by Laura Friend
Family Life Educators, Claudia and David Arp, describe blended families as “patchwork” families. The analogy is apropos.
My husband’s grandmother, Anna Laura Tuttle Friend, lived to be 101 years old. Amidst the challenges of raising a large family during the depression and subsequent World War II, Anna learned to quilt by hand and made around 50 patchwork quilts. When I look at each quilt from a distance I see a complete quilt. However, if I look closely I can see flaws – an uneven stitch here and there, patching together sometimes unmatched pieces. But the time and love invested in hand stitching thousands of stitches per quilt makes them priceless to us.
The first stitch in my patchwork family was made when my husband and I were married over 17 years ago and I became an instant mom to two beautiful girls, ages five and two. