Parenting and Blending Families

Blending familyBLENDING OUR FAMILY

I am flying to New Zealand this week to watch my daughter Chloé graduate.  She’s worked hard, and I’m very proud of her double major in Psychology and Education from the University of Auckland.  There is something about seeing your kid graduate that makes you let out an internal sigh of relief.  We finished our duty of forced education, and the result has been good.

All three of our girls are my stepdaughters. I don’t like the term “step.” It makes me cringe on the inside. It seems to verbally create a separation that we have worked hard to eliminate. Even the term “blended family” can sound violent. It works okay if you think of it less like an electric blender and more like an artist’s soft blending brush. These terms are harsh, but creating a new family has actually been a very satisfying journey for me.

To celebrate Chloé’s success this week, I want to share some of the things John and I have done to parent our girls.  All three of them are gorgeous, sweet, and strong.  They are easy to love.  Like all kids, they have had their share of struggles and mistakes, but they have navigated life quite well.

Before John and I got married, he ran a household of fun.  The Ping-Pong table enjoyed a permanent setup in the living room, roller skates were perfectly acceptable indoors, and the pantry was stocked with an array of sugar-packed junk food.  Bedtimes were non-existent, and church youth leaders came through at all hours.

As a single woman, I had a quiet, ordered and neat condo, where every kitchen bowl and fork had an assigned location and my closets were organized by color and type of garment.  When the two of us married, we had to meet in the middle, starting with the double mountain of laundry: clean vs. dirty.  The girls had no choice but to adapt to the compromises John and I made.

GETTING MY HEAD AROUND ITArtist brushes with a half finished painted canvas

John and I read several books on blended families before we got married, but one in particular had really practical advice and struck us as great sense.  Ron Deal wrote the book, The Smart Step Family, which I highly recommend that anyone parenting a blended family read.  The major points of the book have stuck with me over the last nine years.  They really helped us be successful.

The first piece of advice was to chill out, and lower your expectations.  It takes a long time for a kid to see their stepparent as a parental figure.  Mr. Deal says to view the relationship as a crockpot, not a microwave.  Use low heat over a long time.  It’s pretty much the opposite of the passionate love affair you have with that child’s parent.  The experts say if your stepchild child is seven when you marry, they will not likely see you as a full parent for another seven years.  You can’t rush it.  Just like any leadership relationship, it takes years to get close.  Connecting to a child takes even longer because you have very little in common.  Calm patience that stretches over years is required.  The demands of cultivation and such slow germination mean that the relationship becomes incredibly precious when it finally flowers.

The second bit of advice we followed was to allow the biological parent to be the disciplinarian and to lay down the rules.  We determined together what the rules were, but when it came to the hard conversations, John took the lead.  When discipline was needed, we discussed it, but John handled its dispensation.

I had to mentally prepare myself to financially take on children who were too young to appreciate the sacrifices I was suddenly making for them.  When I was single, I spend my money on what I wanted or needed.  As a stepparent, you don’t have the hormonal instincts to put your kids first.  Instead of being a biological imperative, it’s a decision to love.  In this respect, step parenting was one of the most unselfish things I have done.  I had to love them way God does, giving with no expectation back.  This was not easy, and I certainly didn’t do it perfectly, but it deepened my character in important ways.  Parenting made me less self-centered.  For so many, this requirement of step parenting comes as a surprise that may take out their marriage.

PUTTING OUR MARRIAGE FIRST

John and I have been able to communicate really well about our thoughts and feelings.  We had a deal between us that I would never put him in the position where he had to choose between his girls and me, and in exchange, he would prioritize my needs first.  He is an amazing father and husband.  He worked hard to include me in his parenting rather than make decisions about his girls in isolation.  I have tried to be aware of my emotions and as honest with him as possible about my feelings and what the real issues are.

I have heard some real blended family horror stories.  These girls are just as responsible for our successful blend as John and me.  They wanted me in their family, and that has made all the difference.  When John and I started dating, the girls were away.  Sharayah was fifteen at the time.  She told me last year that when she came back home, her dad was happier than she had ever seen him.  Before she ever met me, she told herself that whatever was making him this happy had to stay.  She was determined that we would work, for the sake of her father’s happiness.  That’s one remarkably selfless fifteen year-old! Chloé and Brooke have been just as open and welcoming. None of the girls have ever pushed me out or been defiant.

PARENTING AS LEADERS

Parenting in a leadership environment can be tricky.  Everyone has an opinion about your kids’ behavior, and most of the time, they are held to a higher standard than normal kids.  We have done our best to talk through these moments as they arose, encouraging the girls to view people through eyes of grace.  We trust that most people mean well, even when they are misguiding or hurtful in their advice or comments.

I have a friend who is a pastor’s kid who remembers being told as a kid to shape up because people were watching.  If we teach our kids to behave because of leadership pressure, chances are they will wind up resenting the church.  I believe a better approach is to teach our kids to make good choices both for their own good future and to please Jesus with their character.

two arms of lovers and young daughterA CULTURE OF TRUST

We have worked to create a culture of trust in our family.  We trust our girls, and honesty is a vital part of maintaining that trust.  Trusting them meant we haven’t violated their privacy by digging through their things or their communications.  When you believe the best about people, they want to live up to your standards.

Kids want to make us proud.  I’ve seen the hurt in our girls’ eyes when they felt like they had disappointed us.  I remember feeling that with my parents.  We create the identities of our children by the way we treat them and speak to them.  If we treat them like hooligans, that’s who they will believe themselves to be.  If we treat them with respect and value, that’s who they will be.  Like all parenting, this is built over a long, long time.

My parents were impressively good.  Now that I’ve had to figure stuff out, I’ve tried to imitate their parenting style.  When I was little, they were very restricting about what I could do or watch or listen to.  As I became a teenager, they let go of many of those rules and focused on consequences instead of rules.  They had conversations with me like this: “The consequence of staying up late is being tired in school the next day.  Exhaustion means you don’t absorb information well.  Lower grades mean you don’t get scholarships for college.  College loans haunt you for decades.”

These conversations helped me understand that small decisions can have significant impact.  I made good decisions most of the time, but I didn’t always.  My parents were never enablers of poor decisions.  I had to fix my own mistakes.  When I got in so deep I couldn’t get myself out, they would help me, and because I wasn’t expecting help, I was overwhelmed with gratitude.

I’ve tried to help our girls see that the little decisions add up to big consequences.  It’s a delicate balance, however, because we try to love a whole lot and lecture very little.

For this week, however, I couldn’t be prouder of the choices Chloé has made.  All three girls make me proud, but this week is for Chloé.

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