Stephanie's son is almost 11 and for most of his life he has lived between his mum and his dad's house. Stephanie has a good relationship with her ex-husband; one of the positives that Australian Family therapists emphasise when exploring how kids will manage the separation of their parents. So what happens when a single mum or dad re-partner – how do they navigate the new structure when kids come with that package?
If you did a quick poll in your local school classroom you would see a few hands go up when asked who has a parent that isn’t living at home? It’s not a new phenomenon given that step or blended families are the fastest growing family type in Australia, according to the Australian Bureau of statistics.
The stigma associated with divorce seems to have lifted and with that comes a new idea of thinking about what families look like. There are services in the community that provide support to blended families; services like Relationships Australia, those places reinforce that ‘stepfamilies are different’, not just because of the mix of children, culture or ages but because ‘a stepfamily will never be the same as the 'first-time-round family', its important that new families know that there are benefits as well as challenges. Heading into a new family structure needs to be done with eyes open – to the realities of the present and the possibilities of the future.
Blending not only occurs physically but emotionally. The nerves adults display in a new relationship are also there for the kids as they attempt to warm-up to a relative stranger. Baby steps need to be taken. For Stephanie the challenges with her new partner didn’t surface until his younger children began to have access to their dad – with the new children came the influence of new parenting styles, different methods of discipline and different expectations as to how children should behave. The teamwork approach from her side (with her ex partner) wasn’t replicated when it came to her new partner and his ex. A common trait amongst newly partnered single parents; so does the age of the children impact on the success of the new unit?
Lisa re-partnered after the end of her first marriage when her son was just 18 months old. While the blending of the new with the old (her new partner also had another child) the younger age and cognitive awareness of the children meant that the difficult conversations did not happen ‘it was more to do with my son learning to trust my partner, and of me with my husbands child. We did this through play, through communicating needs and by giving each other space to settle in’. Over time the relationship between her son and her new husband, and with her and her husbands daughter became less difficult because it was all that the children had ever known.
Like any family, blended families have a steep learning curve. It’s about testing what works and what doesn’t work while making sure that children feel safe and secure in the process. Negotiating these new relationships can change over time, just as Stephanie agrees ‘sit down and establish ground rules prior to blending the families. If the adults can't agree to this beforehand, it is going to be tortuous for all involved. The adults need to work hard at ensuring that all children feel equal in the house and that there is standard structure’.
If this is the way family’s look in the future then the flexibility we all show in understanding what kids and adults need might offer more success for love the second time around.
How to you provide structure in your blended family?