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.
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