My 11-year old daughter was browsing through family photos with her aunt recently. They came across pictures of my wedding day—the day I married my kids’ dad, years before either of our children were born. My daughter said to my sister offhandedly: “I’m so glad they divorced! Otherwise we wouldn’t have met Phil and Finn.”
My daughter was referring to my better half and his son, now 9. When I learned of her comment, I couldn´t have felt happier and more proud of our blended family. We’ve been together for three years now, successfully raising three children born of our prior relationships. Fortunately, our children are close in age: My two girls are now 8 and 11, and his son is 9. When we travel or go on outings together, nobody would guess they aren’t biological siblings.
However, it’s not always easy to pull off the stepfamily dance without missing a beat. So I’m sharing my story in honor of Stepfamily Day on September 16. While the basic foundation on which we’ve built our blended family may not work for everyone, it works for us, and I hope it will help you weather your own stepfamily journey.
JUGGLING SCHEDULES & SHARED CUSTODY
We face challenges such as having to deal with different custodial and visitation agreements, schedules and locations. My partner and his ex share custody of their son, who spends a week with one parent, then a week with the other, throughout the entire year. My ex and I also share custody of our two daughters, but we live 140 miles apart. Because he has a 9-5 job and works Saturdays and I telecommute, we agreed that the girls spend weekdays with Dad and weekends and holidays with me, at least for now.
That is an unusual agreement, but one that I accept for several reasons: for one, the kids would not be able to see their dad much if we switched days. Number two: he lives in a great school district. Third, because I work from home, I don’t think twice about driving 140 miles to see my girls during the week if I miss them too much, or to attend a school function. My ex and I are flexible and have an amicable relationship, which I am extremely grateful for. Several years of marriage counseling didn’t make it work, but it helped us put our kids’ needs first when we divorced.
Sometimes our stepfamily arrangement feels like a blessing and other times it’s exhausting for me as a working mom. Fridays, I pick my girls up from school and bring them home, totaling 280 miles and a 5-hour round trip, if we count pit stops. Sundays, I meet my ex half way, which still means a two hour trip for me.
Read Related: How To Co-parent After Divorce
NOT YOUR REGULAR FAMILY ROUTINE
What about daily family life? It’s certainly not your regular routine! My girls are with my partner and me every weekend and on school holidays, whereas his son is with us every other week for seven days in a row. The kids are all together every other weekend.
Summers and vacations are a different story, which we plan for ahead of time. All adults pencil in on a calendar the trips, summer camps and other events we would like the kids to participate in and we all accommodate our schedules accordingly.
Because I grew up in a blended family that did not run so smoothly, with a them and us feeling that deeply affected the four children involved, now I do my best to create a loving and safe environment for all our kids: mine and his.
Of course I read books on raising stepfamilies when I embarked on this journey myself, but while some of the information from the experts was enlightening, experience has been my best teacher. Thinking back to my own childhood, all I had to do was tune in to how I felt then, and make sure our kids did not have any valid reason to go through the same ordeal.
HOW WE MAKE OUR STEPFAMILY WORK
Because I’m a mom, I realize that there is nothing stronger than the love a parent feels for a child. So, that eliminates any trace of jealousy I could feel towards my partner’s son (and that I felt from my own stepmother when I was a kid). Furthermore, because I knew my stepson could also be jealous of me (as I was of my stepmom), I told him very early on that his dad loved him more than he would ever love me. He’s been an extremely happy camper since.
At home, the biological parent is the primary caregiver and main disciplinarian of his or her kids. We never planned that, it’s just a natural instinct that we follow. We present a united front to the children and support each other’s decisions when it comes to family values. Also, the kids all know that both adults carry the same weight as far as being head of household, and they respect and abide by that. When one of us is away, the other one is fully in charge. Neither of us tries to substitute the kids’ other parent. We know where we stand. We realize we are the stepparent of the other’s children, and that’s ok.
The same rules apply to all the kids, whether for something simple like not watching TV after a certain time, or a more pressing issue such as schoolwork, manners and values. Whether all the children are at home or one or more of them is with their other parent, we always use the same measuring stick, so they don’t feel that we play favorites.
However complicated our lives appear sometimes, there is an upside to all this juggling of responsibilities, schedules and relationships. The kids are happy and thriving, enjoying a strong and close relationship with both their parents and stepparents. The adults also have times as a couple when we are alone at home for a few days, which is harder, if not impossible, to achieve in a traditional family.
So when my daughter says she is glad I divorced her own father, I know we’re doing something right as a blended family.
Lorraine C. Ladish is the Editor-in-Chief of Mamiverse. You may follow her @lorrainecladish and @mamiverse