Questions and Insights about Blended Families
- 2003 31 Jul
The issue arose when I was asked, "Thelma, Is there much information written about blended families?"
The woman went on: My husband's children visit us often but they are having a tough time coping with a stepmother. They don't know what to call me and didn't know what my role is and really don't understand who I am to them. Should they address me by my first name and use a title or what should they call me? It certainly wouldn't be mother or any endearing name like that because their natural mother would go berserk.
Is calling their step-mother "Miss" Whatever too formal, or does it show respect? My husband and I thought the best way to solve this was to talk with the children and decide together what is appropriate and acceptable to all of them.
The more difficult issue is the question of how to discipline the children. It appears that my disciplinary measures don't work. They just hated me more. Their father wanted an atmosphere of total love characterized by little correcting and a lot of tolerance.
I wanted the approval to appropriately discipline them without having to wait until he got home from work. We talked to a couple who had been married for 20 years and they agreed with us, that waiting for the father to get home at night to correct something that happened during the day would not establish respect for me and would take away my control of how the kids acted.
Thelma, I can just imagine my husband saying something like, "These are my kids. They are just here for three weeks. They are not that bad. And anyway, my children wouldn't do all those things you're saying. After all, they are my children. You've never had children. You don't know how to handle them. You are too hard on them. After all they are just seven and ten years old. They're so sweet. How could you be so mean? If I'd known you where going to feel this way about my kids, I would have thought long and hard about this relationship. You knew I had these children when you married me. Why were you so nice to them before and so cruel now. No. You can't disciple these babies. I'm their father. That's my responsibility. You better not say anything to them to hurt their little feelings. You'll be in trouble if you do. If you don't want to be bothered with them, I'll just take them with me. You need to show them love. That's all it takes for them to respect you. Just love them."
I'm saying in my head, "These children don't like me and are plotting to drive me crazy for three weeks. I may not have children, but I've been around enough and know how they act. These 'innocent' children already have a hard time addressing me and feeling comfortable around me. I will do everything I can to help them adjust to being here. I will do everything I can to help them have a good time. But I refuse to allow them to run over me. They must respect me. The only way they will respect me is if I have some boundaries, set some limits, and be able to discipline them. I will not hurt them. I will be gentle with them. I will love them. I will protect them."
But I don't want to feel that my husband is not supporting me when I discipline them. What does he think I am anyway? Some mean stepmother with a witches broom beating his kids all day? Pleeeease! He needs to get a grip. I'm his wife, not some jealous girlfriend. I want what's best for all of us. I'm in this for the long haul. This is a lifetime commitment.
It's hard just getting married and trying to get adjusted to each other and at the same time, trying to blend other people into our family and us into theirs. It's bad enough that I have to share him with work, the community, the church, and our family members, too.
It's really hard for us to talk about this because the matter is soooo sensitive. His face gets flushed and his eyes get wide when I bring up the question of dealing with his children. All I want to do is to be able to talk about it, get an understanding, and for him to assure me that he trusts me enough to know that I will not do anything to harm his children. I have their best interest at heart. He had these children when I married him and I knew I would be their step-mother.
I really don't like the label "step-mother." I'd like to be know as their "other" mother. As long as he takes up for them and makes me look like the bad person in the house, the longer it will take for us to "blend." Nobody told us about blended families in marriage counseling and there's not much information about it. I guess society expects it to all fall together and mold like Jell-O. "I don't think so!"
This is not the only issue. There are other members of both of our families that we've got to deal with. I heard somebody say that you don't marry the whole family. Where in the world did that lie come from? When you get the husband and the wife, you get all the baggage that comes with them. What a bummer!
Along with the blended family situation, we have aging parents who need our attention. Our parents need to be near us so we can care for them. Their income is minimal, and for the most part, they are unable to work full-time. One has a lot of physical ailments. Another is depressed all the time. Another is in the first stages of Alzheimer. The other has high blood pressure and diabetes. We love them and want to care for them. The question is, how? We're hardly caring for ourselves.
I was glad to move away from the city where they live so I could have my husband all to myself. I want to have this dream world of living happily ever after. But now it looks like the rest of the family is either going to need to move down here or we are going to have to take some of our resources and help support them. One good thought is that we may be able to find assisted living for them in an area near us. That sure would help solve the problem.
Sometimes even talking about these subjects is off limits for us to discuss. We attempt to have an adult discussion and one of us will clam up or flare up, which always puts us both in an awkward position. It's hard making decisions about your family and how you are going to handle their personal situations.
Maybe if we'd been married 24 years like our friends, it would be easier to decide. We yet have some living to do ourselves, let along trying to figure out how other people will live. It just doesn't seem fair to have so many problems pile up on you at once. Maybe I'm being selfish, but I want to be left alone with my husband!
We are trying to adjust and learn about each other. We got married, moved to the town where my husband was assigned a job and started working on jobs that take a lot of our time. The only time we have together is late in the evenings about four times a week, some Saturdays when he's not at work, and Sunday afternoons. I need attention. If our families take too much of the little time we have left, we will both be upset.
Sweetheart, you sound like the typical newlywed wife who entered marriage with fairy tale mentality, "And they lived happily ever after." NOT!
If you ask me, he sounds like a parent who feels guilty about not being with the children all year, and wants to compensate for his absence at the expense of throwing disciple to the wind. He's caught between pleasing you and compensating for not being with his children all the time. That's a tough spot to be in.
