Summer vacation spots, Thanksgiving dinner menus, birthday breakfasts, rabid devotion to Texas A&M football…culture…tradition…family…it’s great stuff. Family culture evolves slowly but becomes so ingrained in us, that, even though most of the time we take it for granted, we will go to battle over it in a heartbeat. It is who we are.
What happens, though, when family structure changes? What survives, what dies, and what is reborn? Because, there’s everyone else’s perfect little families…and then there’s ours!!
My husband and I faced a restructuring challenge when his 13-year old daughter moved in with us and my 11-year old son and 9-year old daughter. We had been navigating the “steps in separate houses” issue, and, while that was not without its own perils, the boats sailed on relatively smooth waters. Our main issue until the “blend” event was hurt feelings over time each parent spent with non-birth kids.
And then we blended. With a plan. Because I believe anything that needs doing should be done with a plan. And a schedule. Preceded by research (my husband actually puts up with this Type A nonsense, too).
We had just moved to Houston from the Virgin Islands, so we had three kids with no friends newly thrown together in the house for a long summer of empty days with me — I work from home — to shepherd them. Oh yeah, and we were broke. Zero cash, flat-out broke. We weren’t going to be able to throw money at this problem.
Our plan/schedule involved holding themed family “events” each night of the week, on the cheap. Monday — ping pong. Tuesday — board games. Wednesday — movies. Thursday — kids’ cook. Friday — swim night. Saturday — Go Out (on a strict budget). We had a rotation for which kid got to choose (which movie, which board game, the menu, what our night out would be) on each night involving choice. We kept up this schedule all summer and some vestiges remain even now. It was powerfully effective. Why? We did things as a family. We did not sit around and whine about what to do; we were ACTIVE. We established a pattern that the kids looked forward to repeating. We built memories. We honored each others’ choices, although we weren’t above bartering with Clark to try to get out of another game of Stratego.
We did other bonding silliness, too. At the end of the summer we had dinner for five at P.F. Chang’s from the contents of the parental contributions into the $1 “swear jar” but we also paid for one month’s water bill with the kids’ deposits into the $1 “turn off the lights” jar; we recently re-instated “turn out the lights” with a stiff $5 penalty and reduced our power bill by 50% while collecting most of the money needed to pay it from the kids. We doled out chores on a rotational schedule. Who sat in which seat in the car? We enacted a strict “oldest to youngest” choice rule to avoid constant battles and fears of favoritism. In other words, we all abused the youngest.
Another tradition we kicked off that first summer was picking up “tacky souvenirs” when we traveled. Not just any old tacky souvenirs, but something odd, gaudy and large that would receive a place of honor in our living room display. Our first purchase had been at our wedding, actually; we bought a jeweled wire gecko — hideously beautiful. Using that as an example, we added “Lenny,” the wood and tin armadillo, on a weekend trip to Brenham, Texas in July. This tradition thrives, still. We have a steel cowboy, a log grizzly bear, and a ceramic dancing hula cat. And many more. Come visit us and see the collection.
In August, we decided our fledgling relationships had gelled sufficiently to attempt a two-week cross country journey from Houston to Maine and back with the five of us in the Suburban — on an impossibly tight budget — with an ice chest full of turkey, bread, mayo and soft drinks. We logged 5000 miles, stopping in Auburn to visit Eric’s older daughter, Niagara Falls, New York City/Ellis Island, DC, and Jacksonville to visit Eric’s parents. At each state line, we took a group photo with…Lenny! See photo above; Liz is holding Texas Lenny at the Maine state line. The kids kept a trip journal to chronicle every embarrassing moment, including Eric locking the keys in the car twice and Clark and Suz having to walk in front of the Suburban for half a mile due to bickering.
And the whole time we were in Maine at his parents’ cabin on beautiful Lake Mooselookmeguntic, we searched for the perfect tacky travel souvenir. Our hearts longed for a moose, but none we saw were just right. So, when we got home, 13-year old Liz – the little sweetheart we had so worried about blending into our established tribe — built a wobbly-legged moose out of scrap lumber and tool box odds and ends. And she put together a massive scrap book of the trip. Success.
