Blended Family · Personal

Blended Blues

Anyone who grew up watching the 1970’s sitcom The Brady Bunch remembers how easy they made it look. The show was so radical for its time that it almost never got made. Mr. and Mrs. Brady each brought three children to their perfect union. Viewers didn’t hear about the missing biological parents (one deceased, the other’s mysterious whereabouts undisclosed). Nor were we privy to any real difficulties the couple faced. On the surface we saw a clean house, a fun-loving housekeeper, and two dedicated parents who took step parenting in their stride. The children didn’t appear jealous or resentful. The Bradys not only normalized blended families, they made step families seem progressive.

In reality, blended families are not so straight forward. There are so many variations that no two look alike. One definition- which best reflects ours- is “a family consisting of a couple, the children they have had together, and their children from previous relationships.” My partner and I may have six children between us, but that is where our resemblance to the fictional Bradys ends. For starters, we aren’t even married.

Have I mentioned that I suffer from optimism? I say “suffer” because my positive outlook sometimes clouds my judgment. I often jump into situations envisioning only the best possible outcome. Life doesn’t always work out the way I hope it will, and it can be… well, disappointing. Recently I read a few depressing statistics about step-families. Apparently the majority of second families fail.

I started Confessions of a Patchwork Momma before Blessing’s birth. (For privacy purposes I’m not using any of my children’s names on this blog). I thought that he would bring our two families together. Looking back now it seems absurd (unfair, unrealistic…) to put such pressure on one small person: to heal the wounds of seven family members and unite us. Needless to say, it hasn’t worked out the way I would have liked.

I’ve altered the focus of my blog and intend to write more about our lifestyle rather than blended families specifically. I don’t feel equipped to help others navigate the myriad of challenges blended families face. After all, mine is still in its infancy, a work in progress.

This space was left idle for over two years because I had so much to cope with and not much time for writing. See earlier posts if you’re interested in reading about how awfully wrong my third trimester went, or the stressful period after Blessing’s birth when Shit Got Real. This is another “catch up” post. I stopped telling my story at the point where my biological mother had just passed away in America, and we were returning to Ireland after The Summer of Suitcases, Festivals and a Solar Eclipse.

Homecoming, August 2017

I couldn’t wait to be home again after four months of moving around due to the house fire. To our delight the house was beautiful! Everything was clean, the walls freshly painted, and it seemed clutter free… until I opened the door of my conservatory. Boxes were stacked nearly as high as the ceiling and there was barely enough space to walk in the 20 x 14 foot room. 15 years worth of clutter and all of the contents of my home had been boxed up by the disaster repair company. There was no order whatsoever. When I needed to cook dinner I had to first locate the box with pots and pans, plates, cutlery, etc. Toys were randomly packed with utensils. It was absolute chaos! I had to dig and dig to locate anything I needed. My baby was only three months old and cried any time I put him down. My teenagers weren’t interested in helping. My partner was working in Donegal, on the other side of the country (again). It was hellish.

Despite feeling overwhelmed and unsupported, I was very happy to be back in my home at last, sleeping in my own bed, cooking in my newly renovated kitchen, and establishing routines with Blessing. Slowly I unpacked and began to settle in. A period of contentment followed after months of chaos and stress. Unfortunately it didn’t last long.

Right on cue my partner’s ex threw a curve ball. Her anger had been simmering for months. I first became aware of it when we took our one and only holiday with all of the children (except for my oldest). I made the mistake of sharing a photo of the kids having a lovely time with their dad at St. Brigid’s Garden on Facebook. At the time we were “friends” and it shocked me when she had the photo removed from my timeline by administrators as a “privacy violation.” My partner (and his kids) were happy to have the photo shared so the problem was purely her possessiveness. Perhaps she was jealous. I really don’t know what motivated her, but the incident upset me.

On a primal level it seemed like she was staking her claim, as if my presence threatened her position as the biological mother. I have my own children and don’t try to pretend that her kids are mine. Even if I don’t agree with her behavior, I can understand a Mama Bear instinct (irrational though it may be) to some degree. However, she also denigrates their father’s role, as if he has no right to his children either. In many ways she tried to ruin our trip to Galway, constantly interfering by phone and threatening to collect their kids. It didn’t bode well for the future.

