Many images might come to mind when you hear the term “blended family.” Our family consists of my husband and myself, our daughter who is my husband’s biological daughter and technically my “stepdaughter” – more on that later – and our son who is from my husband and I biologically. It’s just us four – plus one on the way – but we are still very much a blended family.
The Ongoing Process of Blending
When I met my husband, his daughter was five and a half years-old and part of falling in love with him involved also falling in love with being her full-time mom. We have all been together since then and have had the joyful addition of our son, soon to be joined by another little one. Our foundation is strong and our happy moments are plentiful. But there also moments that are difficult for all of us in different ways.
Every Blended Family Is Unique
There are so many ways for families to blend and I would argue that there is no magical formula for a blending that will not lead to some issues. For us, I came into the marriage having never been married, and with no children so our blending also meant a huge shift in life and identity for me. My husband came to the marriage having been married once and having been a parent for years. Right there, we had some blending to do in terms of skills and life experience.
However, even if both parents are coming out of very similar histories: both emerging from divorce and bringing two children of similar ages so that all things seem equal on paper, there will still be deep human needs and hurts that will emerge over time and will take time to work through and heal.
6 Fundamental Elements of a Blended Family
Regardless of the details of the family’s blending or the reasons for the tough conversations and sometimes messy feelings, what is most helpful is to think beyond these moments and to focus on what gets us through them.
This may seem like a given but I don’t think it is. I think quite often, especially in families where there don’t seem to be many obvious “issues” – under the rug, maybe? – the concept of telling family members that they are loved can fall by the wayside: “Oh, you know I love you, I don’t need to say it all the time…” Something we say in our household all the time is that we are safe and loved in our home. To be reminded of this truth is important.
It is calming and reassuring, for all of us, to hear those words. Universally we all have wounds, and those wounds can interfere with our receptiveness to love and to safety. It can be hard to believe that we are safe, it can be even harder to believe that we are loved. It is vital to hear again and again that we are loved over the course of time.
Love is also an action; love is something that can be demonstrated, seen, and felt in addition to its statement. To see consistent love through homemade meals at family dinner time, through hugs and caretaking, through showing up again and again for each other, reenforces the words. With these words and actions, the force of that love can get through our defenses and fears and settle in our hearts.
The more we all know we are loved and safe helps us lean into all our shared moments. To love and be loved is the most sacred gift and so to realize that the family is our core place of love helps us see clearly that the family is something to fight for. In a blended family the newer relationships are likely the ones to have more doubt in them: does this new person really love me?
The love in the newer and/or non-biological relationships feels different that the older and more established biological ties and it can put family members in the fight/flight/freeze mode when tough moments come. Especially for little ones with some wounds in biological ties outside the household, it can be so difficult to trust and accept new love, which has ripple effects throughout their new relationships and the entire family.
Within all the relationships in the household, especially the new relationships, the force of love needs to be an ever-present guardian. The force of love gets through to us and helps us get through our rough moments.
How family members handle these fight/flight/freeze moments is a very tender and complicated human experience. I will speak for myself when I say that I have made many, many mistakes throughout our journey as a blended and blending family. I have remained stuck in my feelings, I have failed to let go old slights and stings, I have prioritized being right over being compassionate; this list goes on.
Over the years, again and again, I have let myself down and I have been a disappointment to my husband and our children, and that causes me pain. But I regroup and I dig deep and I keep trying, trying to at least not make that same mistake again, or to relive a bad pattern. And through these mishaps I have been forgiven.
The strength of my husband’s love and forgiveness has been a wellspring of grace that gets through to my heart and my sense of self and helps us continue to push through and fight for our family together. As I regroup and dig deep, as I keep trying, I know I am never alone. He is right there next to me in the work.
In blended families, especially if this new blended family is different from our family of origin, identity is a large source of our mistakes that require so much of the above-mentioned forgiveness. Knowing who we are in this new family structure is an important aspect of navigating what we do and how we understand our problems, our reactions, and our solutions.
