Just in Time for The Holidays

The experience of merging children into a new romantic relationship can be like a smoothie. Some households blend seamlessly, while others get banana and strawberries all over the walls as they struggle to fit peacefully into new family structures. Husband and wife Ronnie and Lamar Tyler of the award-winning website Black and Married With Kids know all too well the concerns of mixing love with children from a previous relationship, as Ronnie’s son and daughter became a part of their romance. In their new film, Blended, the couple tackle a subject rarely discussed in our communities, the stepfamily.

“There is a lot of shame with blended families because they are not perceived as normal,” says Ronnie. Husband Lamar chimes in: “You hear about how infidelity, communication and money issues affect couples, but you don’t hear about blended families and our issues.” Yet couples entering new relationships with children are a growing norm. One hundred million Americans have a step relationship, 40 percent of households with children are blended and approximately 30 percent of all new weddings in the U.S. give birth to a stepfamily.

“Parents had lots of kids 100 years ago and big families were common,” says Ron L. Deal, a family therapist and director of FamilyLife Blended. “In America today, children have lots of parents. Coming together as a couple is critical to bringing stability to the family as they deal with all that complexity.”

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The Tylers overcame their struggles with establishing their blended family before helping others. “As a biological mother, you want to discipline your kids and you also want to agree with your spouse, so you feel caught in the middle sometimes,” Ronnie recalls. The couple added ground rules for governing their nontraditional home. For your family’s success, it is essential to dispel the misleading beliefs highlighted in Blended.

Myth 1:

Your love will spill over to the children. “Typically, a new partner you’ve chosen is a stranger to the children,” explains Francesca Adler-Baeder, Ph.D. “It can take years to form a good, solid relationship.” Adler-Baeder is the director of the National Stepfamily Resource Center at Auburn University, a clearinghouse providing resources to stepfamilies.

Joyce Auld and husband Junious McLean, Jr., were hit with the realities of blended families when they married 14 years ago. “I was okay being a stepmother, but I didn’t think all hell was going to break loose in my house,” Joyce recalls of merging their troop of five children. The Covington, Georgia, couple struggled with disciplining Junious’s then 10-year-old son, Andre. “The biggest problem was that we didn’t share what we were going through,” admits Junious. Adds Joyce: “I was so ashamed; I didn’t want to tell anybody.”

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The turning point for Joyce and Junious was talking to other couples and discovering they weren’t as dysfunctional as they thought. “There are people who have gotten through this and are making it work. We started building relationships with other couples to help us get through rough periods,” says Joyce. Though their bond may not have been instantaneous, Joyce and Andre were able to work through their difficulties. “Our relationship is much better. I am thankful he and I were able to talk openly about our struggles back then and forgive each other,” shares Joyce. “My advice to a married couple going through a transitional period is to remember the covenant you made to your mate. It’s a season and things will get better. Be willing to seek help.”

Myth 2:

Kids come before the marriage. “Your marriage is the foundation for your family and if there are cracks in the foundation, then your family can collapse,” shares Ronnie. Her two kids seemed happy about her marriage to Lamar. But a year after “I do,” their oldest child was acting out and being disrespectful. At first the couple disagreed on discipline and next steps. “We realized we needed help and found it with marriage conferences and books,” she says. “The biggest thing was that we stuck together and didn’t allow our kids or family to crack our marriage,” Lamar adds.

Myth 3:

We’re going to function like a biological family. Sheila and George F. Austin II are a blended family with ten children in Montgomery, Alabama, and have been married for 15 years. In the film Sheila recalls an early Christmas for the clan. “It was my tradition to have the big Christmas, with all the hoopla,” she says. She was in for a shock when she unwrapped a gift from her husband’s children and discovered an empty box. The lack of a present was a harsh blow and a reality check. “I came in with the attitude, I’m going to do everything for his children that I’ve done for my children,” Sheila admits. “I was not respecting their traditions and values.” By learning new skills for blended families, she saved hers. Sheila realized she could only be to her stepchildren what they wanted. “I said to them, “I could be a friend, or a mother, but it’s up to you what role you want me to play,” ” she shares.

And what’s in a name? Plenty for many families deciding what the nonbiological parent will be called. Dwyane Wade’s two sons call his wife, Gabrielle Union, by her family nickname, “Nicky.” The Tylers recommend doing what works for your household and not trying to force something on the kids that might make them uncomfortable.

Myth 4:

Children are forever damaged. “There are challenges children face when their biological parents break up and there’s a new relationship. When parents are nurturing, children turn out well and learn a lot about conflict management and their own role in the family,” says Adler-Baeder. “If you are focused on building a strong family, you can do it and children can turn out great.” Although kids are impacted by their parents’ relationship, they won’t be scarred for life. “My oldest son definitely had the most challenges when it came to blending the family,” recalls Ronnie. “I see the differences in him. It takes time for healing and maturity.”

This holiday season celebrate all the unique ways we love and create families.  

(This article was originally published in ESSENCE.)