I believe these children are mature enough for the two of you to sit down and talk with them, in love, and let them know that you are the adults in the house. Let them know what you will tolerate and what you want. Give them housework assignments and follow through on what they are supposed to do. Don't be a hard taskmaster but be firm. Let them know the consequences of being disobedient and what the rewards are for being obedient. Show them how to respect you by you respecting them.
Children want boundaries! Do enjoyable activities with them and allow them freedom to make some decisions. Why not ask them what they'd like to call you? Children usually have the answers to those kinds of questions. If it's a name you don't like or don't want, discuss it with them and make another suggestion.
Don't internalize the negatives they will do and say. Remember, they are trying to blend too. It may even be harder on them than on you because you are married to their daddy. There will naturally be some resentment. You've got to be honest with yourself and honest with them. If you resent them because they are your husband's and not yours, that's going to show, I don't care how hard you try to conceal it.
Children are quite perceptive. They know when they are not loved. When you said for better or worse; in sickness and in heal; 'til death do us part, you perhaps did not know that it meant, "Starting now not years in the future."
Many women want the dating part of the relationship to continue without interruption. Wining, dining, flowers, candy, playing, and all of fantasies of romance are quickly diluted with the reality of life's circumstances. Blending families is possibly one of those disillusions.
I know of a couple that had similar problems. The husband had four children to come into the life of a 19-year-old bride. The wife opened her heart to the children. She knew before they were married that he was their father. She invited the children to come to their house and included the children in the decisions of what she was to be called.
Together they set boundaries of how the children would be disciplined. They let it be known that the wife had the privilege to correct them when they got out of line. The wife knew, and let the children know, that she realized she was not their mother and would never try to take the place of their mother. She was their father's wife, their stepmother. Because she loved their father, she also loved them. They could be a happy family if they were willing to try to make life easy for them. They would certainly try to make life happy for them.
Even though they had some rough and rocky times getting adjusted, they were willing to do everything possible to make it work. It finally jelled. It worked.
Dealing with Parents
They could also relate to the situation with your parents. About the same time they were adjusting to the four children, the husband's mother had to move in with them for a while. Again, the wife was willing to help her mother-in-law. She put herself in her husband's place. She explained that if her mother needed help, there would be no way her husband would keep her from helping. That's the way she felt about his mother. She knew that if she treated his mother right, if the time came for her parents to be helped, her husband would be willing, also.
The idea of wanting to have your spouse all to yourself is understandable, but not practical. The reality is, when you marry, you do marry the other person's family (contrary to popular thinking). Many couples have solved the problem of being around the other family members by moving to far off places or to the extreme other side of town. However, with telephones and the internet, you are still as close as technology. At least, you don't have to see them at meal time often.
I never had to blend a family. But there are some suggestions for successfully blending families taken from The Woman's Study Bible. KJV, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992, page 65, "BLENDED FAMILY: Building a New Hom" that I want to paraphrase for you:
- Blending families means building a new home. How do you successfully build a new home? Build your home on Christ. Make Christ the focal point and supreme authority of your home, the foundation upon which everything is decided. Clarify the lines of authority and responsibility for you and your husband. Let the children know the role of both parents over each child. This helps maintain order in the home.
- Effective communication is a key. Heartfelt harmony, peace, and order require clear, direct, and convincing communication. Provide a regular forum for airing grievances, sharing ideas and opinions, and making family decisions, showing appreciation for each person's contributions to the family.
- Recognize that each family member is an individual with skills, talents, abilities, and know-how that is unique to them. If there are situations where forgiveness is necessary, do not hesitate to do so. Clear up the past in order to move on with joy, purpose, and commitment to the future. Allow each person the freedom to express his own personality and skills within the constraints of family rules.
- Remember the saying, "The family that prays together, stays together." Worship together and create a spiritual heritage for generations to come. Study the Bible together and teach the children Bible verses and Bible stories.
Take these suggestions seriously and practice them religiously. Take a lesson from the experts that tell us that successfully blending families can be less stressful and more fulfilling when you look clearly at the big picture. There's more people in the family than the two of you.
Family relationships should be subservient to our relationship to God. He made the perfect family in Adam and Eve. He desired that they should never have problems or have to make the kind of decisions we must make today. After the fall of man in the garden, the perfect family was destroyed. Separation, divorce, children out of wedlock, and remarriage became reality. In all of this, God has a plan for families to work together in harmony. Your desire to form a happy family goes a long way in blending bloodlines and soul ties together. You can do it!
Prayer: "Father, the family was Your first institution. You knew that people needed each other to survive on this earth. By physical birth, you established our bloodlines to give us earthly family identities. What a marvelous work you did for us. Our spouses, children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters, cousins and even our blended families are such a blessing to us. You have given us a glimpse of what being a part of your heavenly family is like. You are the Father. We are the children. You want the best for us. We want to please you. Thank You for adopting us into the Family of God and blending us with your chosen people. Help us to love our family members the way You love the church. Amen"
Thelma Wells is President of A Woman of God Ministries, Dallas, Texas; a Woman of Faith conference speaker; a professor at the Master's School of Divinity and Author, Girl, Have I Got Good News For You! and other encouraging resources.
Sponsored by Master's Divinity School & Master's Graduate School of Divinity