We don’t use “step” or “half” terms in our household. Our children refer to each other as brother and sister. I am our daughter’s Mama, Mami, or Mama Bear; I am not her stepmom or her bonus mom. She is not my stepdaughter or my husband’s daughter; she is our daughter, and we love her and raise her together full-time. Visitations with her biological mom have always been irregular and unpredictable. Having said that, I know that I am not her biological mom, that title belongs to another woman, and I never forget that. I need to remain honest and clear in terms of our roles and our whole story.
It is emotionally dangerous to blur lines too much and to forget who we are in each other’s lives because there will always be moments where the truth of the situation reveals itself and our daughter’s love and loyalty for her biological mom feel like a smack in the face to me but I know that it is natural and right that she has those feelings for her biological mom; even if that loyalty seems illogical to me, their bond is sacred and born of a heart-place that logic doesn’t touch and I will always honor that.
Adding to the focus on honesty about our roles is the layer of respect. As a fundamental matter of natural law, I see it as disrespectful to take on a larger or disingenuous title; to pretend I am more, or other, than our daughter’s Mama Bear is disrespectful to her biological mother and that is a line I do not cross. Honesty about our roles is an important aspect of being able to effectively confront any problems we have because it helps us remember our fuller stories; different behaviors make more or less sense based upon an understanding of where those behaviors come from.
The more I can hold both truths in my mind and my heart, that I am her Mama Bear and she also has a biological mother who is someone else and whom she loves, the more I can understand her feelings and calibrate my expectations, stay emotionally available to her with an open heart and try to succeed, in my own way, in my role in the life of this beautiful little girl.
5. Deepening roots and new traditions
One aspect of bringing two families together is the fact that each side of the new family has a history that doesn’t include the other side. One side of the family has memories of “their” favorite park or restaurant, or “their” tradition of watching a certain movie with a certain snack. When someone from that side misses that old tradition, it can inevitably be hurtful to the other family members who were not part of that old tradition. It stings.
A great remedy to get us through those hurts is to establish new traditions and roots within our blending family. In our family one of our favorite ways to connect is to play music together. My husband sings and plays guitar, I play the piano, our daughter rocks out on the bass and our toddler son does his own amazing thing on the drums.
We are not quite ready for our world tour, but our music brings us joy and brings us closer together. We make mistakes with the notes or the rhythms, we practice songs again and keep trying, we make song decisions together. The work we do in our band gives us a helpful manual for how to work through other parts of our life together; the skills and the happiness we derive from playing music both help us get through other aspects of our shared life.
My husband and I are committed to giving our children happy and enriching lives as best we can. We are committed to doing our best every day, and starting again the next day, so that our family is as happy and healthy as our hearts, inner will, and aspirational vision can ensure. We do not waver in that commitment, we do not take our future off the table, ever.
The Japanese language contains the term kintsugi which describes the concept and pottery art form wherein broken pieces are rejoined by gold making the whole piece stronger at the broken places. The belief is that the cracks and breaks tell the full history of the piece and reveal its true beauty. This connects with other cultural concepts of strength through struggle and being forged by fire.
Our commitment will be the golden solder that bolsters our blending pieces and carries us through all the moments: the happy, the tough, the sad, and the forgiving. Stronger together through our growth and learning, we are more united and anchored in love every day as we work through the joyful moments in our beautiful, blended family.
Blended Families Require the Blending of Cultures
Each family unit develops its own family culture and identity. Merging two people from any two households is going to result in a blending of family and sociological culture and beliefs around family, morality and life itself. Add to this basic blending the rich layers of racial identities, language, religious practices, or geographic backgrounds to name a few, and it is even more amazing to contemplate the various blends that exist in every home and family unit.
In our household we have not only our blend of biological connections, we have linguistic blending of Spanish and English and cultural blending of Mexican and American backgrounds and identities. With these latter blends it is easier to see the richness and beauty of the blending; hearing my husband sing in his language of origin is sacred to me.
Conversations emerge from how each language describes a certain object or concept. We teach each other our recipes and share stories of our culture’s celebrities, histories, and folk wisdom. Learning from each other about our cultures of origin and helping each other learn our languages, and passing all of this down to our children, is interesting and fun.
These blends of blends within our household add different layers of challenge, but also beauty, to our lives. The joyful blends get through to our hearts and sense of unity as a family which again helps us get through the growing pains of blending.