Blended families are more common than ever, representing close to 13 percent of Canadian households. But you can say buh-bye to those Brady Bunch clichés—successfully combining two families into one unit can be complicated. Here's how three different couples made it work.
The team players: The Posner-Goldman family
Their blend: Melissa Posner has two children from a previous marriage, Adam, 6, and Ella, 4. Since she met Mitchell Goldman in September 2012, they have had their own daughter, Marlowe, 3, and moved in together. The older kids also spend two weekends each month with their biological father.
Their story: Melissa and Mitchell had instant chemistry. On their first date, they shared a sense of humour and felt like they had known each other forever. Still, they took their time incorporating Mitchell into Adam's and Ella's lives. "After about six months of dating, I invited Mitchell to meet the kids," says Melissa. "We would have hot chocolate or ice cream together. We chose a neutral place or a fun activity so there was no pressure or expectation on anyone's part."
These days, the kids call him Mitchy Daddy or Daddy. But it's been a big adjustment for the couple—especially for Mitchell, who went from zero kids to three. They see a blended-family specialist for help ensuring that the older children feel on par with the toddler and to foster equality when it comes to parenting and decision-making. "Counselling has really given us a chance to communicate and raise any issues that come up," says Melissa. Rebecca Murray, a marital and family therapist and director of the Montreal Therapy Centre, approves. "Seeing a therapist is a great way to get the tools and coping mechanisms parents need to blend successfully," she says.
Therapy was especially helpful for Mitchell. "As a new stepfather, it was difficult to judge whether the kids accepted me and to know what role I'd play in their lives," he says. As their relationship evolved, it became important to include him in decisions, rules and discipline. "This involved a new layer of change for us, and sometimes that process was forgotten, which made me feel like a bystander," he says. Now, Melissa consults with him on everything from the kids' gymnastics schedule to family vacations, a practice they discussed in therapy.
To make them feel special, the older children were each given roles to help feed or change baby Marlowe. They also get to have fun big-kid outings, such as bike rides with Mitchell to McDonald's on weekends. Plus, Mitchell makes spending time with Adam and Ella a priority, often giving them breakfast, driving them to school and attending their hockey games and swimming lessons. "It's something he wanted to do naturally," says Melissa. "He's an excellent father."
The takeaway: It's all about inclusion. "I like how Mitchell is involved in family decisions and not made to feel like an outsider," says Murray. "Treating all of the kids equally is important, too. Children are really in tune to fairness, justice and injustice. If the older kids perceive the biological child is being treated differently, they will act out."
The empty nesters: The Munn-Jurgens family
Their blend: Andrew Munn, 58, and his children, Elizabeth, 24, and Henley, 22, are now a family with Anna Jurgens, 54, and her kids, Sandy, 27, Robyn, 24, and Geoffrey, 22. The couple moved into Anna's house a year ago, and they are now building a three-bedroom home nearby where their grown children can gather for visits home and for holidays. Their story: Andrew and Anna lived on the same street for 12 years before they became romantically involved. They started as neighbours coping with divorce and raising children, then they became friends who enjoyed activities like biking together. Eventually, it became something more. By the time Anna and Andrew moved in together, after five years of dating, their children had already spread out across the country for school and work.
"I guess we avoided some potential issues that younger blended families can experience, as our kids were adults when we got together," says Anna. "But we had other issues with raising them as single parents as well."
Andrew's kids were just two and four when their parents separated in 1996, and they had to adjust to alternating weeks with their mom and dad. Anna's were 12, 10 and seven when she separated in 2002. Andrew and Anna both found single parenthood exhausting and lonely. They worried about how their divorces affected their children and wondered if they would find love and happiness again. When sparks finally flew between them, their children were happy.
"It's easier when kids are grown and out of the house," says Murray. "It could have less of an impact on the kids' day-to-day lives, and adult children are more likely to be understanding and accepting of their parents' new relationship."
Plus, there was no pressure for the older children to bond with each other. "We never expected them to act like brothers and sisters or be best friends," says Andrew. "You can't push grown children to have relationships; we had to accept that and know it was OK. Luckily for us, they all get along." The takeaway: Even if grown children are protective of their parents, feelings are less likely to be as intense or emotionally charged. "Just because you love your partner doesn't mean the whole family will get along," says Murray. "To be able to ask for respect is important, even if there isn't a relationship and closeness."
The communicators: The Gourley-Sims family
Their blend: Aliesha Gourley, 34, and her three kids, Broc, 13, Payge, 10, and Josh, 8, moved in with her partner, Jason Sims, 41, and his two kids, Jayden, 11, and Jaxson, 9. While Aliesha has a joint-custody arrangement with her ex, Jason sees his kids only twice a month.
Their story: Things moved fast for these old friends who reconnected on Facebook after splitting from their partners. After five months of dating, Aliesha and Jason introduced the kids to one another. They quickly realized how expensive it was to maintain two homes and decided it would make more financial sense if they lived together. In February 2014, less than a year after they began dating, they rented a house fit for their five kids. But chaos reigned early on, while the couple struggled to find common ground when it came to disciplining the children.
It takes time for the step-parent to grow into a more parental role, says Murray, and children may push back during the transition, saying things like, "I don't have to listen to you—you're not my mom!"
This is exactly what Aliesha and Jason encountered. "My kids know my tone—even the look on my face—and will behave as soon as they hear it," says Aliesha. "But Jason is a Disney dad; he doesn't discipline his kids because he wants them to enjoy their time together. They would get away with unacceptable behaviour, so I eventually had to pull him aside and tell him he had to discipline them."
After many arguments over how to treat their kids fairly and give them the appropriate attention, they realized they should be able to speak openly about parenting beliefs. "Now, we communicate about what strategy to use," says Aliesha. "We talk about what happened and we try to deal with our own kids—not each other's—because it's easier and it's what works for us." All of the children understand they will be treated equally.
"It sounds like Jason and Aliesha are doing well in terms of communication," says Murray. "Blending families and raising kids can put a lot of strain on a relationship, so it's important to be able to turn to your partner for support and to preserve the strength of the couple's relationship."
The takeaway: "It's always advisable to let the biological parent take the lead with parenting and disciplining their own kids," says Murray. "Kids are less likely to resent it coming from their own mom or dad, especially if the kids are older when the couple gets together."