A Recipe for Family

Written by: Kelli Fuqua Hart, Ocala Magazine’s Executive Editor

He stood there, his small hand gripping his suitcase handle. The bag was heavy. The room around him unfamiliar. There were large men moving heavy boxes and furniture all around him, hustling and bustling, but the pounding of his little heart was the only sound he heard. His face was expressionless. He took one long, deep breath and slowly set his luggage on the hardwood floor. This was home now. This was family.

One out of three Americans, or 100 million, will find themselves playing some role within a blended family, be it stepparent, stepchild, stepsibling or some other position. Take a look around. Chances are someone close to you is living the Blended Family Phenomenon. Perhaps it’s you?

Blending families can happen in a variety of ways. Two people can enter a relationship with children from a previous relationship, children from a previous relationship and then have a child or children of their own, one person having a child or children from a previous relationship or one person entering a relationship with a child of their own and proceeding to have children with their new partner. Sounds like an exhausting tongue twister. Now, let’s also take into consideration often times blending happens a second, third, possibly fourth time.

It has become such a common occurrence that blended families are considered the “norm.” But, does being the norm necessarily mean it’s easy? Is setting down your suitcase, knowing you are embarking on something unfamiliar and scary easy for any child? How about loving a new stand-in mommy or daddy?

Tammy Garza is a proud wife and even prouder mother – and stepmother. Her blended family consists of children Cody Smith, Cory Smith, Yousef Salman and Layla Salman. Tammy’s husband, Ibrahim Salman is pulling rank as stepfather to the two Smith boys who are from Tammy’s first marriage.

If you have ever met this family you’d think they have it all together and, for the most part, they do. But it has not always been easy. Initially, when Tammy met Ibrahim, her boys were cautious. They also experienced some bouts of guilt, believing that having a relationship with or care for Ibrahim was not fair to their blood father. Tammy’s first husband was not very cooperative with her new union but after ten years they are finally able to communicate when necessary.

Although Tammy always made it clear to Cody and Cory that Ibrahim was not a replacement for their biological father, Ibrahim certainly did end up playing the lead role in their financial support, among many other things. In fact, several years ago, when Tammy’s oldest son struggled with addiction, Ibrahim stepped up more than anyone else. “My son often says,” explains Tammy, “‘I wish [Ibrahim] could have been my real father.”

I’d assume this experience lends itself to Tammy’s advice for single people who are dating and actively seeking a spouse. “First, you are complete without someone,” she says. “Second, the person you are choosing is not just your companion but a mentor to your child.”

Jessica Chavis is also no stranger to the ideals of blending a family. Between Jessica and her husband Larry Jr., they are raising five children. Larry Jr. brought his three, Samantha, Christopher and Brandon to his marriage with Jessica. Jessica had her daughter Alexis with her prior husband. Together Jessica and Larry Jr. have one 12-year old son, Austin.

Jessica’s experience with blending a family has been a nightmare. Larry Jr.’s ex made things very difficult for Jessica for many, many years. She felt as if the kids were asked to or manipulated into “taking sides.” No matter what efforts Jessica made, including arranging trips and events around the days she and Larry Jr. had all five children, she felt unappreciated, like nothing was good enough.

In addition to what “hell” Larry Jr.’s ex put her through, Jessica also had to contend with the child sharing arrangements – hers, his and theirs. Larry Jr.’s children would come to visit every other weekend and a few weeks each summer. Jessica’s daughter Alexis visited with her dad but the routine was not always consistent and not always in coordination with Larry Jr.’s three. Then, there was the couple’s child together, Austin who was a constant.

Watching step- and half-siblings come and go can be very confusing. In some cases there is jealousy. In others it’s as simple as one child misses another. But in most cases, managing life while balancing a shared-shift arrangement proves difficult and stressful.

Mom has the kids on weekdays, except for Wednesdays and every other weekend. Dad has his two bi-weekly with shared holidays. Summers are an exception and then there are times someone is sick, taking a vacation or needs to rearrange due to extracurricular activities. Balancing a shared schedule is exhausting and that is putting it mildly. Many times couples get so swept up in the feeling of love (commonly confused with lust) that they forget to discuss the logistics – which is a very critical factor in the success of a blended family.

In some cases, parents are not just blending a family, but blending cultures within that dynamic. Jessica’s daughter is of mixed-race, which was initially her biggest fear in dating someone new. The first time Jessica met Larry Jr.’s family, his father shared his disgust having seen “a beautiful white girl kissing a nigger” at the store earlier. Jessica felt mortified, knowing her daughter was a product of this same dynamic and understood this could be a severe problem. Thankfully, Larry Jr.’s family apologized and in 14 years have done nothing but love Alexis and treat her like one of their own.

