USA Best Book Winner in Parenting/Divorce!
Blended Families, Blendered Style
Married couples with children divorce 40% of the time. In less than three years after that divorce, chances are both mom and dad are remarried, and probably each to someone who has kids of their own. The single most explosive and divisive issue in those marriages? Stepparenting.
Wouldn't it be nice if we all lived in a bubble gum and sugar plum world where, without a ripple on Lake Placid, kids embraced stepparents and appreciated their contributions? Where stepsiblings didn't compete for attention and argue over favorites and fairness? Well, we don't.
So what we need when stepparenting is a good plan. A plan for blending, or blendering if you will, the disparate stepchildren and their parents into a chunky smoothie of stepfamily goodness. How To Screw Up Your Kids helps the parents everyone predicts will fail prove all the naysayers wrong. Through the use of practical human relations principles and the author's achingly honest and often hilarious stories, readers will learn to envision and instill a unique set of family values and culture into their new household, and by God, have fun doing it.
>>> See why Hutchins is called an "up-and-coming powerhouse writer" and "the Erma Bombeck of her generation."
>>>The reviews are in, and they're good. Very, very good.
"Funny and helpful." — Shirley Dudley, author of Blended Family Advice
"Informative and witty." — Joana James, author of Finding Romeo
"I use it with my clients."— Ann Orchard, Counselor and therapist
>>>Stepparenting means you're stepcoupling, too.
Be sure to read this with its companion book, How to Screw Up Your Marriage: Do-Over Tips for First-Time Failures.
Despite Our Best Efforts
It’s not that we didn’t try to screw this parenting thing up. By all rights, we should have. We did everything that we possibly could that we weren’t supposed to do. We gave them refined sugar when they were babies, didn’t enforce nap times, spoiled them with expensive and unnecessary gifts. We said yes when we should have said no. We said no when we should have said yes. Our swear jar was always full.
Oh, yeah. And we were one of those “blended families”—you know the kind, the ones with broken homes, divorces, stepparents and complex custody arrangements. Those people. The ones other parents are leery of, like divorce is a communicable disease or something. Who knows? Maybe it is. My own parents even told me once that I had made my children a statistic by choosing to divorce their father. That I had created an at-risk home environment for them.READ MORE
Me? Perpetual overachiever, business owner, attorney, former cheerleader and high school beauty queen? The one who’s never even smoked a cigarette, much less done drugs? My husband? Well, he’s the more likely candidate for an at-risk homemaker. Surfer, bass player, triathlon enthusiast. Oh yeah, and chemical engineer and former officer of a ten-billion-dollar company—but you know how those rock-n-rollers are. We probably teeter somewhere between the Bundys and the Cleavers.
But there we were, watching yet another of our kids cross yet another stage for yet another diploma, with honors, with accolades, with activities—with college scholarships, no less. Yeah, I know, yadda yadda yap. There we were, cheering as the announcer called Liz’s name. Three of her four siblings rose to clap, too. The fourth one, Thomas, couldn’t make it because he was doing time in the state penitentiary in Florida. (Just kidding. He had to work. At a job. That paid him and provided benefits.)
We tried our best to screw it up. We had the perfect formula. But we didn’t—not even close. Somehow two losers at their respective Round Ones in love and family unity got it close to perfect on Round Two. By our standards, anyway. Because we didn’t give a good goldarnit about anyone else’s.
What’s more? We got it right on purpose. We made a plan, and we executed the plan. And it worked. After all that effort to screw things up, after the people in our lives who loved us most wrung their hands and whispered behind our backs (and those who didn’t love us chortled in anticipation of our certain failure), we went out and done good.
Now, I’m no expert on child rearing (although I’ve had lots of practice), but I am an expert in helping grownups play nice and behave at work. How annoying is that? I know. I’m a scary hybrid of employment attorney and human resources professional, blended together to create a problem-solving HR consultant. And from where I sat, our blended household—or blendered family, as we call it—looked a lot like a dysfunctional workplace in our early days.
Or a little warren of guinea pigs on which I could conduct my own version of animal testing.