Last year, we added a tradition the kids love: picking different recipes/menus for each night of the week. Eric and his daughter came from an eat-out/no-leftovers household, so we had to do something to make eating at home more fun, and this has worked great. Now, ours being a Pamelot-household, we choose from Cooking Light, but we trust the kids get plenty of junk food the other 23 hours of the day.
By far our favorite family tradition is Swami. Swami is an elaborate game of wagering — for pride only — on football games. Eric derived the game of Swami as a young engineer; he played it with his co-workers (and still does). We put Swami in place at home during our first fall as a five-some. Talk about cutthroat! Starting in pre-season and running through the Super Bowl, we plot, strategize, and trash talk college and pro football, incessantly. We love it! Our youngest has shown an uncanny ability to pick games, but this year Pamelot/Momela took it to the house and earned the Swami title for next season. Yeah, baby.
Now I can’t pretend all goes perfectly in Brady-land. For instance, one heartbreak we face is that Eric does not get any holidays with his kids. Since he gets his youngest daughter nearly full time, holidays are with her mother, and his older two kids follow suit. This makes it harder to establish traditions around the holidays, although we do celebrate together, albeit early.
His daughter spends most of the summer with her mom, too, so there are no more family vacations of any length. We make do by cramming in three day weekends when we can, and the big favorites are trips to DeLeon, TX to my parents’ small ranch and to Angel Fire, NM to their mountain cabin (Maine would be a bigger draw if it were accessible). There just never seems to be enough time to relax together, though. Sports — mostly swim meets — dominate school year weekends, so we rarely find the chance to leave town.
But that’s all about what has been born anew in our new blended family. What “survived” the transitions? Going to the cabin in Maine was a continuation of a Hutchins’ house custom , and one we hope to keep alive for generations. My kids have kept-up their lifelong tradition of the DeLeon Peach and Melon Festival, although occasionally with a Hutchins kid or two thrown in. Eric still makes the disgusting half-baked pancakes and waffles that his daughters have always loved, and none of the rest of us can stand.
Sometimes the traditions of one family of origin bump into the traditions of the other with a loud crash. The most dramatic culture clash we have experienced involved Christmas Cards. In my birth family — and in all of the South, in my experience — sending holiday cards is a BIG DEAL. You start planning for the perfect photo for next Christmas on December 26th, you struggle to write an obnoxious family letter that is only one page (and usually give up and write 3-4 pages), and your mailing list is the size of the yellow pages. When the holiday season arrives, the best moment of each day is when the mail comes and you get to dive into the day’s offerings of cards! letters! photos! You display them all over the house — sometimes on special arts and crafts card thingymabobbies. You read them over, and over, and over. Even if you don’t talk to these people all year and your only remaining contact is the cards, you hang on every word of the letters and read them aloud to your spouse and kids.
That’s my family. Not my husband’s. And his older kids did not get it at all. They thought that participation in a family holiday photo with their father would hurt their mother’s feelings; and the last thing we want to do is ever make any of the kids feel they are having to choose between the feelings of one parent over another. Eric’s youngest did not mind, though — anything that entailed a picture with her in it was bound to be awesome.
Anyway, I developed a family culture blending rule. Most things aren’t important enough to battle over. But Christmas Cards Are! I wouldn’t include a picture of anyone that didn’t want to be in it, but I would not stop doing photos for cards or pretend that my family did not now include more wonderful people in it than it had before. We adopted a “living in the household” photo for the cards, and this has been an acceptable compromise.
If you had asked me at the age of 22 whether I wanted a failed first marriage and the responsibility for blending a family in my final marriage, I would have cringed and said, “Not just no but hell no!” But I would not trade any of our five kids, beautiful and perfect in part because of who their parents are, nor would I trade the opportunity to have them all in my life. And I certainly would not have wanted to miss out on this incredible journey that Eric and I have traveled together, blending the worlds and traditions of these young people until that wonderful moment when you hear all of them fighting and yelling at each other, without respect to who is related to whom, and you say to each other, “Ah, at last, we’ve done it. Everything is just perfect.”
“Now quit yelling at your step-sister, and stay on your own side of the back seat.”
All my best,