Who You Callin' Blended?

by Wednesday Martin, Ph.D.

two girls

And the rest of the world follows suit with their practices and expectations. There are web sites for stepfamilies (many of them quite helpful and smart) with names like "Blended and Beautiful" and "Blissfully Blended." Many of the stepfamily members I interviewed over the last three years reported that they found themselves surrounded by friends, colleagues and even therapists who cleave to the notion that these families "ought" to move on a trajectory toward "blending all together," and that anything short of that "desired outcome" was, well, coming up short. Deficient.

What stepfamilies themselves, as well as the best family therapists, have known for years, is that the standard of blending is just plain wrong. It not only misrepresents the reality of life for all the players in a remarriage with children; the concept is also unrealistic and harmful to stepfamilies and individual stepfamily members.

Indeed, the Blended Family is what we might call a Big Lie, one of the most entrenched and damaging myths when it comes to stepfamily members getting on with it, surviving, and forming meaningful relationships with each other. What we now know, from lived experience and years of research on families of divorce and remarriage with children, is that judging these families by a first family standard -- that is, expecting cohesiveness, closeness, and togetherness à la a nuclear family -- is the surest way to miss the point entirely. Stepfamilies are not only not an effortless, ambrosial smoothie -- they're not supposed to be. And striving to "achieve" a first-family-ness is likely unhealthy for everyone involved.

A good example of the damage the myth of the blended family wrecks on families is the story told to me by a man I'll call Mitch, a widowed father of two who married Jackie, divorced with a child of her own, about a decade ago. Delighted to have found a life partner to whom he felt deeply connected, Mitch nevertheless told me that his main goal in remarrying had been "to give my sons a mother." For his part, he felt he should treat his own sons and Jackie's boy "exactly the same," and told me that initially he hadn't even referred to Jackie's son Martin as "my stepson" but rather, "my son."

The rest of Mitch's story unspooled from this initial expectation -- "we'll be just like parents to each other's kids, just like a first family" -- in a way that didn't surprise me after my years of research and first-hand experience, but that has shocked and stung millions of stepfamily members over the last decades.

Jackie's son resented Mitch's presumptions; Mitch's sons felt the same way about Jackie's attempts to "mother" them. The three kids rejected their stepparents in every way imaginable -- refusing to acknowledge them when they walked in the room, talking back, acting out at home and at school -- which led Mitch and particularly Jackie to redouble their efforts, convinced that they could knit everyone together with enough love.

Spurned again and again, they soon felt rejected and resentful of their stepkids. And as the kids fought with each other, Jackie and Mitch were increasingly polarized, their partnership taking on water as they stuck up for their own kids.

One day, when Jackie grew furious that Mitch wasn't paying enough attention at Martin's parent-teacher conference, Mitch exploded, feeling "cut into pieces." This lead them to couple's therapy with a practitioner who was, thankfully, very experienced with stepfamily dynamics.

"Stop trying to parent each other's kids," they were told. "And stop with the expectation that you're all supposed to blend." This expectation, the counselor told them, was creating enormous stress for everyone.

Why were they pushing the idea of everyone loving everyone else right off the bat, and of erasing all their years of separate history and rituals? What was wrong, she asked, with two Christmas trees if the kids found their own way of doing it so important? What was wrong with a kid preferring his own parent? Or with a parent feeling closer to her own child than her stepchild?

Nothing. In spite of it rubbing ignorant outsiders the wrong way, successful stepfamilies have learned that super-close first-family dynamics aren't necessary to have good-enough, close-enough ties that sustain and nourish stepfamily members. Residential families, more than one researcher has noted, can have a dorm-like feel: particularly where she and he both bring their own kids to the mix, stepfamily members might eat at different times, even elect not to take all their vacations together. When kids are older and living apart, even less bondedness is the rule.

And it seems it is this very "lack" of closeness that allows stepfamilies to succeed, gel in their own way, and develop positive relationships. The National Stepfamily Resource Center, an organization that has repeatedly called for therapists and the media to stop using the term "blended family," has noted that flexibility and respect for difference are more predictive of positive outcome for stepfamilies than "tight knit-ness."

As stepfamily researcher Dr. Patricia Papernow has noted, "When stepfamilies blend, it's because someone's getting creamed. Either the parents are moving too fast and the kids are getting creamed with 'we're a family' expectations, or the adults have this 'two parent' model so the stepparent gets creamed."

Too much cohesion too soon may make everyone around us -- in-laws, friends, even therapists who don't get it -- feel more comfortable with our stepfamily. But it's not what works for stepparents and stepkids. Lowering our expectations and letting go of the fantasy of blending is the first step to putting together something that's bumpy, but emotionally honest and workable.

Wednesday Martin Ph.D., author of Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do was a regular contributor to the New York Post's parenting page for several years, and her work has appeared in a number of national magazines. She earned her doctorate in comparative literature from Yale and taught cultural studies and literature at Yale, the New School, and Baruch College. Martin, a stepmother for nine years, lives in New York City with her husband and their two sons. For more information please visit her site.

Copyright © Wednesday Martin, Ph.D. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.