While I had anticipated Blessing’s birth being a big adjustment for all of the children, I hadn’t considered her reaction. One might expect to deal with their own ex’s wrath, but I never envisioned being on the receiving end of vitriol from my partner’s toxic ex. Quite simply, that’s not what I signed up for.

It’s not appropriate to go into all of the messed up, crazy details here. All I can say is that a painful period followed where she not only attacked my character to anyone who would listen, but she also spread vicious lies about one of my children (remember the First Agreement and how harmful the spread of emotional poison can be that I wrote about in my last post?). She even took my partner to court in an effort to prevent him from having any access to his children (all while lying to others, saying he’d lost interest in their children after our baby’s birth). Anyone familiar with parental alienation knows how damaging it is to both the children and the parent being alienated.

It took over six months for the case to be settled. After much outlandish, narcissistic behavior on her part, unnecessary heartache, and expense, the judge ruled in my partner’s favor. However, there are no winners. So much damage has been done; if her goal was to drive a wedge between our family members, she succeeded. There are divisions which may never be bridged. Recently my partner remarked that we are like oil and water, two families who may be related but remain separate all the same.

The main problem, as I see it, is that his ex refuses to move on, although she left their relationship several years before he and I became involved. I’ve learned to “recognize the crazy,” as Alice Marlowe (psychiatric health nurse practitioner) calls it. Some of the behavior we’ve had to deal with just isn’t normal. His ex’s negative response to our situation has obviously impacted her children’s ability to adjust, making it difficult for everyone to move forwards. I have always treated their children with kindness and respect, but the experience has changed my relationship with them. I have distanced myself because it feels emotionally safer. It’s natural for children to be loyal to their biological parents, and she’s their primary carer. I do not speak negatively about her to them, although it’s difficult when she continues to engage in alienating behavior, badmouthing me and my partner in an attempt to turn them against us. With so much tension between the adults, the best thing for me to do is to retreat. I have stepped way back and let go of the dream of being truly blended.

* * *

The truth is no one wants to be in any blended family.

The children didn’t choose to marry and move and spend the rest of their lives with another family.

Our household is louder and noisier than it ever would be with three children. Our blended family reduces the attention each child gets. Attention that used to be theirs alone is divided between them,, new stepsiblings and a new adult love. – Kate Chapman

When I read these words on the Scary Mommy blog I felt oddly reassured. This Is the Cold, Hard Truth About Blended Families is a brilliant article for anyone struggling with the issues that arise in step-families. It seems The Brady Bunch are just a myth; most of us are struggling if we’re honest.

I love my partner and am committed to making this complicated, unconventional story work. I’ve had to accept that the patterns and power struggles between him and his ex will continue to play out (unless one of them changes), but that doesn’t have to affect me or my children. Their dynamic is between them, regardless of what I think. Although I wish he would stand his ground and stop allowing her to be so domineering, there’s nothing I can do about it. I have, however, established firm boundaries in an attempt to look after my mental health. I do not want drama in my life and will not communicate with his toxic ex under any circumstances.

Despite the conflict and difficulties that have arisen in our blended family, one thing has become evident. We may not exactly be united as a family, but we are united in our love of Blessing. He brings so much joy to our lives. Our wounds from the past may still be there, but we’ve all made space in our hearts for our youngest family member. He’ll always connect us. In time the other bonds may strengthen too, but it can’t be forced. There is always hope.

I would love to connect with others who are attempting to create healthy second families. What has helped you on your journey as a stepparent? How do you handle conflict with your exes? What strategies have you employed to bring you closer as a couple despite the challenges of being in a blended family?

