I blame Carol and Mike.
Let’s be honest, The Brady Bunch screwed us all up in terms of how we view second marriages.
I mean…what happened to their first spouses? We assume they died- maybe they said something about it in the pilot? They were certainly never mentioned again. Carol and Mike seamlessly fell into the role of step-parents, the kids were insta-siblings, and aside from the occasional, “MARCIA, MARCIA, MARCIA!” moment, everything was rainbows and unicorns. The perfect blended family.
Except, I don’t know if families are ever blended. Blending implies you put all of both things together, whir it up, and it comes out smooth and consistent. I think when families come together after divorce it’s more like a construction zone. Both families want to be able to use all the parts of their old life as materials, but that doesn’t always work. Not all pieces are fit to build with the second time around. You shore some things up, other pieces destabilize the whole thing.
I’ve been with my boyfriend for two years now. He has kids, I have kids. Our values are the same, but our styles are very different. My kids are older, his are still young. It can make for a very challenging dynamic at times.
Parenting within your marriage, especially the first time around, you are figuring it out together. It’s new construction- you are creating the pieces, choosing the traditions, deciding the priorities and figuring out your parenting style. And then you build a life.
Relationships after divorce are more like a major renovation. Both crews have existing structures in place, but they have changed. Some parts have sustained damage. Some things are too broken to salvage, some things can be re-purposed. It’s like when you see something built out of reclaimed wood. Yes, it’s a little jacked up, but that’s what makes it beautiful. It’s weathered. It’s not perfect, and that is part of its appeal. So, you fix what you can and you carry on.
Maybe your families work differently, play differently. Maybe you deal with conflict differently. You have to look at what each family brings to the table, talk about priorities, goals.
For example, the more upset I get, the calmer and quieter I get. I seldom yell. If I do, it means I’ve gone round the bend. It is a last resort. My boyfriend is a big guy, with a big voice. He yells. His kids don’t understand that me getting quieter and quieter means they’d better take heed, and my kids don’t understand that his yelling doesn’t mean we are at Defcon 5.
We have differences in tactics, though, not values and priorities. I think style is something you can compromise and figure out, core family values are not. If those aren’t in line with each other, your family structure will never be sound. In my marriage, I compromised on some core things. I shouldn’t have. That’s entirely on me. This time around I have a better sense of what I cannot, should not, be flexible on. My non-negotiables are better defined, and I am in a place where I can stand my ground.
Traditions are another big one. In your first marriage, you most likely crafted them together. So many of them have family lore, sentimental memories, funny stories attached to them. Those are so hard to compromise on.
And holidays. The holiday stuff can be so loaded. Even the seemingly innocuous things can be sticking points. How much candy gets consumed on Halloween night? What goes into a properly made Thanksgiving stuffing? Is there a “right” way to do Christmas? What do you MEAN you don’t wrap your presents? How elaborate are the stockings? How much money does the Tooth Fairy bring?
The day to day stuff is tricky, too. What about chores, and independence, academics and extra-curricular activities? What about faith? What does being grounded look like? How much tv is too much tv? There is a lot to negotiate, and when you are older and have been a parent for a good while, you can become entrenched thinking your way is the correct way- the only way, even.
My boyfriend and I have been together for two years, but one year of that was long distance. Our families have been together for one year. There was precious little “blending,” and some days (and vacations) felt more like combat.
It’s better now. A lot better, actually. Part of that is me being in a healthier place in general. I’ve been working on my tendency toward catastrophic thinking. If we have a bad day I am more inclined to see it as just that- one bad day, and not the End of Times. Part of it is both of us learning to admit that we are not always right.
One thing we’ve both learned is that it is necessary to honor that which came before. We both have family photos from our first marriages on display. Our kids feel free to talk about our exes openly. His boys have house rules written by their mom on display in their playroom. That sucker’s not going anywhere. Kids are more receptive to building something new when you aren’t trashing the old.
Here’s the thing. It’s hard. It’s really hard. But that’s okay- it’s supposed to be. Most important things are hard.
I’m so proud of the progress we have made this year. We have a lot more work to do, but it’s GOOD work. We’re building something. We’re renovating our lives. It’s not smooth, certainly. There are many days when it’s not “blended.” But it’s well constructed. It’s not a rush job. We’re taking our time. We’ve got some great materials to work with. We’re older, and wiser, and healing.
All of us.