The “Extended-Blended” Families: Child-Centric Post-Divorce Parenting in 2010
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
After a separation and divorce followed by a remarriage and blending of families, your children's new blended family can resemble an old-fashioned extended family. I've dubbed such successful post-divorce families as the "the Extended-Blendeds." An Extended-Blended family may wind up with 6 kids or more and those 6 kids might also have other step-siblings, prospective step-siblings, each child's own parents, and their new spouses or significant others.
If the adults are remarried or in new relationships, hopefully a lot of the emotional trauma has subsided. If it hasn't, like or not, life is forging ahead and relationships are formed and forming. Obviously issues and tensions remain. That's why parents who figure out how to put their children first are the bravest and most heroic. A lot of lip-service is paid to "the children's best interest." Living "the best interests of the children" is a lot harder. Forging a new, friendly working relationship co-parents and step-parents to successfully form an Extended-Blended family may be both the most difficult and the most rewarding act of post-divorce parenting. Few are up for the challenge, but those who successfully take it on may be rewarded with children who closely resemble happy, less conflicted children of intact families.
In many cases, remarriage or cohabitation with significant others helps to stabilize some of the financial issues. That is one good reason to support that for your ex-spouse. Financial stability for your children's other parent is good for the children. Remarriage or cohabitation may help divorce-traumatized parents emotionally recover. Also good for children. So yes, you may hate your ex, or hate his/her new significant other, but do you hate them more than you love your children? It is the strength of your love for your children which should guide your behavior. If your hate guides you, how do the children fare? How brave are you for your children? Would you throw yourself in front of a bus for them? Most would say "yes" but many would balk at the idea of treating their ex and ex's new mate like relatives of an extended family. But they should.
After a divorce, the stale, bad joke "you can pick your nose but you can't pick your family" includes your former spouse and his/her new family. This challenge may be no different than the challenge of embracing new in-laws after marriage. Yes, the same issues may devastate a family in either situation. A great challenge. But in either case, remember, one can only control one's own behavior, so naturally this is the only place to start this child-centric rebuilding process. It is up to you- the brave, heroic parent. Is that you?
It's up to you to stop the "tit for tat." It's up to you control your actions and stop reacting. Live by the Golden Rule- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It's called "golden" for a reason. It's a valuable rule- valuable to the emotional health of your children. Stop permitting the bad behavior of your former spouse and/or his/her new mate or family to serve as your role model. Be your own role model, and be one for your children. If your ex and his/her family never positively responds your child will know which parent was the hero through it all.
Of course heroes do the impossible. In this scenario it might mean driving your child to a step-sibling's birthday party and sending your child with a thoughtful gift. If you telephone your child's other home and the new step-parent answers, make pleasant small talk before asking to speak to your child. Openly greeting your Extended-Blendeds at child-centered events with the same polite smile you'd reserve for any other important adult in your child's life is a great rule. A comment like "hey was our kid great in that game or what?" directed to your child's other parent and step-parent will reinforce that the child is the important center of this family. Small talk, kid talk, and more small talk. A nice question or comment directed at the new step-sibling like "Did you have an exciting birthday party?" is another strategy. You will be rewarded by your child's comfort at being able to freely, without guilt or awkwardness, embrace the child's entire Extended-Blended. Just as we can't adore each and every one of our relatives, this situation is no different.
This may all seem "weird" and uncomfortable at first. In fact, the better everyone gets along, i.e. former in-laws talking to new spouses, etc., the weirder everyone on the outside looking in will think it is. Why? Because people are rarely mature enough, or mindful of their children's feelings to put their own old hurt behind them for the benefit of the children, and the family as a whole.
That's right. Not only do children get to experience the normalcy of not having to tense-up at the very idea of their parents inhabiting the same room, but the ex-spouses who live with a peaceful and permanent truce will learn what a relief it is not to have that ugly guest - "Mr. Animosity" at every single supposed-to-be joyful family event for the rest of your joint lives. Every engagement party, rehearsal dinner and wedding. Every graduation. Every communion or bar mitzvah. The birth of each grandchild. Every dance recital or sporting event. That's when relatives congregate. We all have relatives that we don't adore. But when all of those relatives love your children, can you create a polite environment for them? No relative is more disliked than Mr. Animosity. That's the guest that doesn't belong. Mr. Animosity is a joy-wrecker. His presence is always conspicuous. People stare. He creates negativity before, during and after every event. Party hosts shiver in fear of seating placements. In fact, Mr. Animosity ruins a good time for everyone. Not just a good time, but many times, once-in-a-lifetime-events.
So yes- be "weird." Forcefully mend the fences even if you didn't break them. Conduct yourself in a manner which allows your children to relax in the family situation in which they are forced to exist. It may be your ex's "fault" or choice that such a situation exists, nonetheless, it was not your children's fault or choice. Your failure to put your children ahead of your own leftover hurt feelings is your fault. It does take time to heal, but the grace period doesn't last forever.
There are families where the former wife attends the school plays of the child of the new wife, a child from the new wife's prior marriage. Weird? Yes. Weird-bad? Absolutely not. The former wife has a strong interest in new wife's good relationship with former wife's children. The former wife's relationship with new wife allows for cooperation during snow days or sick days and other swaps of the children time. Who wouldn't want to understand and know all of the adults and children who are involved with your children on an intimate level ? Why behave in a way that makes your children's "other family" virtual strangers to you? Doesn't this make your own children have lives which are a virtual secret to you?
Are you saying to yourself, "oh I would just be rejected- this is crazy." How do you know unless you change the behavior of the only person over whom you have control? Yourself. Try it today. Exchange a friendly greeting with an ex, a new spouse, or the new spouse's child. Does your ex and the new spouse have a new baby? A half-sibling to your child? Send a gift and a warm note. Never forget to have your child buy or make a card/gift for Mother's/Father's Days. Go out on limb. If you get a cool reception, don't relent. Kill them with friendliness. Why? Because in the end, it will make all of your lives easier. You may even re-kindle happy past relationships with in-laws, gain adoration for other people's children, and the shocked admiration of the public looking into your lives thinking "how weird" and "wow, that's really mature of them, so good for the children." And, just imagine, how much nicer every birthday party, graduation, wedding, bar mitzvah, school play, etc. will be without Mr. Animosity's presence.
In 2010 blended families are here to stay. Creating an Extended-Blended is up to the heroic parents. Extended-Blendeds are a part of the interesting fabric that is your children's lives. Be brave and do all that you can do to make the new family extension feel more like aunts, uncles and cousins and less like mortal enemies. You may be rewarded with post-divorce, emotionally-healed children because you had their true best interests in mind and in practice.