Blending Our Family- Five Years In...
Five years ago my husband Jimmy proposed to me. He proposed after he had asked the kids. They approved. With their support, we were all excited to start our new journey together. Like any marriage the past five years have been full of ups and downs. Even on my wedding night I cried because I missed the kids. The day after we arrived home from our honeymoon, we took our daughter to her gymnastics meet. After a few days my kind, hardworking, selfless, long-time bachelor husband remarked, “I knew you were a great mom, but now I think you are a super mom. This is exhausting. I haven’t sat down all day!” He recognized that he and I were both struggling to navigate through the challenges of being a blended family. Looking back over the past five years, we decided to write about our experiences hoping to help others who are in or preparing to be in a blended family
Rachel’s perspective. (In her 40’s; previously married for 13 years and has 2 kids.)
· You will feel pulled between your children and your spouse because second marriages tend to mess up the order God put in place for marriage.
I was always told that the best gift you can give your kids is a great marriage that models putting the marriage first. However, because the kids and I had formed a super strong bond during the separation and divorce, this became a huge challenge. We had called ourselves the “3 musketeers” during those dark days. While the kids liked Jimmy there is no 4th musketeer! We had to adjust, my heart was pulled and pushed between clinging to my kids or Jimmy. When it came to the kids, Jimmy demonstrated super understanding and support. He even was patient on our first date when the kids kept calling me. While dating, this continued. He always urged me to put the kids first. To this day, he continues to sacrificially put the kids first. Despite his selfless attempts, it’s still tough not to feel like I’m choosing between the kids and him. Overtime we created our own bond and traditions, and our foundation grew. We learned to be intentional at spending time as a family creating new memories and traditions while also honoring old traditions. For example, it took us several years to figure out a new family tradition for Christmas. Each Christmas season now, we head out for dinner as a family and exchange names. After dinner, we drive to Target and allow 10 minutes to find a gift under $20 for the name we chose. Then we share the joy of exchanging the often creative and sometimes funny but thoughtful gifts.
· Blending a family takes time, it’s important to be patient.
We heard this, we believed it, but we weren’t prepared for how slow the process could be. Jimmy and I had really worked hard to prepare for our marriage. I was scared to mess up again, and he felt like he didn’t know what he was doing. So, we did premarital counseling, met with a blended mentor couple, and read Ron Deals book on the topic of stepfamilies. Wow! We were not prepared for how depressing Ron Deals quotes made us feel. At first, because we were discouraged, we tried to dismiss the book. After 5 years, I’d have to humbly admit we were wrong, and the book’s insights were right on. We now know that it takes a long time to blend a family. You cannot rush the process, and each person in the family adjusts at a different speed. Even though Jimmy and I were excited and ready to be a family, we had to pace ourselves with the kids. It became necessary to shift our perspective from short term to long term. We decide we were in it to win the marathon, not the 100-meter sprint.
There were so many details we had not thought through. Little things like what to call our family or how the kids introduced Jimmy to their friends. We weren’t the Holcomb’s or the Menzoian’s and the kids had a hard time with saying “stepdad”. Over time we came up with a new name to call us. We combined our last names to the Holczoians. My daughter, quickly started to call Jimmy, “Jim-Jim” and introduced him as “this is my Jim-Jim”. There were also big things like Jimmy’s role. How does he support me in parenting? What does his involvement look like? How can he lead our family? How do we invest in our marriage when there are kids around all the time? Lots and lots of conversations later and we are still figuring it all out.
· You will sometimes feel like you are alone as a parent.
Jimmy is the most patient, loving, selfless man I know. I chose him, and my kids love him. However, they see him as a friend, another person who loves them, my husband, their Jim-Jim, not their stepdad or someone who can discipline them. This leaves me feeling like all the discipline is on me. It has been a process for both of us. He can feel like he is invisible, and I can feel the pressure to always be on the kids. We see things differently and have different views on parenting. This can sometimes lead me to think he doesn’t love my kids, or I’m failing as a parent. So, we have a lot of conversations behind closed doors to get on the same page so that he knows how to support and encourages me when I do have to discipline the kids. This is a hard dynamic. One that we are still trying to balance!
