Building a successful blended family

Early in July, I had the opportunity to spend time with my niece and nephew in Nova Scotia. This would seem a perfectly ordinary event had this not been our first visit in almost a decade.

Distance and the early death of their father, my brother Roy, from a horrible disease, multiple myeloma, had kept us apart. My other brother, who lives in Seattle, facilitated the visit with these two extraordinary relatives, now in their early 20s. Having a very small family separated by a country and a continent away has been lonely and tinged with the sadness that comes from a lack of regular gatherings and missing milestones of each other’s lives.

It was the medium of social networking, which brought us together and now keeps us bound. As a member of Facebook, I have been able to track their adventures and communicate in ways that would have been impossible in a different age. It has been wonderful to get to know them again at this stage of their lives, and how proud my brother would have been with how they have grown up. By the early death of our mother, he had missed his own maternal care and set out to be the best father he could by making his primary goal in life a commitment to family. When he was diagnosed with his illness, he closed his classical music store and devoted his entire time left to family.

How very special it was to reconnect with my niece and nephew, and how proud my brother would be of their choices and accomplishments. Both were eager to learn more about family history, and shared memories of my brother’s last days.

Particularly impressive was renewing the connection with my brother’s wife as well, and getting to know the man that she married soon after my brother died. In most cases, becoming a stepparent is one of the most difficult roles to assume in life. From what I observed, my brother’s children were fortunate indeed. The atmosphere in the home was calm, affectionate, and warm. Although my niece, the older of the two children, expressed her initial discomfort at her mother marrying so soon after my brother passed, she now has deep affection for the man she now calls “Dad.”

Children who lose a parent through death or an acrimonious divorce many never close the gap. However, the introduction of a new person can be positive, and can have a profound impact on the lives of all involved. The University of Missouri extension is a good place to start garnering information about how a potential stepparent can make a successful transition to this new role. (http://extension.m

Building a successful blended family starts with open communication between the partners to discuss expectations and values in relationship to parenting. Through truly open communication, perhaps with a counselor or objective third person, problems down the line may be avoided. My brother’s wife remarried less than a year after his death. Although, more healing is generally recommended, in her situation, the new partner was quite a bit older and had the life experience to successfully deal with her mood swings and the confusion of the children at having a new male figure enter their lives so soon after their father’s death.

Cultivating relationships with stepchildren can be a daunting undertaking, and to be successful, careful listening, time and patience will underscore the commitment. When a parent has passed away, respecting the memory of that parent is crucial to the success of building a solid relationship with stepchildren. When visiting my niece and nephew, now years after my brother’s death, I noticed that a few of his pictures were still in evidence, along with an angel that their mother had purchased to give her strength during the long period of his illness.

One of the most sensitive descriptions of a so-called blended family was written by a former student in his college essay, and is reprinted here with permission:

“Amy and my dad got married during my freshman year in high school, which brought further transitions. At first it was strange having two more people in the house rather then the three that I was used to. However, I soon came to realize that Amy respected my mother’s memory and would not try and replace her. One spectacular change is how wonderful our meals have become. After eating on the run for years, we all sit down together for a virtual feast.

Blending a family is a challenge that requires work and respect from all parties. There always will be differences, which can be resolved by talking things out. It is nice to see how happy my father is now. In the past, things were so difficult for him until he met Amy. I feel fortunate that it turned out to be her and not some other person that would not be as passionate and understanding. And I think and hope that my mother would be happy as well that given our loss things have turned out so well.”

A young adolescent, who, as a preschooler, lived though his beloved mother’s struggle with cancer, wrote this. His father was flummoxed and in denial, and had difficulty keeping his worlds in order. The entrance of a new person, who brought along a child of her own, was exactly the right timing for this constellation.

Each stage of a child’s development requires a different approach to the blending of a family. However, some commonalities exist, paramount among which are patience and realistic expectations. Unfortunately, this was not the case when my own father remarried. From the outset, my brothers and I were told we had to call our stepmother, “Mommy.” When I, at the age of 12, refused this simple, but understandable act, it led to what became an untenable situation. I felt that the memory of my mother was not being honored, and this singular act of refusal laid the groundwork for years of alienated living.

In this society, the prevalence of blending families makes the necessity of educating those taking that step essential. Reconnecting with my niece and nephew and seeing how wonderfully they have grown up, despite having lost a father so young, is a testament to their mother and now-adoptive father. Kindness, respect and honoring the memory of the person absent from the table will go a long way in healing wounds when a family faces transitions. The job of a stepparent is never going to be easy, but forethought, planning and patience will go a long way toward success.