Thinking about cultural differences in blending is important. The same goes for taking discipline into consideration. Who does the disciplining when families blend?

For Jessica and Larry Jr., disciplining is shared. Jessica’s stepchildren only visit bi-weekly so she has left the disciplining up to their mother. The younger two children are disciplined by both Jessica and Larry Jr., including Alexis who has been raised by Larry Jr. since she was 2-years old.

In Tammy Garza’s home, she’s absorbed the responsibility of disciplining all four children. “I am a stern hand with no regrets,” chuckles Tammy. In more serious situations, like when the oldest got himself into some trouble, “It was a joint effort to help win his support.”

One popular online site www.empoweringparents.com, lends a few secrets to effective disciplining for blended families.

First, author Carrie and Gordon Taylor suggest you “Defer to the Bio-parent,” meaning “You’re the good cop; let the bio-parent be the bad cop. If there’s a behavior for which your stepchild needs a consequence, let your spouse deal with it and support their decision. The good cop finds out the interests of the stepchild and develops the relationship by getting involved in the child’s life based on those discoveries.”

Second, “Don’t Compete with Your Counterpart.” In other words, “don’t try to be a better mom than your stepkids’ bio-mom or a better dad than their bio-dad. No matter what you think of the bio-parent’s style of discipline (or lack thereof) it’s important to respect and acknowledge the strength of the biological connection.”

Finally, “Discover Your Stepchild’s Interests.” Find some commonalities, things you may both enjoy. Relationship building is step one and the key to earning trust and respect. Discipline can come much later if needed.

Understanding how to effectively blend a family may prove difficult depending on how much you love – or even like – your stepchild(ren). Yes, you read that right. Some stepparents admit to not only not loving their new child(ren), but seriously disliking them. Loving your spouse does not automatically guarantee you will care for their children. If this is you, do not feel guilty.

Just as you can’t make your stepchildren like you, they can’t automatically assume you will like them.

Cassie Marcelle became stepmom to Joseph and Julissa, but loving them was never a problem. She fell in love with her husband Phillip and knew it was a package deal. Having two daughters from a previous marriage, Khalia and Aamya, Cassie was often worried about showing favoritism – a very common concern for most stepparents. Her stepchildren were not used to affection like her biological children are. “I worry that when I am more affectionate with my biological children, [Joseph and Julissa] feel left out,” explains Cassie. “On the other hand, I don’t want to shy away from showing affection to my biological children because of a new relationship.”

One local stepparent, who asked to be unnamed, was very candid in sharing her experience with her new stepchildren – very unlike that of Cassie. “I’m going to say what most steps wouldn’t or can’t,” she explains. “I honestly struggle even liking my stepsons. My own child is well mannered, mild tempered and obedient. My spouse’s two boys are little walking, talking nightmares.” She goes on to say that her stepchildren come from a home where “maturity and consistency are nonexistent.” The children, according to their stepmother, don’t seem to be a priority, but rather shuffled around from house to house out of necessity. “It makes living and dealing these children a disaster and at times, I feel like it’s not worth the relationship.”

Finding a statistic to support how many relationships or marriages end as a direct result of poor parent-stepchild relationships proved difficult. Perhaps few would admit that being the reason? However, there are many online resources and chat rooms for struggling stepparents – those looking for validation and support of their feelings – many of whom admit loving their spouse but being unable to endure the ensuing stepchild stress and drama. It is a sad case.

From introducing children to a new suitor and sharing households to befriending the ex and divvying up discipline, blending families is not easy. Common, but not easy.

Tammy, Jessica and Cassie were all asked to share some advice for those considering  or struggling with blending a family. Compiled, some of their advice includes researching the family dynamics (you’re not just getting the partner, but also the children, their other parent and whatever extended family and beliefs come along with that), voicing your expectations upfront, keeping your priorities in order (meaning the best interests of all children involved), respecting the exes regardless of how you feel about them (it is not your job to like the ex, but rather respect them for the sake of the child), discussing cultural and religious differences, watching closely how the other adult parents their own children and, maybe the most important piece of advice, taking it slow.

The Brady Bunch certainly made it look easy, but anyone involved in a blended world knows better. It takes patience, sacrifice and a belief that it is worth every moment. An unknown author once said, “Live one day at a time (or one moment if you have to). Blend little by little and celebrate even the smallest breakthrough.”

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