Jimmy’s perspective. (Never married. Kids of his own were not necessarily on his radar.)
When I met my wife, I knew she had 2 kids, one 9 and one 7. I didn't have any kids of my own, but a lot of my friends had kids, and I had a few nieces and nephews, so I had some experience with kids. As our relationship evolved and we discussed marriage, I started to picture myself in the stepparent role, and it caused a lot of anxiety. Most people think of the word, "step parent" and it has a negative connotation. I mean historically “step parents” have been portrayed as villains in stories like Cinderella and Snow White, Thanks a lot Disney! Fast forward and now the kids are 15 and 13, and I'm still here. Over the last 5 years I’ve learned a lot. I’m still learning, and there are some things that are still a struggle for me.
· Don't force any relationships
In his book, The Smart Stepfamily, Ron Deal said that on average a stepfamily will 7 years to come together. He made a reference to using a slow cooker versus using a blender to combine foods. Using a slow cooker will slowly bring out all the elements of each food and combine them to make a perfectly prepared meal. If you put the same foods in a blender to force the flavors together, you will not get the same outcome. I can tell you with 100% confidence that Mr. Deal was right. Rachel, the kids, and I are 5 years into our slow cooker fusion and there are a lot of variables that keep messing with the temperature of the crock pot. A couple of teenagers, a dash of puberty hormones, a sprinkle of ex-husband drama, and a heaping scoop of self-doubt from a guy who has never been a parent will do that. I am certain if we tried to force our relationships that we would not be in the good place that we are today.
· Sometimes you will feel like an outsider without a voice
I didn't say that you "may" feel like an outsider. I said you will, but it won't last for long. My wife always told me that when things got ugly during her divorce, she and the kids would get together and refer to themselves as the 3 Musketeers. Over the last 5 years we have gone through countless situations where the 3 Musketeers have reunited, and I didn't get an invite. I don't take it personally. They had a life before me, and they bonded through adversity. It doesn't mean they love me any less, and I don't love them any less. It's important for them to stay connected. I know I am part of this family, but they were connected way before I came along. Since they were so connected and I came along halfway through the first act, sometimes it feels like my words don’t carry any weight. I know that the more time you put into a relationship, the more weight your words carry. Since I am the new one to this family, sometimes my words don’t carry much weight and I feel unheard. Luckily in those moments Rachel will remind me that I am truly valued. Then she will remind me that the kids are teenagers, so they basically don’t listen to anyone.
· You may be looked at as an equal, which is good...and bad
I have learned that one goal of a stepparent should be to be a friend with the kids. However, don't come across only as the disciplinarian. That's not how you build a relationship. I can say that after 5 years, that the kids see me as a friend which is good because we talk like friends, and joke like friends. However, sometimes being equal to a couple of teenagers can be frustrating. For example, when I’m on my phone after we told the kids, “No phones,” more than likely someone will say, "how come Jimmy gets to be on his phone?" Well, because I'm 45 years old, I've been working for 30 years, and my calls are work related. There are also times where the kids will ask Rachel if I can do something like drive them somewhere in front of me, to which my usual response is, “You can see me right?” My guess is they do this because they don’t see me as a stepparent, more of just a friend they live with, so they need to clear all decisions with the authority figure of the house.
This is not a complete list of my lessons learned as a stepdad over the last 5 years. This is just a sample of the few things I never heard or read when I was learning how to become a stepparent and be part of a blended family. The peak highs and lows will feel so much higher and lower. When they are high you will feel valued and accepted. When they are low you will be filled with doubt and wonder where you fit in. My advice would be to be vulnerable, be humble, and communicate when you are struggling. Remember, you did come in halfway through the first act so give yourself some grace.