“MOMMMM! Will’s being annoying!”
While this exclamation would be annoying in itself to many parents, my heart almost burst when my daughter recently shouted it for the first time.
My husband Todd and I tied the knot almost five years ago. This was the second go at marriage for both of us, and this time we were also uniting our kids. My daughter, Rory, was seven and Todd’s son, Will, was 11.
All of us were (theoretically) gung-ho about trying out the so-called “blended family” thing. Before we moved in together, I imagined it was going to be like a box of cake mix: just add the ingredients, stir and voila—Instant Family!
I was blissfully delusional.
The first couple of years felt more like “Team Kristy and Rory” versus “Team Todd and Will.” (Nothing like delicious baked goods at all.) Todd and I were trying to figure out how to co-parent and what it meant to be a step-mom and a step-dad – not to mention husband and wife with some baggage in tow. Both of our kids live with us the vast majority of the time, and we (well, I) wanted to have the same rules right off the bat. However, that meant Todd and I had to decide on what the rules were. We quickly discovered we had very different views on screen time, consequences, chores and table manners. Everything felt like a negotiation. When we couldn’t agree, we just reverted to our own way of parenting while silently judging the other.
A prime example was when I completely disagreed with Todd giving his old phone to Will. He did it anyway. Of course, Rory said she wanted one, too. I told her she could have one when she could pay for at least half of it herself.
“But Will has one and he doesn’t have to pay for it,” she protested
“Doesn’t matter,” I retorted. “You’re stuck with me and that’s my decision.”
We didn’t exactly get off to a great start.
Rory and Will liked the idea of being siblings, but they had to sort out what that relationship looked like. Their eyes were jarred open to sharing on a regular basis, how it felt when one got a treat and the other didn’t and having to compete for their parent’s attention. They were more like roommates than brother and sister in the beginning. They don’t have similar interests (Rory is all about sports while Will is an artist through and through) and they’re at completely different stages of development. Without common ground, their interaction was pretty formal.
“May I come in your room?” one would ask.
“No,” was the usual reply.
They also tried to establish dominance by parenting one other. Will admonished Rory when she chewed with her mouth open or interrupted him. Rory would remind Will to clean up his mess and not to forget his keys again. Each would use a tone that implied: “Can you believe this kid?”
Sure, many siblings have these tit-for-tat interactions, but there weren’t any reassuring hugs or even kind glances in our scenario. I was desperate for any sign that Rory and Will were warming to each other. Even a full-blown fight would have meant they cared.
That’s when I finally threw out that whole cake-mix image and realized we had to figure out what “family” looked liked on our terms. Todd and I were out of our element. So we signed up for couples counselling and got off our high parenting horses. How could we expect the kids to bond if we weren’t even working together?
Our counsellor pointed out we both had good intentions in that we wanted what was best for our kids, we just had different approaches. Understanding that made it easier to figure out how to better support each other – even when we didn’t completely agree.
To help “pay” for his phone, we decided Will could start doing some extra chores around the house. And Rory would have to do the same when it came time for her to have one. Compromises like this were small but they did a lot to reduce the hostility.
About a year ago, when we were leaving the kids home alone for an evening, I had my first glimmer of hope that Rory and Will were starting to resemble traditional siblings. In the past, Rory would demand that she go with me (she was jealous of time I spent away from her). The after we left, they would each keep texting us, tattling on each other and asking if we were on our way home yet.
So Todd and I tried a bit of tongue-in-cheek coaching. “Now, we want you in bed and asleep by seven,” we said sternly. “We absolutely don’t want you to stay up until five minutes before we get home. And whatever you do, don’t eat all the junk food we put in the cupboard.”
Suddenly they understood that it was kids versus adults. By teaming up, they could stay up late, overdose on sugar and have fun. So they pushed us out the door and told us not to come home even one minute early. They probably had a few spats, but the lack of texts proved they were working things out.
The past five years as a step-family have taught me that for some families, becoming a sibling is a choice, and it can take years to unlock all the normal brother-sister behaviour. So when my daughter yelled out to me that her brother was being annoying, I actually heard: “MOMMMMMM! We’re a family!”