason, unless you have a PhD, they just aren't going to listen to our reasoning.
My Advice: Bring a list to therapy every week and keep track of your (his) progress. He won't want to be embarrassed that he's not pulling his weight when the progress report is given each week. Use therapy to your full advantage. Oh, and shut up for a minute and listen to what he has to say, you'll discover a lot about the man you thought you knew so well. You may even learn that he refuses to put his dishes in the dishwasher right away because his ex wife used to nag him about it, he did it for her, but now he is exercising his rights as a new man to not be nagged. Men hate nagging - duh! Let him have that victory over his former oppression, he's a good man after all and deserves that win.
Healthy Body = Healthy Brain = Happy Being
Do you know that people who exercise regularly handle stress better than others. Why? Because they have more self control. They also have more sticking power, energy, and those happy endorphins that are all the rage these days.
My Advice: Eat better, exercise, meditate, stretch, join a yoga class, whatever it takes, do it for you and do it regularly.
GRATEFUL IS AS GRATEFUL DOES
Remember that you love your partner and you love all the kids under your roof. You are blessed to have them in your life and they make life worth living (most days). My Advice: Spend time together like back in the good old days when you were dating, go places as a family. It's true that the family that plays together stays together.
If you take all of these things into consideration, it still won't be easy, but it will be easier. Relax and take it in stride. I promise that if you can keep your cool, pick your battles, stay healthy in body and mind, and be grateful for your pretty cool family, everything will be OK.
Now that we are through the tough times, the kids are getting older, and we have our routines and egos all sorted out, things are great! My hubby and I talk on the phone a few times a day just to say hi. We keep each other in the loop about what's going on with the kids and we spend time together as a family and alone regularly. We even started taking bigger vacations and, as a rule, we go one year with the kids and the next without. It's about balance at the end of the day. Spending time alone with your own children so they know they are still your number one, spending time all together as a family, and spending time alone as a couple. Get a calendar handy and use it up!