How To Make A Blended Family Work

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Going from being a single mother making all the decisions in her daughter’s life to sharing a home with her boyfriend and his son wasn’t easy, but Maria Peña is figuring out every day how to make a blended family work.

“What the hell was I thinking when I decided to raise my child with another person?” This is what was going through my head as I had a conversation with my boyfriend about how much we should get involved in the disagreements between his son and my daughter. I had reached the point of saturation in the conversation and somehow drifted off into thinking about lions. Like, maybe the lions have it right, it’s really a one animal job, raising the cub. Decisions about parenting, to this former single mom, seemed harder to make with someone else than they were to make alone. I mean, can you imagine, the lion dad getting upset about the way the lioness mom is teaching junior to stalk its prey? How would that argument get resolved?

Back to the human world…I became single during pregnancy. So my imaginings about what it might be like to raise a child alone started during prenatal care. I felt empowered by the knowledge that I would be the major influence on my daughter, on what kind of person she would be. I would be the main guidance on how she valued herself as a young woman, how she treated others, her education, and religious beliefs. I also felt overwhelmed to have this responsibility on my shoulders alone and was often unsure I could do it. But I grew to love it and own it wholeheartedly; to nurture a strong and independent girl into a strong independent woman. I had all these visions of parental bliss in raising her; often thinking “I am feminist woman-mommy, hear me roar. And watch me, all by myself, teach my child to roar” (there go those lions again).

Then I stumbled in my solitary daydream. I met and fell in love with a man that I deeply felt would be a wonderful influence and co-parent to my child. When my boyfriend Matt and I decided to live together, we knew it meant deciding to parent together. It was a decision we gave a lot of thought to, and one that we didn’t take lightly. Unlike Matt, I had been single since I was about four months pregnant and never had to consider another person in decision-making for my daughter. He had been in a long marriage and had always had a partner who had to be consulted in decisions about their son.

We knew we had different parenting styles and that there would be a lot of bumpy roads to navigate. So when we started parenting together, rather than facing the tough reality, I decided to go back into the daydream of parental bliss: to think that we could have different parenting styles and be fine, to think that we could have different rules for our children and it wouldn’t cause conflict, to expect him to follow my rules with my child and his rules with his child. How well did that work you ask? One word: Lions.

I went from lone decision-maker to considering his goals and values as a parent. I went from having no shoulder to lean on to having an amazingly strong and stable one to depend on. It all worked out OK until we found things we disagreed on. And I’m not just talking about the fact that we disagree on things like dessert for the family after dinner (Matt is for it, I am against it, in case you were wondering).

I am talking about the bigger decisions. How do we want our kids to treat each other, and to treat us? What values do we want to raise our kids with? And how do we come to a compromise on things that we have a fundamental disagreement about? I can tell you this with certainty: not by daydreaming. We have had to make sure that we do not contradict each other in front of the kids. We have the conversations about parenting issues behind closed doors. We have decided to have regular family meetings and set family rules. We haven’t had our first one yet as it’s summer and we haven’t had the kids at home at the same time. We’ve done lots of reading and research on blending families and co-parenting. We’ve discussed in depth the pros and cons of getting over involved in sibling rivalry or arguments between our children. We’ve gotten both of our kids involved with therapists to make sure that they make a healthy transition to this new family and know how to deal with all the changes that have been happening TO them in their little lives. It is a lot of work, which is not news to anyone. Parenting is work.

What does surprise me is that I don’t know of many blended families (and amongst our friends and family, there are a LOT) that has done the research, therapy, commitment to exhaustive communication and compromise, family rules and meetings, etc. to ensure that the second time around is done right. I’m sure they are out there, but somehow we don’t talk about how we run our families. I suspect there is some fear about doing the work (speaking from experience). After all, it means having to acknowledge areas where you might be less strong as a parent, examining how you were raised and how it impacts the kind of parent you are now, forgiving your parents for their mistakes and figuring out how not to repeat them, and being willing to bend a little on things you thought you would be steadfast about as a parent. It’s growth, it’s change, and most of us resist change because it’s painful.

The first time around, Matt and I both took for granted that the commitment of marriage from our spouses meant a commitment to family. The first time around, I took for granted that being a biological parent required being present in your child’s life. So this time around, we are not taking the work of family for granted. And despite the work, I believe that all of the wonderful things about this man make it worth the work. I believe that the more people that love her and care for her the better. And if it means a few growing pains of compromise and learning how to not be such a control freak, perhaps I will be an even better parent for that. At first, putting in all this work made me wonder if we were being a bit too nervous about it all. I mean, couldn’t we just relax and go with the flow? Shouldn’t we just let things happen naturally? My sneaking suspicion is that doing so might be akin to daydreaming about lions. 

Maria Peña is a mother and feminist working in higher education. She serves students with disabilities, is an academic advisor, and participates in campus sexual assault intervention efforts. She has worked in public health, maternal and child health and in the movement to end domestic and sexual violence, which she continues to be involved in currently as a member of a statewide committee to prevent sexual violence in Texas. Maria enjoys writing poetry and prose in her spare time, reading, and spoiling her rescued Great Dane, Mina.

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