Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Thoughts on Blending Families

New Year's Day also happens to be Mark's son's birthday.  This year was his turn to have him for his birthday.  The plan was a small party at home then off to FedEx Forum to see Marvel Live in lieu of a big party like the one his sister had the previous month.  The afternoon rolled around and it was party time.  Mark grilled hotdogs and brats, I stirred the chili on the stove, and once the food was prepared, all the kids headed to the garage with their food.  That left the adults sitting around the kitchen.  Four adults -- a neighbor friend, Mark and me, and . . . Mark's ex-wife.  We made small talk about kids (eight kids total between the four adults present!), discussed Christmas presents, Mark and I told our "crackhead tale" from our trip to Tampa, and his ex told a story about scalping tickets to the college World Series when they lived in Omaha.  You know . . . back when they were married.

Does it sound a little weird?

Because it kind of was.

Later, Mark got in the car and was kinda laughing.  I asked what was up and he just said, "it's all so surreal," then "I wonder how Jack felt sitting at the table with me and my girlfriend and . . . my ex-wife."

It was surreal.  And a little weird.  And it's also a reality when it comes to blending families.  And I thought it would make a good post (or maybe two?), talking about the whole blending thing.

I'm going to start out easy: handling the adults.  Who would've thought the adults would be easier than the kids?!?

First up, let's talk extended families.

Hands down, this has been the absolute easiest part in blending our families.  I immediately felt accepted by Mark's family.  Seriously, I met his mother on a Friday night and the following Monday we were hanging out again when she turned to me and said, "You know what?  You're just so pretty."  When we were in Chicago over Halloween, Mark, his brother, sister-in-law, and I sat down to hammer out plans for Christmas.  It was never a question of "if" my children and I would be there, if we would be included.  It was just a matter of fact, a foregone conclusion.  They have gone above and beyond to accept us and I feel like my family has done the same for Mark and his kids.  In fact, my mom is one of his daughter's very favorite people! 

This part, the extended family part, has been incredibly easy.  I like to think it's because we both come from good stock!  And it totally helps that our families are very similar.  I can't wait to get my brother and Mark's oldest brother to sit down for a political chat.  #notreally #tedcruz #berniesanders #argument

Now, the other parents.

This has been a little trickier than the extended families.  I mean, our families love us just because we're us.  Things are a bit more contentious with the exes . . .

Now, my ex has shown little to no interest thus far when it comes to meeting Mark.  We're coming up on both "birthday season" and spring sports so it's bound to happen but it hasn't yet.

I first met Mark's ex several months ago, by accident, when we happened to run into her at a festival.  If I'm being completely honest, it didn't go well and left a bad impression in my head. I was super apprehensive when their daughter's birthday rolled around because I knew we would be spending more time together.  Luckily, I had no real reason to feel so anxious.  The party went fine and their son's party went even better.  Look, it's not like we're ever going to be BFF or anything but the most important thing is the ability to be civil and kind to each other and I think we've got that down.

I'm not the type . . . I've never been the type . . . to instantly hate someone just because my partner used to be in a relationship with them.  That's not my style.  But, there are so many other things that come into play: you know one-sided details of their break-up, you may not like how the former partner deals with the children, you have heard things from friends and other family members.  It is really hard not to be biased in forming an opinion!    I think the most important thing to keep in mind is the kids.  Simply put but the truth.  If you're ever going to have a future with someone, then you have to - you HAVE to - show respect for the co-parent of their children, no matter what you know or think you may know.

Now, let's talk the kids.

Between the two of us, we have five kids. Five kids with their own personalities. Five kids who didn't ask for their parents to divorce or for their parent to get into another relationship. I'm not going to lie, it's been rocky at times! There are so many different relationships going on here: child with parent, child with non-parent adult, child with child ... all that with seven of us thrown in the mix!

For the most part, the kids all get along with their non-parent. This was something REALLY rocky in the beginning. Neither of us had introduced our kids to another man/ woman so meeting them was really the "okay, now it's FOR SURE my parents are never getting back together." That's a hard thing for a kid's heart to process, even if they already knew in their head. The only advice I can give is: time. Give it time. We first introduced everyone a year ago and we're now at a point where they all accept the relationship and express love for their non-parent (hugs, "love you" at bedtime, that sort of thing.) 

Now the kids getting along ... JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL. Two get along great. One worships another. Two canNOT stand each other and fight and bicker just as if they were siblings. We're learning as we go with this. We've had to establish a "no-tattling-unless-you're-bleeding" rule because they would try to get each other in trouble. We've had to make sure we're consistent with punishments and consequences. And, honestly, most of the time we're just winging it. It's a learn-as-you-go and we're in the thick of it. 

A few other things:
We're together every weekend, all weekend these days but that was slowly phased in. In the beginning, the kids had more say. As in, "do you want to invite them to dinner at CiCi's with us?" whereas now it's "we're all going to CiCi's!" It seemed to work for us. 

Speaking of slowly phasing in, we're planning to move in together once the school year is over. We know this will be a bit of a shock to the kids so we're trying to get them used to the idea: my kids and I will stay at Mark's house all weekend and then at least one night during the week. As time has gone by, this has gotten easier -- they know what nights we're staying, they're cool with it. Hopefully it will make "officially" living under the same roof easier!

Something else we've slowly phased in is how affectionate we are with each other in front of the kids. One particular child REALLY had issues in the beginning with us holding hands or just touching each other on the shoulder, things like that. This was tough for me. I'm an affectionate person and I also think it's SUPER important for children to see appropriate affection in a good relationship. However, the last thing I want to do is make a child uncomfortable.  We still don't (usually) kiss in front of the kids -- maybe a little peck on the lips to make K1 roll his eyes and say, "y'all are so gross." But we will hold hands, snuggle on the couch, that sort of thing. 

I really think it's important that kids understand that their parents deserve to be happy too.  We tell our kids all the time, "we're happier when we're together." They roll their eyes but it's the truth and I hope it's something they understand. I would never be with someone who was mean to my children or who hurt them in anyway - they know that - but I also feel my happiness benefits them as well. They know this and I think it helps them accept the relationship. 

One last topic -- discipline. This is a tricky one and an issue we still deal with. Since we have two - one of mine, one of his - who routinely get in trouble together, we can't do the "I deal with mine, you deal with yours." We have to get on to them both and give them the same punishment. We will both tell the other's kids if they're being rude or disrespectful or mean or whatever else. Our biggest discipline issue now is the child wanting to "tell on" the other parent for getting on to them. It's something we'll hopefully squash soon because we always have a united front on this. Whatever the other adult said, that's what goes and oh-so-sorry if you don't think it's fair!

Like I said, we're only about a year in to this. But, man, have we learned a lot in that year! Blending families isn't easy by any means. But it's totally worth it. Totally worth it.