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 casts the adults and children into unchartered waters that can deliver significant challenges.
Well-known parenting educator and author of Blended Families, Flicky Gildenhuys, who will be a guest speaker at the upcoming SACAP Festival of Learning 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, which is a 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.
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’.
“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, 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.”
To dive into the adventurous waters of the blended family join Flicky Gildenhuys’ presentation on ‘Negotiating the blended family’, which is part of the Cape Town programme of the upcoming 7th annual SACAP Festival of Learning.
The Festival of Learning takes place in Johannesburg on 17th and 18th of May, and in Cape Town on 24th and 25th of May 2018.
Tickets for the 2018 Festival of Learning are available through Webtickets. Costs are R200 for the full-day programme, which includes dialogues and panel discussion. Tickets for the short-talk evening programme which includes catering and networking opportunities is R200. There is a special offer for students and alumni at R80 per ticket.