I've been dating a wonderful woman for the last four years and in two weeks, we will be standing in front of our family and friends to commit to each other in marriage. We're not the first couple to do this. And, like many couples today, we are bringing more than ourselves together. We have five children from previous relationships that will be joining to form a new family. While blended families are common these days, making them work can be challenging.
Our kids are now aged seven and nine (my fiancé's from her first marriage) and 15, 17 and 20 from my first marriage. That makes for some interesting dynamics as the kids all adjust to having older and younger step-siblings. What's been interesting is that my fiancé's oldest child has really liked having older siblings to look up to and my youngest is appreciating the chance to be the older sibling and not the "baby" of the family.
This is a journey and I learn more each day. What has worked for us might not work for you. We bring different strengths and "growth opportunities" to the marriage and its important to acknowledge those. Here are some of the things I've learned about making this work.
1 - Make time for managing logistics
Two adults with busy work schedules including quite a lot of travel, primary school, high school (including year 12), university, sports, drama, social events and other activities, make getting everyone to the right place at the right time is pretty tricky.
Throw into the mix differing times the two sets of kids spend with their other parents and life gets really complicated fast.
We do two things to make this work as well as we can (and we do still mess it up from time to time).
- We have two shared calendars. One is for stuff we do together and the other is for all the kids' stuff. They're colour coded differently so we can easily see whether events that are scheduled are for the kids or just us. As well ensuring we don't miss things, the colours help us to see when we aren't having enough time for us when we scan the calendar.
- It sounds really dumb but we try to make time each week or so for a logistics meeting. Even with shared calendars, it's easy to miss stuff. This usually only takes 10 or 15 minutes but it helps us to make sure everything makes it into the schedule and any discussions that are forgotten from during the week (I have a woeful memory!) are caught up.
2 - Set aside chill time
Busy schedules mean we often forget to prioritise the central relationship. While the kids are super-important to both of us, making sure we set aside some "us time" is critical.
One of the things we have the luxury of is a regular "Date Night" (in the shared calendar). The way our access arrangements and the times the older kids spend with their other parents work, we have one night each fortnight set aside for us. That can mean going out for dinner, or chilling in front of the TV (Friday night football is regular date), shopping or something we can do together where we can relax and just chat.
We also both love running and being active so we look for chances to do that together as well. We have an annual ritual where we run the AfterGlow half-marathon together each year and go away for a weekend to run The Two Bays Trail Run.
I often heard people talk about quality time. Quantity time is really important.
3 - Know when to step up and step back
Parenting in a blended family can be challenging. When my fiancé and I started to get serious, this was something that I was really concerned about. Each set of kids has come from a different set of home experiences with different expectations and house rules.
Conventional advice suggests the biological parent should be responsible for administering discipline to their own kids whenever that is practical.
With our kids having such a broad age range, what works for one child doesn't necessarily work for the others. We take a pragmatic approach. With my kids, who are older, the relationship they have with my fiancé is more of a mentoring/guidance one than traditional parenting (whatever that is!).
With the younger kids, I tend to not get involved in discipline unless it's absolutely necessary. I prefer to take a more conciliatory approach when things get a little over the top. Usually, that means taking one of the kids aside for a quiet chat to understand what's going on.
The thing I've learned is that you need to ensure both partners are on the same page and discuss how all this is going to work and to chat about situations where the planned approach didn't work.
4 - Balance relationship priorities
In a busy household of seven people, it can be easy to get swept up by the wave of almost constant activity.
We make time to do things as a family. I'm a really big fan of sitting at the table and talking with each other over a meal, with no phones or other devices. We go to church as a family each week. We sometimes watch movies as a group or go to sporting events together - Twenty20 cricket is great as there's plenty of action and the younger kids don't get bored.
I also try to make time to do things with each of the kids independently. With my kids, that means one-on-one activities like walking to the shops, visiting Bunnings with my more craft-focussed child, going to basketball games and training, going to the theatre.
So, as well as making time for my fiancé and I, we try to do things collectively and individually.
5 - The Exes
While we can do a lot to make our blended family work but a big part of making it work smoothly comes down to our ex-spouses.
While my soon-to-be wife and I are at the centre of our new family, with the kids around us, the kids are also strongly connected to their other parents. And that's a good thing although it comes with challenges.
The relationships we have with our exes are very different. One ex is very easy-going and friendly. The other is less so.
My fiancé and I work at making sure we respect the boundaries of our children's relationships but it can be hard at times. I'm certain this will remain an ongoing challenge but we continue to communicate with our exes when it comes to the kids so that everyone is kept as happy as possible.
And, when one of the exes crosses a line, we talk about it.