Keys to being in your new “non-traditional” family:
Creativity. Though the concept of the “blended family” is not a new one, the practice is. If you choose to be among those who consciously and responsibly choose this new way of parenting and family structure, you are in new territory paving the way for future families. You may be the only parent in your child’s class who is divorced. You set an example. Try new things and don’t be afraid to fail. Some will work and others won’t. Your commitment will guide you and let you know which things to stop doing and which to continue.
Committed and intentional co-parenting partnership. Though you may be divorced, if you have children you will continue to have a relationship with your children’s mother/father at least until they are 18 if not longer.
Expanding your viewpoint. Your family is not broken – just expanded. Our wise teacher Dr. Milton Rubin told us never to “glamorize” the step-parent (ie. When speaking to the child “you are so lucky – you have two mommies!”) but to recognize the unique value that each adult brings into the new family structure and if you take things to a spiritual level, examine what each child is meant to learn from each adult he/she attracted into his/her life. thinking about “family” in a new context (or an old one for that matter): the biological mother and father physically brought the children into the world but it takes a village to raise a family and the new adults brought into the households constitute a part of that village
#1 focus always – ask first what is in the best interests of the kids – you made a choice to bring them into the world, they are your responsibility always. I think it’s also easier to focus on the best interest of the children when your past “lesser self” might otherwise want to creep up on you and going back into blaming, shaming or punishing the co-parent. Focusing on the children’s needs (consistency, schedule, loving support, being listened to…) will naturally connect you to a loving approach which may make it easier to then address the situation at hand, with your co-parent.
Choose to be responsible for everything-even what you’re not responsible for. This is the hardest but the most rewarding. It allows you to access unique approaches to problems that will most certainly arise, as in any family, and find solutions to any situation. Defining responsibility as “ability to respond” means you have choice over your action, and your reaction, and that trusting in yourself, you have everything you need to handle the situation well. And that may sometimes mean getting some outside support.
Respect where your children are in their individual development as well as where they are in terms of dealing with the divorce/step-parent etc…Let your children be your guide in determining what is appropriate and when. For example, for step-parents, don’t force your step-children to call you mom or dad. You came into their lives and it is a gift to them to allow them to develop their relationship with you at their own pace. Maintaining respect is a given, but the greater latitude you give the children the more well adapted and accepting they will be of their new family situation. In this environment they will naturally grow to love this new adult in their life because children are all about love. If they feel loved they can’t help but love and if they feel respected, they will respect you.
Ask yourself why your spirit chose this man, this woman, these children, your spouse’s ex, to be in your life. It is not an accident you ended up with this blended family and you can either learn and grow in it’s arms and help the rest flourish, or struggle, resist, resent and whither – while taking others down with you.
Forgiveness. Forgive yourself when you make mistakes, especially early on. It is natural that sometimes you may feel that you hate this situation, that you wish the ex or the new wife or husband would just go away, that you feel intruded upon or that it’s hard. It is work, that is for sure. But the rewards will follow you decades after your children leave the house. When you feel this/think this, give yourself permission, maybe talk with someone safe about how you are feeling, and then let it go and take some action that will reinforce your commitment to your blended family. In time it will get easier.
Restrain yourself from comments, advice and opinions about your co-parent’s new boyfriend/girlfriend. Now that you have separated from your former spouse/partner, this is off limits and part of the clear boundaries that if you set well, will support you in your continuing partnership. That said, for the ex-spouse who is dating, I think it’s beneficial to have discussions about how to address dating with regard to the children. Most of us would probably agree that children should not be subjected to every new person mommy or daddy dates. This becomes confusing and does not support the development of your new family structure. They will certainly go home to the other household and spill the details and it can create confusion. Knowing how to set clear boundaries between the adult’s private life and the children is tricky, but important.
Traditions i.e. Weekly meetings, celebrations, dates where kids get individual time with each adult raising them.
Remember, acknowledge, forgive and accept everything about your ex and your reasons for leaving him or her. I will not take for granted that many relationships end difficultly, spouses at each others throats, or barely talking. And for those of us who left a partner under such circumstances, this step may be one of the most difficult ones to achieve.
Fortunately, now that you have separated you no longer need to live with his underwear on the floor, or her whining, his football Sundays or her spending habits. But if you share children and you declare you are committed to parenting them to the best of your ability, then taking this step seriously will not only serve your children and their relationship with you, but you as well especially when it comes to your ability to enter into a new relationship with a committed partner. Because if you don’t get to the bottom of what you loved and hated most about your ex, and heal the lingering pains and woes, then you will most likely find yourself drawn to a new partner with those same characteristics. I’m sure you know at least one situation in which this occurred and was disastrous. So get to that hard work of healing those past relationships for the benefit of your present and future ones.
I should also mention that creating and maintaining a well-functioning blended family rests on the adults’ ability to communicate effectively. If the adults are continuing to hold grudges or resentments, their ability to be effective in this capacity will be diminished and appear inauthentic. How do you speak well of your children’s mom and then turn around to your new spouse and bad mouth her behind closed doors. I will be the first to admit having done this in the past. But what I have come to recognize it that this creates an unseen but felt energy that hurts. Children are incredibly sensitive and they will often sense things before they are told. If you say nice things to them about their mother but secretly hate her, they won’t necessarily be able to articulate that but they will feel it and it will potentially hurt their relationships with all of the adults.