The stakes to achieve a happy blended family are undoubtedly high, but so worthwhile

Step, or blended families that they now commonly called, start out full of hope that they will give the protagonists another chance at all the good things that the closest of bonds and safe, communal home life can offer.  However, even though there might well be ‘first family’ experience to draw on, blending families still cast the adults and children into un-chartered waters that can deliver significant challenges.

Well-known parenting educator and author of Blended Families, Flicky Gildenhuys, points out that, although integrating different family units in a new, unified home holds the potential of a minefield; it can equally turn out to be an amazing voyage of discovery.

It all comes down to how we choose to do the blending

It all comes down to how we choose to do the blending, which is not an event but rather a process, unfolding over time, and moving through different phases, which all need to be negotiated.

Blending into a strong and successful family demands perspectives, skills and the effective use of tools from the adults. While these may not come naturally, the good news is that they can be learnt, and there are compelling reasons to get educated – South Africa’s rising divorce rate, with indicators that almost half of marriages fail, and many within nine years, means that blended families may well become the most common form of family in the country.

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Flicky, a UCT psychology Honours graduate, has not just been helping families professionally for over three decades, she has also lived the blended family experience, raising six children made up of her biological progeny, her adopted child and her partners’ offspring.

“The challenges of a blended family are typically complex,” she says, “It is common that the blended family comes together when the units are both still dealing with the grief and loss associated with their different former families. The emotional context of the union can be alive with conflict with ex-spouses or family members. These are basic, but intense trials of the blended family. The better you negotiate them, the better the blending.”

Flicky points out that, while the adults in the blended family do have the value of more maturity and experience – as well as learning and wisdom to contribute – they may also bring their heavier ‘baggage’.

Parenting strategies, which have taken years to develop, often crash on the shores of the blended family

“Two different waves of parenting strategies, which have taken years to develop, crash on the shores of the blended family, often creating riptides of confusion and disagreements. This might be further complicated by the differing parenting strategies of ex-partners; and effective co-parenting can be particularly hard without insights and tools.”

As the enduring childhood stories of step-families attest to, blending families can deliver life-defining challenges for children that can easily become embedded in their vulnerable, developing identities. Blended families can significantly shift a child out of their known place in the family, and leave them at sea. The oldest can sink to become one of the youngest; the youngest can be thrown up against the force of the oldest, and the only child can be plunged into a roiling brood.

The stakes to achieve a happy blended family are undoubtedly high

The stakes to achieve a happy blended family are undoubtedly high, but so worthwhile; and Flicky asserts that we can learn the skills to deal with grief and loss; and to manage expectations and negotiate the successful blended family.

“Part of the process of blending well involves very powerful and fulfilling stages of the journey where you don’t just fall or get swept up into the notions of being a family. Instead, you are empowered to consciously develop a family identity, craft family rules and roles, as well as instigate affirming, meaningful and enjoyable family traditions and rituals that last lifetimes and become part of your family legacy. Key to this is the adults’ development of their self-reflective, communication and conflict resolution skills – and this is what makes negotiating a blended family wonderfully rich. It can change you in remarkable, and deeply satisfying ways.”