The Blended Family is a complex beast, especially when both parents bring children to the relationship. In our case, our 4 children have 3 family trees between them. There is a fair bit of overlap between the family trees but there are also distinct and separate close family ties that are specific to each child. I have not yet found an application that can map our Blended Family Tree in one go. Well, one that doesn’t turn it into some horrifying tangled mess at least.
My sons, for example, have no relationship with each other’s maternal grandparents (they have different mums you see). Yet they do have a relationship with my stepdaughter’s maternal grandparents because they are Nicky’s parents. We also see more of Nicky’s parents than my parents as my parents live over 100 miles away.
Then there is the minefield about how to talk about relations with the children. We make a point of sitting around the dinner table at mealtimes, it’s important for us to make sure we all get together at least a couple of times in the day. If I say to my stepdaughters “Your Granddad is coming round tonight” and my youngest son is only half listening (a common occurrence) he might then leave the table thinking that his Granddad is coming over later. Or it might even be that he feels he should be calling the girls Granddad Granddad because I called him that and these two girls he lives with sometimes also call him that.
Do you know who isn’t really confused? Our children. I’m sure that I will mention it many times over the course of this blog (this is a reminder to come back here and link to all the times I do!), but children have an amazing ability to adapt to any given situation. We did make one big change that helped them out though.
Whenever I talk about members from Nicky’s family I use their first name. This makes it absolutely clear who I am talking about and removes any questions about who should call who what. Nicky does the same for members of my family.
There is no confusion from anyone when I say “Pam and Gary are coming for dinner later”, everyone knows who they are and my stepdaughters don’t seem phased that I am calling them by their first names.
It was a very simple change that we made but it works. There was an added difficulty for me though. When my son’s arent with us there is no need to keep doing it so I revert back to saying “Your Nanny/Grandad” to my stepdaughters. Then I have to revert back when the boys return. It took a little while but it’s embedded now. It’s like the no swearing filter that you suddenly switch on when you get home from work. It takes a bit of practice and the odd “bollocks” might slip out but soon it becomes second nature.
I have found there are many unique skills that a blended parent learns over time.
Brother, Sister, Mother, Father
Ok, with that out the way, what do we call each other?
We have always been really clear with this. A family meeting was called. I love them, the children not so much despite them being really good for lots of reasons:
- It gives everyone a voice and boosts children’s self-esteem
- Kids learn that family members are interdependent
- They help children to deal effectively with problems in other situations and social settings
- Increases family closeness
- Builds empathy and helps children see things from other peoples perspective
Don’t just take my word for it, that’s exactly what the Center for Parenting Education says on the subject.
I digress…. (but hold more family meetings!! – and not just for discipline or in times of crisis).
A family meeting was scheduled.
Being the geek and hilarious guy I am this involves broadcasting a message over the whole house via Google Home that starts with the Death Star alarm.
During the meeting, we discussed that it’s OK to call each other and us exactly what they feel comfortable with. That there is no pressure to call each other a certain name. If we all only ever use first names then that’s ok. If someone feels in a place where they want to call someone else brother or sister then that’s ok. It’s also ok to not say it back.
No fuss, pressure or hurt feelings.
It seems to have worked. All 4 children are ok with it and know where they stand. They know where they sit in our Blended Family Tree.
What are we?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines a family as:
a group of people who are related to each other, such as a mother, a father, and their children
Even without the backing of the Cambridge Dictionary (although we are open to offers!), me and Nicky have always referred to us as a family. We felt it was important that the kids knew what we were, the feeling we were trying to create in the home, that they were safe and loved without needing any traditional labels. Families don’t need to be related in the traditional sense.
We didn’t know it at the time but it has helped us now. Nicky’s brother and his husband are in the process of adopting. Apart from questions about the process, there was no question that they wouldn’t be a family.
I believe that these two things combined are the key:
- No expectations for individual labels
- An understating about what we are as a group
The Blended Family Tree
Since we had the family meeting all those years ago there has been no upset about it. The kids just seem to get on with it. My youngest stepdaughter calls my boys “Bro” and “Bro’s”. She seems fine that they don’t call her “Sis” back.
You have to take a few blows as a stepparent and this can be one of them. The idea of families seems to play a big part at school. Last October I attended 3 parents evening for our kids (at 16 my eldest son doesn’t really have them anymore). All 3 of them, despite varying age ranges (11, 8 and 7) had some form of a family tree drawn in one of their books.
And they were all different.
My youngest son had me, his brother and his mum.
My youngest stepdaughter had me, her mum, her sister and my boys.
My eldest stepdaughter had her mum, her dad, her sister, my boys and the family dog.
That’s right, despite not seeing her Dad at the moment (long story not for now) and despite telling me that I am more of a father to her – I didn’t even make the cut to be in the drawing and yet the dog did!
Be the bigger metaphorical person
I’ll admit to it feeling like a gut punch.
But only for 30 seconds. There are a million reasons why she didn’t draw me and perhaps its more telling that she didn’t. Guilt maybe? Some fear about explaining how our family works (or doesn’t)? Who knows. All I know is that I am OK with it.
Wanting to be in that picture would be selfish of me and obviously not what she needs. Forcing that issue or bringing it up isn’t going to do anyone any favours.
I know she loves me and I love her. We have a great relationship. I didn’t need to be in that picture because ultimately the relationship I have with her is all that counts.
Be the bigger person. Don’t demand labels for yourself or your children. Respect the feelings and wishes of you and your partner’s children. As adults, we can accept and be ok with whatever they need. We can choose to not be hurt by it.
Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor, Stoic and all-round amazing guy once said:
Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.
I love this quote. It’s written on a piece of paper in my wallet. And by a piece of paper, I mean a note app. And by wallet I mean phone. Either way its always with me (Probably more so than if it was on a piece of paper in my wallet).
We can make that choice to not be harmed by the things people do and say every day. It works and its totally liberating!
So what should my stepchildren call me?
I have been with Nicky for 4 years, 6 months and 3 days. I met my stepdaughters probably 4 months after that.
Last week my youngest stepdaughter called me “Daddy” for the first time.
It was amazing. All the more so for being natural and unforced. I mean I can’t tell you how incredible it is for another child to call you that for the first time completely naturally. She hasn’t done it since and she might not do it again. And that’s ok.
I don’t think my eldest stepdaughter ever will.
And that’s ok too.