There was a bit of a rude shock when I discovered that merging households wasn’t as simple as I thought it would be. I imagined my husband and his son and me and my little girl and the way that we did things and compromise to create our own household. I was imagining something similar to my first marriage with the stereotypical, “How to load a Dishwasher” arguments with two children already in the mix. It seems kind of silly to me now to think a second marriage would be similar to a first. I truly didn’t expect to have aspects of my household that were out of my control because of the ex-wife.
Let’s start with the example of drop-offs and pick-up times. Every other Friday night we pick up our oldest for his weekend visitation. I was expecting a reasonable set time and consistency. Yet every other week we start the re-negotiation of what time and place would work best. Unreasonably early demands for pick-up meant my husband would either have to get off of work early, or I would have to drag my toddler for a 2 hour car ride. (I quickly learned to not volunteer, especially after “ours” arrived) Unrealistic late pick-up demands meant my Bonus son would not get home until after dinner and after bedtime. Traditional time was unacceptable to the ex-wife for seemingly absurd reasons and she simply refused. If we wanted to see our son, we would have to do it on her terms. To fight this in court would end up costing thousands of dollars and months of stress and anxiety. The battle was simply not worth the cost…. At least not yet. Meanwhile, the way every other Friday night would affect our household was completely out of mine or my husbands’ control. We valued seeing our son more than arguing with the ex.
Bedtime has been an experimentation of different tactics for the past 2 years. My Bonus son will cry at night constantly. In one seminar I learned to help your child ease into transitions in different households it is best to keep routines as similar as possible. Especially at bedtime. Eventually we were able to gather a general idea of how his mother tucks him in at night. But this wasn’t the routine I wanted. And whatever big brother does, little sister wants to do to. So… we either do bedtime routine the ex-wifes’ way and have two happy children, or we do it my way have our oldest crying for his mother and my little girl crying because she doesn’t get to be the same as her brother. What a horrendous pill to swallow? And I choked on it several times! We’ve adopted the routine of staggering the bedtimes, starting with the youngest. It was much easier to explain that big brother gets to stay up later than to explain why they do things differently at bedtime. This would allow me to still have my precious bedtime cuddles with my girls while honoring the traditions my bonus child is most comfortable with.
Negotiating Holidays is always an extra stressful endeavor. When my husband and I got married our preexisting parenting plans clashed on the holidays. My plan followed the traditional alteration of Thanksgiving and Christmas while my husbands’ plan has both holidays one year and none the next. Now there is always one major holiday a year that we cannot spend together as a family. Even if we assumed in a perfect world that visitations would always align, there is much more to the holiday drama. In the weeks building up to this last Halloween, my bonus child arrived for the weekend ecstatic about the plans they had made and the costume his mother had already purchased. He felt so privileged because his mother had gotten the last one and that particular costume was now sold out. Um… wasn’t this our year for Halloween? Now what? How on earth do we crush this little guys expectations? We lived too far away to pick him up during a school night which means that if we didn’t take advantage of this holiday we wouldn’t get him on a weekend Halloween until he was a teen and the trick-or-treating years were over. How do we make-up-for and compete against his mothers’ plans while not spoiling him rotten at the same time? Christmas gifts were another disaster. We had started to stash away gifts. When our oldest arrived for visits preceding Christmas he started to tell us the things that he had wished for from his mother and was pretty confident he was going to get it. Well, that same gift is sitting in our basement. Do we return it? We also have to fight the urge to one-up his mother now that we know what he’s getting. If we get him a better gift we need to ensure the other two children are getting comparable gifts as well. This can quickly lead to an extremely expensive holiday with very spoiled children. It takes a ton of creativity and last minute changes to survive holidays in a blended family.
To plan a vacation in a merged household, throw everyone’s ideas into a blender, puree and see what comes out. Not only does my Husband need to get time off of work approved but I would as well. Luckily I am blessed to be a stay-at-home-mom now, but that first year I still had military obligations to uphold. We would also need the ex-spouses approval. We need the ex-wives permission to take our oldest out of state. And we need my ex-husbands coordination on his work and military obligations as well. In order to truly plan a vacation that you want, it often requires planning at least a year (or a few) in advance. If an ex wants to be vindictive enough, they could still sabotage it last minute.
In tradition families the children grow up eating meals the way it is prepared and are accustomed to it. Sure they can argue they don’t like their vegetables. The parents can then decide how and if they want to make the child eat it and it’s usually never even given a second thought. With a blended family, the dinner equivalent of the how-to-load-a-dishwasher argument turns into a 4 way how-to-eat-healthy debate. You and your current spouse may be able to meet a compromise, but now there’s the “Well, that’s not how my mom does it” criticism thrown in there as well. As much as we love our children they are also little tattle-tales. If you don’t force vegetables down their throat their other parent will hear about it. If you make them eat disgusting food, the other parent will hear about it. If you are lucky and have a cooperative ex they may just laugh it off. If you are stuck in a high-conflict situation you just may find yourself receiving a nasty letter stating how irresponsible of a parent you are being and that if you don’t feed your child x,y and z then they will call Child Protective Services on you.
If you do not have primary custody of your child and you have traditional visitation, you get 4 days a month. That’s it. So what about school season sports? Do you spend 2 out of your 4 days every month to take him to a sports game? How far away is too far to drive him to his soccer games? This is really up to each family’s comfort levels, abilities and really is a trial and error decision. We really did want to support our little guy in sports. We all went as a family. Even spending my little girl’s birthday in freezing cold weather after driving an hour and half just watch him play. Later we found out that this had been the only soccer game he had attended all season and we were the ones that took him too it. We had been manipulated into sacrificing our precious weekend and my daughter’s birthday. We are obviously ready and willing to go to great lengths to support our son in sports. But for now we are waiting until those sacrifices are actually because it his desire and passion and not the coercion of the ex-wife.
Even something as simple as watching Saturday morning cartoons can become contentious. It completely caught us off-guard when our son came over for the weekend acting very defensive and questioning why we didn’t watch Saturday morning cartoons.
I simply turned it around. “Have you ever asked to watch Cartoons?”
“Well… no.” I could see his wheels turning in his head as he was finally starting to think for himself than to take the defensive stance fed to him by his mother.
I took this opportunity to explain to him that it is not ok to question why we do things differently in our home if it was never even brought to our attention that it is something he desired in the first place. I reassured him that if watching Saturday morning cartoons was particularly important to him, all he had to do was ask. However we do have the rule in our home that he cannot be on his ipad and watch a tv show of his choosing at the same time. He would have to pick which one he would rather do. He has never asked for cartoons since. He contently plays Minecraft on his ipad instead.
It is a constant egg-shell dance of teaching your child to think for himself and not belittle his mother in front of him. This isn’t ever easy to do, especially when you are receiving detailed letters full of criticism of how you are not allowing your child to be a child because you don’t encourage “more tv time.” Yes, this was the actual argument.
We are a family that strives to teach principles of faith, prayer, repentance, respect, love, compassion, hard work and wholesome recreational activities. We have 4 precious days of the month to spend together as a family. There will always be some aspects of our lives that the ex-wife will be able to control. With experience, I believe we will be able to achieve a balance that support the family we desire to create for our children and to still give them a healthy example of how a family should be.