Stepfamily or blended family. Is there a difference? Not necessarily.
However; Rod Deal (2014), in his book "The Smart Stepfamily" talks about the misconception that stepfamilies just "blend" together. He uses instead, the analogy of a crockpot; adding all of the many different ingredients in together, having them sit and combine very slowly over a long period of time. He even ties together the 6-8 hour time period for food to cook in a crockpot to the usual 6-8 years for many families to combine and feel like "family".
Navigating the stepfamily dynamic is difficult with 67 different potential configurations! With this difficult dynamic comes lots of confusion, frustration, and to be frank, misinformation. In a brief attempt to break down some common myths, I've addressed what I believe to be the top 5....
"My spouse SHOULD love my child like their own."
First of all, what does that mean? Two biological parents often love their children differently. So if this is your expectation for your spouse, you could be setting you both up for disappointment. Do you want your spouse to love your child? OF COURSE YOU DO! But, to expect them to love them as much as you do, or the same way you do, or the same way they love their biological child is often times not realistic and creates more conflict. I know I might be ruffling some feathers when I say this (especially if you're the one with these expectations), but it's my desire to help others feel normal for falling short of this expectation, releasing some guilt, and hopefully prompting conversations about these expectations. It is a blessing for your child to be loved by another person in your family, and given the opportunity, they will likely develop their own special relationship and a love unique to them.
"We need to do everything together all of the time."
You're excited! You're a new family! You've waited for this for so long! And now is the time to blend us all together by doing ALL of our activities as one family. Sounds fun! Until it isn't...If this is the constant understanding and dynamic, there will undoubtedly be push back especially from your kids. I'm sure they love your new spouse and their new step-siblings, but you are their mommy or daddy, you will always be their mommy or daddy, and they still will want AND DESERVE alone time with you. I know that this can be a hard thing to navigate. Especially when some members of the family feel like outsiders and want to do what they can to be included. Inclusion also needs to happen, but with balance. The more your children understand that their mommy/daddy isn't now out of reach and is still readily available for them when they need, the more they are going to be willing to accept "outside" members of the family. The more you force everyone together without the ability to spend quality time with their biological parent, the more resistance you will meet. Their attachment alarms will be going off and they will do what they feel they need to, to get to you. This often isn't pretty. Especially in the beginning, compartmentalize. Have times when you and your spouse go on dates, when you spend alone time with your (bio)children, and when you all do things together as a family. This lessens the perceived threat of losing their parent to this "new family".
"I will discipline my step-child, just as my own"
*Insert face-palm* Please don't do this. This is the quickest way to halt any relationship with them and will inevitably create more conflict in your home. Clear communication and expectations are vital for you and your spouse in the area of discipline. Of course, you need order and stability in your home and you also require respect to be given to all adults especially in your home, but slow is smooth and smooth is fast. As the biological parent it is your responsibility to make the rules for your child. It is also your responsibility to enforce discipline. When thinking about the role the stepparent has as disciplinarian, it often may need to develop over the course of YEARS. In the beginning, it should look more like a "babysitter" approach; parent makes the rules, and stepparent enforces them as parent's rules. If those rules are broken, BIO-PARENT handles discipline. As your relationship with your stepchild strengthens, you can move into a "coach" or even uncle/aunt approach. You can enforce rules, maybe even enact certain disciplines such as timeout, maybe even grounding or privileges taken, but communication with your spouse is still key. As far as spanking, this is not recommended especially in the beginning, but if you feel like all parties love and respect each other and this is necessary, proceed with caution. It is important that all kids in the house (within same age range) have similar and equal rules, and this can be addressed as a family if there are changes to how rules were made prior to marriage.
"My spouse's Ex (My step children’s other parent) is not a part of my family."
I wish I could see your face right now. I know what you might be thinking (insert expletive), but hear me out...What happens in this person's house (let's call them your ex in-law) affects your home. His/her children affect your children. Even if they have a new spouse and additional children, or their own step children, these children affect your stepchildren, which are apart of your family. He/She is also your stepchild's parent. You don't have to like them. You do have to respect them. You do have to refrain from talking negatively about them in front of the kids. That is, if you don't want to cause emotional harm to you stepchildren. I could write forever on this topic (maybe it'll be it's own blog post), but if you want to create a childhood for your children that they don't have to recover from, BE KIND TO THEIR PARENTS.
"My child comes first since they were here before my spouse."
This one is so tricky. I am passionate about children being considered, cherished, and empathized with when they are now a part of a stepfamily. I'm also passionate about marriage, and it being the foundation of the family (after God of course). Luckily, both can happen at the same time. Putting your spouse "first" does not in any way mean neglecting your children. Let that be clear. It means taking the time to make sure you as a couple are strong, grounded, and secure so that you can effectively love each other, and therefore love and provide stability for your children.
The best way I can walk through how this can work is to give you an example: Sarah has three young children. Their father left the family, and for years, it was just the four of them. They created a ritual of Sarah hanging out in their bedroom an hour before bedtime; talking, laughing, and just being together. This was special to them because she wanted to make sure they felt loved and wanted after their dad walked out. Go Sarah! Fast forward to Sarah marrying John. She continues to spend an hour in her kids' room talking, laughing and hanging out. This is important to all of them. John, however is starting to feel left out. He's not included in the bedtime ritual, and he'd really like to spend some time in the evening with his new wife. If the ritual stops completely, you risk the children feeling a sense of abandonment by their mother, and they will likely resent John for that, disabling them from any kind of positive relationship with him. If she continues the ritual as is, she leaves out her husband, and could cause him to resent this time and maybe even her kids. Don't you love a good compromise? This is a great opportunity for Sarah to be open with her children; to talk to them about how she is now married, and has to love John well too. She can start with lessening their time to 45 minutes, then 30 or 15. The ritual is important for her relationship with her kids. It needs to stay in some capacity, but her marriage will suffer if it stays as is. This is an example of how to comprise in a way that slows children into the adjustment, continues to love on them well, and also honors marriage.
Many times, in a step-family, we want to re-create the nuclear family and have the same expectations for this "new family" that we might have in a nuclear family.
Trying to fit a step-family into a nuclear family box, with the same rules, expectations, and traditions is going to create so much more resistance, conflict, and attachment confusion.
Although the stepfamily dynamic can be hard to navigate, it can bring so much joy! If you feel like your family or marriage is struggling in this area, please don't hesitate to ask for help from a family counselor. Bonus for one that works with step-families! There's so much hope for thriving family relationships!
Deal, R. L. (2014). The smart stepfamily: 7 steps to a healthy family. Bethany House Publishers.