The HR principles I applied at work were, in theory, principles for humans, humans anywhere. Blendering occurs in workplaces when a leadership team gets a couple of new members, and it happens in a home with kids from different families of origins. HR principles = people principles = blendering principles. Right? That was my theory, anyway.
Statistics tell me that you, dear reader, are or will be in similar straits: divorced, starting over, trying to make it work. If you’ve already been there and done that, I hope you’ve disappointed all your naysayers, too. You’ll enjoy this book all the more as you relate to the pains and the joys of blended families. But if you’re on the cusp of what feels like an express train descending into hell and wondering how to buy a ticket back, I can help you.
If not probably, then quite possibly.
At the very least, maybe I can say I warned you, or made you laugh. It’s a crazy and unpredictable ride, but the destination is worth it.
How did the Bradys do it?
Blendering Principle #1: It’s hard to get anywhere if you don’t know where you’re going.
Most of the members of my generation know all we need to know about blended families from the Brady Bunch, right?
Please, folks. That was just a sappy television show, and didn’t Florence Henderson have an affair IRL with one of the TV sons? Sounds a lot like incest to me. We clearly need a new set of role models, yet I'd be vacationing in Fiji right now if I had a nickel for every time someone said to me, "Oh! You're just like the Brady Bunch!"
The Bradys wove their magic through engaging scripts and clever sets, cute young actors and the star power of Florence Henderson. Eric and I didn’t have those crutches to lean on. Neither will you.
Real blended families start with two adults who want to pledge their troth, which in English means they want to marry. Or at least cohabitate with commitment. Oh, hell, maybe not even that. But that conundrum brings us to the genesis of our blended family success, and IMHO, a critical element.
Each of our kids had already endured one familial breakup. Were we ready to provide them stability and an example of enduring love? If not, why would we knowingly put them through sure trauma again? Nothing is certain in life, but Eric and I were all in. Not only were we all in, but we both had a consuming desire to demonstrate to our children the type of relationship we dreamed of for them, and neither of us felt like we had done so in our past lives. Scratch that. We absolutely knew we had not done so in our past lives.
So, we were madly in love and promised forever. Believed forever. Were confident in forever.
Still, this left a lot up to chance.
Pretend for a second that you married a touchy-feely HR consultant. Imagine that she had a penchant for things like mission, vision, and values statements. Picture her love of goal-setting and accountability. Some of you have mentally drawn up your divorce papers already.
Eric didn’t. He and I created a relationship operating agreement (ROA) for ourselves as a couple. I may or may not have promised years of sexual favors to secure his participation, but his attitude about the project was good. Now, this isn’t a relationship book. Well, it is, in a way. It is a book about our relationships with our children within a blended family. But it is not a couples’ relationship book, so I’ll spare you the gory details behind the ROA.
While we entered into our ROA to make our great relationship stronger, we did so knowing it would set the framework for co-parenting. Why? Because our kids were the most important things to each of us, besides one another. And since most second marriages break down over issues of stepparenting, money, or sex. Hell, many first marriages crash and burn on those issues. We had less than ideal co-parenting relationships with our exes, for sure.
So here’s how our ROA looks:
Our (Exceptionally Wonderful) Marriage
Mantra: Make it all small stuff.
Our relationship’s purpose is to create a loving, nurturing, safe environment that enables us to
• make a positive, joyful difference in each other’s lives,
• respect each other’s needs and differences,
• encourage each other’s spiritual, emotional, and physical needs and development,
• practice caring, open communication,
• role-model loving relationships to our children,
• work as partners when we parent and make major decisions.
Because we recognize that life is not always about the incredible highs, we are committed to these strategies:
• Stop, breathe, and be calm.
• Allow ourselves to cherish and be cherished.
• Be positive. Assume a positive intent and give a positive response. Speak your mind as positively as possible.
• Be reasonable. Am I being oversensitive? Am I dragging my own issues in unnecessarily?
• Be considerate. Is there anything to gain from what I am about to say? Is this the right time to say it?
• Be respectful. Don’t mope, don’t name-call, don’t yell, don’t be sarcastic.
• Be open. Explain your intent.
• Be present. Don’t walk away, physically or emotionally.
