Duncan Garner: Keeping up with life in a blended family

Duncan Garner and his wife have a total of six children in their lives.
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Duncan Garner and his wife have a total of six children in their lives.

OPINION: When I was growing up there was no such thing as a "blended" family.

There was still a strong social stigma attached to divorce and I dare say plenty of people felt trapped in a marriage they could not leave.

While there was no white picket fence around the comfortable four-bedroom house in the cul-de-sac where my family lived, there was no divorce or separation either.

There was me, my two sisters and our parents. Mum and Dad were married 42 years till his death.

It was all very middle-class and conservative. Dad earned the dough and he was the boss. Mum ran the house and organised us kids. Sure, there were arguments and fallouts and us kids got whacked when we stepped out line. But that was the done thing.

And that generation held it together, stayed together and saved face – right? In fact, I can only remember one friend who lived in a single-parent home.

How times have changed: Nearly 20 per cent of children are now growing up in single-parent households, according to the last census. Nearly two out of five kids live in a blended family.

My wife and I share six children from previous relationships and of course our marriage.

I'm sure all this has been talked about within my family. In fact I know it has been. I will have been judged. I will have been judged as a failure. And maybe I am.

But this is my reality and I'm in good company. Nowadays half of all marriages fail. Blended families are everywhere.

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I ran into a guy last week who left his wife after 16 years. He has three children and has shacked up with a new woman who left her marriage, but has no children of her own.     

Three of my closest mates are all in blended families – meaning they have children to two mothers. My twin sister has remarried and has two children from two fathers.

Is my world all peace and harmony? Hell no. It's bloody hard and at times painful. It's a daily battle and compromise is a weapon of mass consumption.

Never underestimate the challenges of trying to discipline a child who can – and will – counter by pointing out you're not their dad (or mum).

My initial experiences with my wife's daughters were only average. And I was missing my own girls, who had moved to another city with their mother.

But seven years later, when I see my step-daughters I love it. They are lovely young women, mature, smart and growing up fast. Perhaps if they were with us more my relationship might be more difficult. But let's not go there.

My two girls come once a week and there are highs are lows. I am often caught in the middle between my wife, the girls, my mother and the girls' mother.

When it's great – it's really good. And my wife and my girls can have some wonderful moments. I love that. 

Like the step-daughters, they're growing up quickly and are great girls, doing well in school and sport.

But when it's not good, it's a heart-wrenching position to be in. I feel like I can never win. Everyone wants me on their side in a dispute and that's impossible unless I'm carved up four ways (which I'm sure some of the combatants would like).

I feel like I have to side with my girls – I'm their father. Especially if I see what I consider unreasonable behaviour from others. I admit I used to react badly and too fiery.  My new approach relies on seeking out compromises rather than fights.

I always ask for peace and solutions. I ask for family meetings. I ask others to own their behaviour and look for solutions. I try to mediate. If I am wrong I am quick (and happy) to say sorry and back down. It's a powerful tactic – try it some time.

I am happy to be flexible. I am now always willing to lose on the way to winning the ultimate battle. All this can go a long way towards peace.

Keep talking to each other, keep the information flowing, keep talking about expectations and treat others how you wish to be treated yourself. 

If I can leave you with one bit of advice, if you do find yourself in a blended family, it is this: Set the ground rules early. Get everyone to buy into it. Your house, your rules.

I regret I never did that – and I've suffered since.

Good luck out there.

 - Stuff.co.nz

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