From Single Parenthood to Blended Family - One Woman's Journey

I started my single parent journey a little over 8 years ago in what then seemed a somewhat unconventional manner. I turned 35 and realized that it was very unlikely that I would meet someone to have a family with before it was too late. I did some research and found an organization, Single Mothers by Choice (SMC). I was inspired by this growing demographic of women who, like me, had focused on their careers, hadn't met the right person, and hadn't wanted to compromise for the sake of having a child. All of us still wanted to have children, most of us were college educated and financially stable. All of us were either considering whether to have a child on our own, or had made the decision and were starting the process, or were already mothers. We turned to each other for support and community, and our kids knew that there were others out there like them, in this relatively new family structure.

As I sit down to write this today, I am in a different part of my journey as a parent. Having made the choice to be a parent all those years ago, I made the decision a little while ago to be with the man who I believe is my soul mate, to blend my little family with his much larger one. With that choice has come some challenges, some anticipated, some not really foreseen, but most importantly it has been a time of personal growth. In my journey as an SMC the strengths that I used to help me to be an effective single parent have turned out to be the source of both the challenges and rewards in blending my family with Steve's. They are skills that needed refining and reconsidering. With every challenge, I've learned something about both myself and the rest of my family, and with every challenge my journey has been enriched.

One of the biggest transitions has been to do with communication. My communication style is direct and logical. That worked well for me in my career, and in my much smaller single parent family. As an SMC I didn't have to communicate with anyone else, except for my son. I've always been very open with him, he knows the story of how he was conceived and he's always known he didn't have a Dad. I have answered any of his questions very clearly, partly because the situation was clear, and also because I have always believed that children need clarity.

However, as we've been blending our families over the last 12 months, I've found myself paralyzed at times, and less able to take the same approach. Steve has three kids (12, 15 and 16) and in trying to navigate the transition with them, as well as being sensitive to the amount of change that has taken place in their lives over the last few years, I found myself not quite knowing how to explain our new family structure. Early on Steve's daughter told him that she wasn't sure how to think about my son and me. Steve's response was to listen, empathize, and tell her that he knew she would figure it out. Mine would have been to explain about step parents, step siblings, different kinds of families, etc. Many months later when she asked about the story of my son's conception, I was able to explain about different family structures (single families, blended families, etc), and say that the more people in the world to love you, the better. That approach seemed to be what was needed at that point, just as Steve's approach had been what she needed earlier on. So we all learned something in our respective journeys about finding the right time and right way to say the right thing, and being aware of the impact of that on everyone in the family.

Another example of this is that until recently my son still referred to Steve's children as his friends, so I suggested to him that he might consider them as family, as step brothers and a step sister. He was initially baffled and resistant, which is funny, because he loves them to death, and I know he always wanted siblings. It's really hard, though, to figure out when and how to explain family structures. The approach that I took as an SMC, with only my son in our relatively simple family structure, was in some ways easier (at least when he was younger) than it is to explain our current family structure, what the relationships are, how everyone fits in, etc, and still stay sensitive to the amount of change that everyone has gone through over the last year or more.

Also a challenge is how to define Steve's relationship to my son, a challenge that is different from blended families where there are two parents in each family. It's much easier to explain my relationship to his kids - they have a Mom that loves them very much, I'm their Stepmom, and the roles are clear. Steve's therapist told him before we started living together that he would be my son's Dad, not his Stepdad, because he doesn't have a Dad. Technically all of that is true, but how do you explain to a 7 year old, who you told yesterday that he doesn't have a Dad, that today he does? And how do you do that while also being sensitive to Steve's kids, that their Dad is now someone else's Dad too, someone they're only just getting to know? It's very tricky...children are very perceptive about the behaviors of adults, sensitive to changes, and transitions. It's only recently that we've landed on Steve being his Stepdad, and we're not really sure if that feels right. I also imagine that he will transition into the role of Dad over time, for the reasons his therapist initially pointed out. For right now, though, it gives us language to use with the children, and a role to be in that is at least somewhat clear.

The next challenge on this journey has been discipline. This is always a challenge in blended families and a lot has been written on who takes the lead in disciplining children and step children. It took me a long time to find a way to explain to Steve why I felt we should only ever discipline the kids over the bigger issues together. A very wise friend of mine, also part of a blended family, summarized the challenge really clearly...she said that kids understand that they will always have the unconditional love of their parents and that they know this even while they're being disciplined. My stepchildren don't know that I love them unconditionally, although I do; my son doesn't know that Steve loves him unconditionally, although he does. So if either of us take the lead in disciplining the other's kids, we risk rocking what is still only a fragile foundation of our blended family. Yet if we discipline together, we show the children that we're a strong family unit, that works together, that can't be fractured, even it sometimes takes Steve and I a while to agree on an approach!

So in taking the strengths that I used in my single parent family, building on them, adjusting and refining them, I hope I have been able to use them in our new blended family to start to build a strong foundation for all of us in this new and complex family structure. As well as helping navigate the challenges, this approach has enabled me to appreciate the good times. There is nothing quite as special as coming home to find a bunch of roses on the dining room table, or a single red rose on my pillow. There is also nothing like being part of a larger family...we had Steve's kids for three weeks over the summer and despite the complexity of deciding who should go to which camp, when, etc, they were a great three weeks, and I know that Steve and I wish we saw his kids more than we do. There are some special moments too.... My son, step daughter and I singing loudly to 'Son of A Preacher Man' in my van, Steve's 16 year old (who is autistic) asking me to repeat the word 'Sorry' over and over again because there is something in the way I say it that makes him laugh, and Steve's 15 year old telling me the same joke many times that has a play on the English vs the American pronunciation of certain fact all of them like to make fun of my English accent at times. All of these moments have a very special place in my heart.

So regardless of how one becomes a single parent, that journey is hard, that's for sure. There's also no doubt that blending families is hard. But both are rewarding. In both I've learned something about myself. I am thankful that as I continue on this journey, I continue to grow and learn more about myself and my family and that I continue to be stretched as a person. I know the journey is still only really beginning, for all of us, and I know there will be challenges in the future. It's a good journey though, founded on some good choices, and I'm looking forward to the future ahead.

by Karen Davey