Families come in an almost unlimited variety of combinations.
Sometimes I feel like many adults who are parents or guardians of children may have an idea that if they are not a part of a traditional or nuclear family they are doing or have done something wrong.
This isn’t a particularly helpful thought. I think it’s based on an idea or concept of a family that isn’t perhaps possible for a lot of us. That type of comparison doesn’t feel good if it leaves us feeling less-worthy or just not as good.
Also not helpful is when a person has an idea centered around the idea that there was a mythical time in the past where all families looked the same. This is where I see this concept of the “nuclear” or “traditional family” is rooted.
I haven’t lived forever but this is not accurate about any time in my lifetime.
One of the most powerful thoughts or reframes I can offer to people who are struggling with family dynamics is to squash these unhelpful comparisons and reassure you that there is nothing wrong with your family configuration.
In this article I’m going to share some vocabulary to help with different roles in a blended family and why I consider myself a blended family expert.
Of course, a blended family expert is not a real title. I invented that title myself.
Before I get too deep into this article words change rapidly so if you are reading this article and the words I’m using are perhaps out of date please just let me know. I work to be as inclusive with my vocabulary as I can be but I’m just a human.
What is the definition of blended family?
I’m not sure I love this set of words … blended family.
The reason I don’t love this is that anytime you try to put a family combination into a set structure I find that this almost instantly fails. The reason it fails is because families come in almost limitless configurations. I think they have since the beginning of time.
Still blended family is the set of words I’m choosing to use today.
I definitely do not like the words traditional family or non-traditional family. In my opinion those are not helpful to the support of anybody who might fall outside of whatever box that creates.
I found a source that said a blended family can also be called a remarriage family or a stepfamily. I’ve literally never heard these words… but whatever. These are also incomplete names because blended families don’t always happen because of divorce. Remarriage doesn’t always happen because of divorce. In fact, I know many people who consider individuals family when they aren’t actually related biologically or through marriage.
This brings up a pretty complicated topic which is the different ways that family can be examined: sociologically, biologically or even philosophically or theologically. There may be more of those categories.
Through this lens I think that some people would say that the idea of a family can be considered a social construct. That means that the concept of what makes a family changes or can change based on whatever cultural or social bonds exist at the time.
If what I just said about the form of families freaks you out or makes you angry … sorry but not sorry. I do think this is a deep topic and it deserves the thought that there is more than one way to consider the concept of family.
There are many people who hold the idea of family as a religious construct. I respect that opinion. We don’t have to agree on that dear reader. Other people hold a belief that a family is a biological construct which would be something naturally created by natural instincts. I also respect that opinion.
The role of media in how we might see blended families
When we think of this a lot of people think of things that are like the brady bunch – a mom with kids marries a dad who also has kids and they form one huge new family. That does happen although the brady bunch is a super unrealistic example because … it’s tv.
TV portrayals of families can be helpful and also not terribly helpful. For example there was a series that I really enjoyed called Modern Family. It was a delightful show with a same sex couple a second marriage couple and a two parent male-female with 3 kids family. I thought this was a great show but I don’t think the word modern in the title does us any favors only because I think these pairings have been around for a long time – maybe forever. Perhaps sometimes they were shamed or existed in secrecy but without any research or data to support this I just think things are much more varied than we sometimes think.
Specifically television portrayals of divorce and stepparents is pretty unkind and that sets up some pressure on real life people who embody those identities.
There are a lot of options.
Family structures can be really complex.
How do you become a blended family expert?
This is not a real title. I made it up.
A lot of my learning of blended families is from my own life.
My dad’s parents were divorced. My dad was born in 1938. Which I mention just as proof that this is not a new phenomenon. His dad divorced his mom. He moved across the country, remarried (his secretary…gasp small town drama) and had 4 more kids. My granddad died before I was born but I called his wife Aunt Ruth. Why … did I call her Aunt …I don’t know. She sent me a birthday card every year. I only met her as a baby. I was lucky enough that I got to meet 2 of my dad’s half-siblings when I was a teenager.
My parents were both married before they married each other. My mom was a widow and my dad was divorced. I didn’t know my dad’s first marriage until I was 30. That is a fun story … for another day.
My parents separated when I was 5 years old. Neither of my parents ever remarried.
I married a man who had been married before and had two kids. We went on to have 2 kids.
There is not a single day of my life where I was not a part of what would be considered a non-traditional family.
I’ve seen a lot. I’ve lived a lot. I get it. This is why I consider myself a blended family expert.
When I ask people to share about their family with me they often apologize or say — this is complicated. No need for that with me.
A little bit of statistical data about blended families to help you feel less alone.
I’m writing this in 2021 but this information does not seem to yet have been updated with the 2020 census.
The US Census – at least in 2010 did not specifically survey for data on blended families. This is a pretty significant problem because without accurate data there’s less research and less resources.
A lot of the research I found refers to this study from Pew Research.
In 2010 Pew Research estimated that 4/10 adults in the USA have at least one step-relative. That’s 40%. Here’s the link to that report https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2011/01/13/a-portrait-of-stepfamilies/
As long ago as 1990 it was reported that 50% of families in the USA were remarried or recoupled. This is from the stepfamily foundation. https://www.stepfamily.org/
A book released in 2005 by Elizabeth Marquardt estimates that ¼ of all children are “children of divorce.”
These are old facts. I personally suspect that the numbers are incomplete. It’s probable that there is newer data and I’ll keep my eye out for it.
The point is that blended families are not unusual. We are not alone.
Challenges in blended families
All adults face challenges.
All families have challenges.
Challenges that we face in blended families are actually not much different than issues in any family. Communication between adults, communication between adults and kids, challenges with time management and balance, all the many things that go into raising children and of course … money.
Of course, in a blended family relationships might be more complex. Communication between a spouse and an ex might be more complicated than between a married couple who lives in the same house. Communication and the relationship between an adult and a step child might be more complicated or challenging because it’s new to everybody. There’s lots of examples. Just because things are more complicated doesn’t mean that we can’t handle it.
Almost all families are blended: my slightly controversial view
Within family therapy and parenting coaching groups there is a divide between so called traditional family structures and a blended family structure and I think this is a faulty assumption.
I beleive that all families that include marriage … I should say most families because absolute statements tend to lend themselves to being inherantly faulty … MOST families where a person in one family marries a person from another family includes a blend.
What — YES.
In-laws. Cousins by marriage. This creates a blend within the family.
Think about it. Your child marries another person and all of a sudden you have a new child (in-law). Daughter in law or Son in law.
Hmmmmm… something to think about … eh?
The thing that I find very powerful about this idea of mine is that while many stepparents feel a stigma in being a part of a blended family – being a daughter-in-law is most often celebrated. Identifying this hypocrisy or error in the socialized thought loop is helpful in dropping the stigma or shame. Shame is heavy and it’s good to let that go.
Help working through challenges
There are lots of other challenges that we all face. And each of us will have different ways of dealing with the things that come our way.
The good news is that everyday more and more resources are being created to help us all navigate and thrive in our families.
That includes what I offer which is coaching support and resources to support stepparents and parents.
If you are interested in knowing more about my coaching services or how I support step parents and parents click here.