We have friends, gay and straight, who have entered a relationship with someone with children. Before we became a couple, each of us did the same thing. What these friends and we have discovered is that no matter how deep the attraction, no matter how strong the love, bringing a partner into an existing family challenges the relationship in both known and unforeseen ways. Some relationships manage to survive these challenges with a certain amount of “putting up with” coupled with resentment. Some relationships end after months or years of struggle. A few relationships thrive. At times we find it incredibly difficult to navigate the challenges of a blended family, in addition to the challenges all relationships face. We want to be one of the couples that thrive, and so far, we think we’re doing pretty well.
When Kelli and I first met in 1997, my daughter was two and my son was six months old. I was still married (to a man), and on the cusp of exploring my attraction to women. After I came out and left my kid’s dad two years later, I became close friends with Kelli and her then girlfriend/partner. They spent many evenings at my house hanging out with the kids and me. Kelli knew them as bright, curious, and playful toddlers, and developed a bond with them, especially my son.
Flash forward almost 15 years later, during which time Kelli saw them sporadically for short periods of time. My energetic and mostly sweet toddlers had grown into resistant, myopic, self-righteous, and occasionally recalcitrant teenagers. Not unusual, as most parents of teenagers can attest. When we decided to begin our life together, it made more sense for her to move in with us than for us to move in with her, which at the time was in Austin, Texas. We knew it would be difficult. I however, still seduced by magical thoughts of “love conquers all” and that the rough seas of life would be forever calmed with my beloved by my side, believed our sailing would be easier than it’s turned out to be.
I began searching for my beloved, the one I believed I was destined to meet quickly and easily, as soon as I left my ex-husband. Finding her became my quest, and I’m ashamed to admit that at times I put more attention and energy toward finding her than I did toward my kids. While I attended to their basic needs – food, shelter, clothing, school, medical appointments, and social needs – play dates, carpools to aikido, dance and horseback riding lessons – I failed to provide enough structure necessary for responsible development – homework time, chores, regular family meals – nor was I fully accessible emotionally. Though the week on/week off schedule with their dad afforded much needed breaks, I was a single parent, coming out and trying to find my way in a new world. After the kids came to live with me full-time as early high schoolers, I had matured a lot, and began focusing more on their emotional needs; however, I still didn’t impose much structure. Enter Kelli, who has a higher need than I for structure and organization and a keen ability to create functional systems, and the challenges began.
When I was younger, I dreamed of the perfect little lesbian family, with the adorable, smart, athletic, well-adjusted toddlers playing peacefully in the yard with each other and growing up into sharp and astute contributing members of society (BTW…I’m laughing and choking on my coffee while I’m writing this…). Later, as mid-life set in, my ideal was modified to adopting, insert above fantasy, one child internationally with my now mature and perfect soul-mate and living happily ever after in our blissful family. Now on to my reality. After dating a couple of women with children and being thrown into raising and managing children, not my own, with others and opting out of adoption for a number of reasons, I landed in a relationship with a partner with two strong-willed teenagers, now living full-time with her and me by default.
I remember well the first time I met Dorothy, when her son was a baby slung against her hip while she did volunteer work for a non-profit agency. Since Dorothy and I have known each other for 16 years, I also remembered the time period when the kids lived part-time with their dad. It was easier to have breaks, hands down. Flash forward to now. Walking into a family system that I did not create, influence or design proved to be a bigger challenge than I thought. Yes, the lovey-dovey first months eased some of the edges that arose between us. I had a high degree of confidence in my ability to caringly and collaboratively, but concisely, help put some structures in place for all of our sakes. I understood why providing structure had been harder for Dorothy as a single parent. After years of therapeutic practice with others and dating experiences with women who had children, I knew that it was impossible to ‘do it all’ as a primarily single parent. I also knew we, as a couple, had to be closely aligned and in tune with each other regarding what structures to implement to make living together work while maintaining our connection. And finally, I knew that my greatest lessons and learnings came when I put theory into practice…always fun for me!