• Be aware of time and energy. After 60 minutes, stop talking. Schedule another conversation for 24 hours later if there’s no resolution.
• Make it safe to cry "calf rope."
• Be it. Do the behaviors you’re seeking in each other within an hour of the first conversation.
• Be loving. Don’t go to bed angry or with things unresolved.
He asks of her:
• Trust and have faith that I love you, enough that we don’t have to solve everything the second it happens.
• Assume a positive intent.
• Listen, don’t interrupt.
• Don’t be sarcastic.
She asks of him:
• Come back to me faster and don’t drag things out, because I need you.
• Speak your mind assertively, and don’t be sarcastic.
• Don’t assume the actions I take are always because of you.
• Assume a positive intent.
We didn’t get this smart on our own. Both of us were trained to draft this type of agreement in our work lives, one of us more than the other. I specialize in working with hyper-competitive, confident-bordering-on-egomaniacal executives who are somewhat lacking in people skills, so I’ve spent years mediating, soothing, recalibrating, and at times walloping high-level business people into line. One of the best tools to get all the warring co-workers from different backgrounds to reach détente is an operating agreement. Even better? An operating agreement grounded in shared values, vision, and mission.
This worked so well for me with one of my problem executives that we ended up married. In fact, you just read our operating agreement.
Blendering Principle #2: Your mom was almost right: Do unto others as they would have done unto them.
So we addressed parenting, but more importantly, we addressed how we would handle ourselves in situations of higher stress and greater conflict. All of our commitments about behavior applied equally to the parenting context. Now, when a parent/stepparent decision point arose, we could act in accordance with pre-agreed principles.
Or we could try.
Execution got a little sloppy at times. When it did, we always had the agreement to return to, a touchstone, a refocusing point, a document which reminded us that for all we didn’t agree on, there was oh-so-much-more that we did.
We filtered our day-to-day co-parenting decisions through this model. Chores, allowances, length of skirts, cell phones—you name it, we used it. Even better, we used it when we designed our family structure and plan. Did I mention I believe in planning? I believe in plans. And I believe in modifying the plan within the context of agreed principles when new circumstances arise. We got the chance for a lot of planning and re-planning, right from the start.
When Eric and I first married, his eldest son Thomas had graduated from college and had a real job, Eric’s middle daughter Marie was entering college in the South, and his youngest daughter Liz lived with her mother on the East Coast. My Susanne was in elementary school, and my ADHD son Clark was in middle school; they split their time between their father and me. Our original parenting plan called for the two youngest kids to live mostly with us, for Liz to visit frequently, and for us to see Marie and Thomas as often as possible.
We envisioned all of our children, and someday their children, in our home as frequently as we could get them there. We bought a house in a great school district in Houston, with a veritable dormitory of four bedrooms upstairs and our master bedroom on the far side of the downstairs—because we love our kids even more from a distance. And how could we resist this house? It has a lush back yard with a three-level pond full of fat goldfish and koi that reminds us of the home we left behind on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Just as this is not a book about couples’ relationships, it is also not a book about divorce or custody battles. I could dish on those, but I won’t, because even though I’ve changed the names of all parties in this little tome to protect the innocent[, some things should and will remain private. They were painful. Isn’t that the case in all divorces? You don’t divorce because the relationship exceeded your expectations. You don’t divvy up with a light heart the time you will spend with children you cherish. Most of you don’t, anyway, and we sure didn’t.
So, for whatever reason, within four months of “I do,” Liz had taken up primary residence with us in Texas, and a year later Marie transferred to a university two hours away. I had never pictured myself taking a role of such primacy with two teenage stepdaughters. Teenage girls get a bad rap for good reason. It’s not the easiest time in their lives, or the easiest time for the people that love them, even with great girls like Liz and Marie. Yet this new arrangement fit the model we envisioned. We just needed to flex. A lot.
I held onto my husband’s hand for dear life and sucked in one deep, cleansing breath after another. We could do this. I could do this. We would have no regrets or remorse, we would give our kids the best we could, and be damn happy doing it. Yeah!
And so, very carefully and very cautiously, we began to blender.
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