Turning two parents and eight reluctant teens into a new family
We expected some skirmishes, but not a civil war when we remarried four years ago and combined eight teen-agers. Our two-year courtship had included plenty of family picnics, camping vacations, shared Sunday dinners and holidays. The kids liked each other, so being together all the time would only make life better, we thought.
Instead it was much worse. At first our problems focused on the house. It had made economic sense to live in my rambling old farmhouse in need of repairs instead of buying a new house, but economic sense soon become a nightmare.
My children resented doubling up to make room for three more children who got their rooms.My stepchildren missed their cozy suburban home surrounded by neighbors and public transportation. They disliked the fields and open country spaces that my children loved.
Remarriage can be a challenge to a child because it permanently destroys his fantasy that "one day" Mommy and Daddy will get back together again, and it betrays his preferred position with his parent of custody. Parent and child were first with each other until the stepparent blurred the family picture.
When we told the children we planned to marry, we had concentrated on what we considered the positives of financial security and having a full-time mother at home. But the only mother a child really wants in his own, and his security is tied up in people, not money.
You can help your child adjust to your remarriage by giving him plenty of time to get use to the idea. Let him discuss his concerns about the changes that will occur instead of forcing him to be happy. Point out that the new family may have a different style and new ways of doing things.
There's no such thing as an instant family. Step-families who are thrown into things instead of growing into them may need time together before they begin to care about one another. Our children even objected to being called a family. "We are us and they are they and that's the way it's going to stay," insisted my stepdaughter the first time her family referred to our blended family.
We took her cue and for the next six months referred to "the children" but not "the family." Family rules became house rules, and we became the parents of the house. We were learning not to hurry the children into the kinds of feelings that can only evolve when a relationship has had time to develop.
During the first trying months the children were testing our power and authority in their lives and looking for chinks in our parental alliance that would put them back on control. In an intact family, the parents were there first and while the child was growing up, but in a blended family the child was there first. On one occasion when my husband and I disagreed, my son came rushing in to take my side against his stepfather. Another time he called me at work to check out whether his stepfather was "allowed" to mete out discipline.
Discipline was a recurring problem because we were trying to set limits where few had existed before. Effective parenting consists of loving and setting limits, but after our divorces we had concentrated on nurturing and had been overly solicitous of our children's needs. The child who wanted limits, got power.
Often I was tired and discouraged. I was shopping, washing and cleaning for four extra people, and cooking for ten every night of the week. I wanted some appreciation for my efforts. Instead, I got occasional criticism of my cooking, or complaints about the way we did things.
I took it personally when my stepdaughter yawned after 15 minutes of any shared activity. When I planned a shopping expedition she had other plans. When I cooked her favorite dinner she had a 15 minutes before dinner and barely picked at the meal. I felt like an outsider when they showed family movies and talked about people and places I didn't know.
These little slights were not a personal attack on me, but were caused by a profound loyalty conflict. My stepchildren had a mother in another state, and I was usurping her place. Liking me appeared to be a betrayal of her.
Gradually, the children gave up the old and got on with the new. During this trying time I needed -- and got -- a lot of positive support from my husband.
We made a lot of mistakes, but even while we were making them, we were slipping into a new family style a day at a time as we lived under the same roof , fought a lot, laughed a little, and gradually cared about each other's suffering.
Without realizing how it happened, we were becoming linked by a chain of college acceptances, high school graduations, senior proms, difficult teachers and broken romances. Today we laugh together about the things that made us cry. The family that started in our heads, took hold of our hearts.