During the time I’ve lived with Dorothy and the kids, I’ve thought a lot about the negative images of stepmothers looming over an otherwise happy family, like the gray Seattle skies looming over a spring day hiding the ever-present sun. Step parenting is difficult even in the best situations. In the extreme, it’s a no-win situation, managing challenging children set in their ways, along with trying to live up to expectations of being the perfect partner and the perfect mother to children they did not raise and who may resent their presence. Good luck with that. And compassion for stepparents, often doing their best, and sometimes not, is frequently lacking.
Dorothy and Kelli speak
Early on in our co-habitation, we began talking about how to improve the system, mostly related to the kids: doing chores, going to bed at a decent hour so as not to disturb our sleep and to develop better patterns, spending time out of the house to give us alone time, spending less time in front of the TV to reduce noise in the common living area, consistently keeping the kitchen, bathroom and living room clean.
I (Dorothy) was immediately resistant to most of Kelli’s observations and suggested improvements and reacted with defensiveness and self-righteous justifications of why things were the way they were.
I (Kelli) wanted to assess the situation, decide on solutions, and set new patterns in place as fairly, but as quickly as possible, without a lot of resistance from others. However, I realized my past years of peacefully co-habitating with my affable feline in a clean, quiet, aesthetically pleasing home were over, at least temporarily. Fantasy interrupted. With great love comes great commitment, and the commitment widens when children are part of the package.
It took time and many conversations for us to sort through our feelings, frustrations, fears, shame, guilt, and desires and come to a point where we could impose changes that we both could live with. We talk often about leaning in, trusting each other with our feelings, good and bad, in the midst of difficult conversations and decisions. Knowing that we are equally committed to each other, the relationship and what’s best for everyone, we’re now able to come to agreements fairly quickly. And, somewhat surprisingly, the kids are now responding to the new structure and living space guidelines mostly positively and with decreased resistance. We’d like to think that for as much as they resisted the changes they secretly welcomed them. We’ve had our bumps that in moments have sent us reeling close to the edge but fortunately, neither one of us jumped off.
Our Relationship speaks
Kelli and Dorothy managed to see themselves through many, many hard conversations by taking breaks when warranted, coming back to the conversations after taking a time out, and telling each other what they needed: Dorothy, needing compassion, gentleness, acknowledgement for the things that she did well; Kelli, needing understanding, consideration, respect, recognition of her contributions to improve the living situation for everyone.
Kelli and Dorothy acknowledge that all families have their strengths and challenges. There is truly no perfect family and no perfect way. It’s all a compromise. Fantasy ideals about what the perfect family looks and acts like are merely lies to cover and avoid the complexities of family. They know they are not alone in their experience. Similar to having multiple careers/workplaces over a lifetime, most people will have more than one long-term intimate adult relationship, and many will became part of blended families. It is now the norm, not the exception. Kelli and Dorothy share some of their hard places with blending a family in hopes that others will benefit from knowing they’re not alone and knowing they deserve compassion and respect on their journeys.
Kelli Williamson holds a Master of Arts degree in Marriage, Family, and Child Counseling from The School of Leadership and Education at the University of San Diego. Kelli has extensive experience working with couples, children and families. She has worked in private practice and held leadership positions in non-profit organizations directing counseling services, supervising staff and interns, and providing training in child and family therapy. In addition, she consults with non-profit agencies providing organizational development and leadership training.
Dorothy (Bosteder) Emerson graduated from the University of California at Davis with a degree in Economics. She is a Senior Product Manager in the banking industry and has served on the board of directors for non-profit agencies serving women and children. Dorothy has expertise in building relationships by facilitating communication and collaboration while navigating complex systems. Dorothy is also the mother of two teenagers and she offers clarity and focus on listening to and following one’s heart as a parent.
Dorothy and Kelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.