How to blend families more smoothly

By Clark and Leah Burbidge

Navigating blended family life with 10 children over 14 years has dramatically changed our perspective. Perhaps it’s best not to see the future too clearly. One step at a time kept us from being overwhelmed. Yet, in retrospect it has been the most satisfying, rewarding and beautiful journey in our lives, we would do it again in a moment. Of course, it is ongoing as we write. We’re thrilled to share some learnings included with you here.

Certain principles are so foundational to success that they must be followed from the beginning before a relationship becomes serious and emotion clouds reason. A single parent cannot approach relationships the same way they would if they had no children. The bar is higher. Ignoring that truth risks the welfare and future of all involved. Three of these principles are briefly addressed below.

Make a Believable Commitment

Your children are the most attentive critics/audience. They have already had their lives incomprehensibly dislocated. Divorce, death, serial relocation, parental strife and countless changes in every aspect of their formerly stable lives inevitably produce skepticism. They often draw conclusions about new relationships before you are aware. Parents cannot dismiss a child’s perspective. It has long-term implications on your ability to achieve family stability. Casual, careless or serial relationshipping is not likely to get the children’s buy-in. The last thing they want is to repeat the most traumatic experience in their lives. Lack of sufficient parental commitment statistically increases the probability of high-risk child/teen behaviour. Surprising your children by announcing that the near stranger in the other room is going to be their new dad or mom is foolish and disrespectful. Parents can do much to gain their children’s confidence and avoid surprises by involving them in the process and pursuing their new blended family relationships based on a stable, committed and respectful foundation. It can mean the difference between a beautiful blending experience and an impending train-wreck. Much of this can be established naturally by attuning oneself to critical personal characteristics of those you date and principled communication.

Shared Belief and Value Systems

Strongly held, personally committed and consistently lived belief and value systems are central to success. They can be based in shared religious or secular beliefs, but cannot be ad hoc, cobbled together pop culture or conjured up on the fly. Such core values must go beyond the superficial ‘what’ to address the more important ‘why’ questions. Knowing the ‘why’ is the best route for ‘how’ to move forward. If your family foundation is solid and the parents are committed and on the same page no challenge is too great. When this is not the case even the simplest tasks become insurmountable. Each family member must arrive at their own conviction regarding such values. They cannot be forced. Patience is important as parents acknowledge and respect that each member must start from where they are while they imperfectly grow together. Actively listening to understand is key to knowing where to begin with each child.

Structure/Predictability Nurtures Bonding

Those contemplating blended family life each have a story. Many stories include lives that have been completely and suddenly turned upside down. The fabric of their former life may have been permanently erased. A new blended family must do its best to create a believable foundation upon which lives can be rebuilt. Simple repetitive acts become stabilizing anchors for lives formerly adrift. For example, regular family dinners make a significant statistical difference in outcomes. Allowing children to provide input regarding relocation decisions or play an active role in helping new siblings acclimate can promote commitment. A new pet can help instill a sense of purpose and love. But the most important stabilizing factor is to unconditionally love your spouse. Do not hide this devotion from your children.

We are far from perfect and remain on a steep learning curve. Being a parent never ends although it becomes more by consent than title as they mature. The measure of long-term success is often determined by how you begin. Its metal will surely be tested as your dynamic blended lives bring new surprises, joys and challenges around every corner. We love that our lives are never mundane. We love being able to serve, assist and be a resource to our children as they continue to grow. But most of all we love each other and each member of our ever-expanding blended family circle unconditionally…and they know it. That has made all the difference.

Clark and Leah Burbidge are 14 years into their blended family experience and loving life more than ever with 10 children and their eight spouses, eight grandchildren and counting. Their practical ‘autobiographical/how to’ guide is contained in a new Gold Medal award winning book, “Living in the Family Blender: 10 Principles of a Successful Blended Family”, July (2019 – Deep River Books.)