Photo Credit: “Girl With Balloon” (2004)/ There Is Always Hope by Banksy

8 thoughts on “Blended Blues

  1. I started reading your blog with great interest. This is a subject I like to think about a lot. It is so important that the kids are happy, isn’t it? Unfortunately I am a bit running out of time today. But I’d like to come back and comment a bit more some other time. In the meantime I want to say that I like your writing very much and am looking forward to come back to it. 🙂
    Hugs and very best wishes from Aunty Uta 🙂

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Uta. It’s a long post! I agree it’s important to try to ensure that children are happy- their needs should be at the center. Parenting positively after a divorce or separation is a real challenge and requires maturity from all of the adults.

      When a former partner engages in high-conflict/ damaging behavior, or uses the children as pawns, it’s awful because you can’t really protect them. There are ways to minimize conflict, although it often requires outside support from courts, etc. It’s a stressful situation for any family to go through.😞

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      1. Hi Robin, you say that it is awful when a former partner engages in high-conflict/ damaging behavior, or uses the children as pawns. I very much agree with that. From personal experience I could point to quite a few examples where separated or divorced parents went on for years fighting each other because of a difficult financial situation or some disagreement concerning their children. Even when each partner had some new partner, the fights kept going on, usually until the children reached adulthood. In one instance, where a daughter got married, both parents with their new partners, attended and finally behaved civilly. Other then at the wedding, I think both set of parents have no communication with each other. but the children, a son and the daughter and the son-in-law have cordially connections with both sides of the family including several sets of grandparents. (I know of several cases where some grandparents have new partners too!)
        I very much dislike it, when a mother tries to ‘punish’ the childrens’ father for alleged misconduct by making it difficult for him to see his children. The opposite can occur, when for instance the father is an abusive alcoholic or severe drug taker, and the mother lets him take the children at any time without regard to the childrens’ safety.

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      2. You’re so right, Uta. It can get very messy, especially when money is tight! I’m glad your acquaintances were civil at their daughter’s wedding. You’d think by the time the kids are adults everyone would get along. Personally I can’t imagine carrying so much bitterness through life. It’s good that the adult children have positive relationships with both sets of parents despite everything.

        Seeing what my partner has gone through has helped me to empathize with fathers and understand how powerless they can feel after separation. He loves and misses his children but often feels removed from their lives. Previously I would have related more to mothers because I am one.

        I also had a difficult separation before my husband passed away. He had mental health issues (as well as problems with substance abuse), and I worried about his ability to care for the children. In Ireland family law is behind other countries since divorce is relatively new here. My ex had rights but the children did not. Even when I alerted social services about safety issues I was told the children had to go to their dad’s because of the access order. While I never prevented access, I did tell the children to call any time if they needed help. (The oldest had a mobile phone).

        Considering what we went through, I cannot imagine preventing my children from seeing a loving, kind, hardworking, functional father. I feel strongly that adults- be they men or women- need to take responsibility for their emotions after separation/ divorce and allow the children to love both parents!

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  2. i went online tonight and searched blended family blues and found your blog. feels like a little bit of magic. i want to say – i am sorry. i’m sorry for what was hard and not ok during your pregnancy. i had a similar experience with my partners first wife and it still hurts today. my partner has 2 young adult daughters from his first marriage and 4 years into our relationship we are still working through the big challenges. i still struggle in my relationships with his daughters and want to find a way to have ease. i have learned so much about my co-dependency, boundaries and removing myself from situations where i do not have a ‘good’ place. it is hard and humbling. i look forward to reading your more recent posts!

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    1. Thank you so much for your lovely comment! It is such a tough position to be in… and hard to imagine unless you’re actually going through it. I would really like to be able to let go of the hurt caused- it’s been 3 years since the most painful incident after all- but I still struggle to forgive my partner’s ex, especially because she continues to try to create a rift between me and the 2 children. We are more than 6 years into our journey and the dynamics haven’t become any easier. Parenting young adults is challenging, even in less complicated families, so I can totally relate to your experience. My first husband and I were co-dependent so I had to do a lot of work on myself when we separated. Developing good boundaries has been hugely helpful in recent years. It sounds like you’re on the right path- and yes it’s humbling! It’s great to get support from other bonus moms. Thanks for reaching out.❤️

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