The last few years have seen a metamorphosis of the family unit. The traditional boy meeting girl and starting a family is no longer the rule, and couples are increasingly coming into a relationship already with children.
Worldwide, many people are finding themselves having to build blended families. A blended family consists of the man and woman coming together with their children from previous relationships, automatically making one or both of them step-parents to the other children.
The change in the dynamics of the family unit could be a result of people getting married later on in life, the increase in come-we-stay relationships or the increase in divorce cases.
Whatever the case, blended families are not going anywhere anytime soon as more and more people are finding themselves playing the role of stepmother or stepfather to their spouse’s child(ren).
Interestingly, growing up, the stories of stepmothers or stepfathers conjured up the image of Cinderella’s evil stepmother and siblings, but today’s step-parents want to be more than just great parents.
Sam West, a motivational speaker, comedian and CEO of Hero Radio, and husband of singer Vivian Wambui, says that blended families are here to stay.
“According to research, over 30 per cent of Kenyan women are single parents. In my journey of seeking a partner, I noticed that most of the girls I was interested in were single mothers, and they are often more mature, organised and responsible. This - their maturity - is what attracts Kenyan men to single mothers,” he says.
“I became a single father after a painful separation in 2016. Then I met Viv, who was also nursing wounds from another break-up. We were two people keen on building a family together. We were both excited about bringing up our children together, building one big family. We thought it would be a walk in the park, but little did we know the amount of work we needed to put in,” says Sam.
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PUT IN THE WORK
The 35-year-old says navigating a blended family is not easy, and that one has to be intentional and put in the work.
“Our children were confused about the new arrangement. But it was easy for us the adults since we blended well as creatives. I am a video director, artiste manager and she is a pop artiste. We were deeply in love and enthusiastic about the days ahead, but the children resisted the move. They were not excited about sharing their mum or dad with someone else, and sometimes it also seemed like they were competing for their parent’s attention,” says Sam.
He adds: “At times, they acted like they were worried that their biological dad or mum was being replaced by a stranger. As a result, we had to be intentional, offering assurance and co-parenting with our exes to ease things. It took us over three years to start setting up the blended family we had hoped for.”
According to Sam, couples who want to blend their families should be prepared to face challenges.
“The process of integration is quite swift because you have to adjust to each other first as a couple, and the children too must adjust to each other. Sometimes, the rules and the culture of the previous unions take precedence, causing collisions,” he says.
“It is tougher if the children are older. Some children feel that they are being forced to love someone they are not comfortable with. Other times, blended families can function like two cliques. As a result, if someone from the “other” family is offended by one from the “opposing” family, the others gang up in defence.
“As a blended family, you are branded as a joint family but deep within yourselves, there is this knowledge that you are separate families under the same roof. However, those families that manage to overcome the division and exist like a joint family tend to operate better. The oneness in the union helps to avoid constant conflicts,” he says.
Despite the difficulties, Sam believes there are great rewards that come from having a blended family.
“The diversity is amazing due to the different personalities and strengths. Children brought up in a blended family are better trained on how to integrate with others. They can function in unfamiliar territories since they were taught to accommodate anyone. Some stepchildren end up bonding better than they do with their blood siblings,” he says.
To successfully blend a family, Sam says one must prioritise their marriage. When the marriage is not solid enough, a blended family cannot succeed.
Take time as a couple to connect. If the partners are not tight as a couple the blended family will fail and hurt the children. One must also push for fairness for everyone in the family.
If you buy a toy for one child, do the same for the other. Also, leave matters of discipline to the biological parent.
A child will take discipline from a step-parent differently than they would from a biological parent. Sam says that one must also be compassionate and patient with the integration process.
“Some things will be rough in the first one or two years but sooner or later things will align. If your spouse died, remarriage may trigger unfinished grieving in the children. Give them space and time to grieve,” he says.
One should note that their partner’s child or children are not going to love them automatically and that it will take time, work and investment.
“Do not expect to be loved by your partner’s children overnight. Sometimes, it takes longer and extra effort to build the bond. Other times, it may never work. Lower your expectations and make parenting adjustments early enough before remarrying. Seek help from professionals on how to run a blended family. Work the foundations first before rushing into it,” he says.
Sam, who describes himself as a visionary leader and fun-loving person, says that before you get married, work on the foundation first.
“The foundation for a man is having a personal and intimate relationship with God, discovering your purpose and vision and starting to execute it. By the time your woman is coming into the picture, let her find you doing something. If she finds you pursuing your vision, she will be a helper. If you have nothing going on, she will help herself. Marriage works for those with the tools to manage it. Discover those tools, which include wisdom, understanding and knowledge,” he says.
Jackie Keya, a psychologist/counsellor and life coach, says her infant child inspired her to start The Blended Family Network, an organisation which provides support to people in blended families to build emotionally healthy and balanced step-family relationships.
Jackie says navigating a blended family is not always easy, but if one is intentional, and puts in the work, it can be a wonderful experience.
“I am a mum of five: a biological mother of two, step-mother of two and a guardian mother of one. I became a step-mum over 20 years ago when I got married to my husband who had two wonderful children from a previous relationship. I initially assumed that things would work the same way they do in the ‘both bio parent’ family, but that was not the case,” she says.
She adds: “The early years were challenging because of the dynamics of blended family life. We, therefore, had to learn better ways to navigate the blended family dynamics and create balance in our family. We are now a family of seven - five children and parents - and we are still learning and working on our family.”
Jackie says there are several challenges that blended family face. “To begin with one should be prepared to face stigma. Unfortunately, society has negative perceptions about step-families, which may come with rejection from family members and/or society. Some people even believe that blended families are second-class families. There is also the challenge of building step-parent/step-child relationships, which often takes time and a lot of work,” she says.
“Children in a blended family experience loyalty conflict and struggle with their feelings about their parents and their step-parent. Some believe that if they love or form a close relationship with their step-parent, it would be tantamount to betraying their bio-parent. Then there is the issue of ex conflicts, which can trickle down to your blended family life,” she says.
Jackie says there is also the challenge around expectations: “This is usually divided into two. First, there are uncommunicated expectations – these are assumptions one makes on the role their spouse will play in the family on their children’s lives, the living arrangement, responsibilities name it. Second, there are unrealistic expectations – expecting your step-family to function exactly the way a “both bio parent” family works.”
However, Jackie says the challenges do not mean that a family cannot be successfully and beautifully blended but that work and patience is required.
“Acknowledge that it will take time and work for a blended family to figure out how to handle the different areas of the family and to function wholly as a unit. Prepare for blended family life. The dynamics and challenges of a blended family are complex, which is why the probability of divorce is higher in blended family marriages. Do not make assumptions,” she says.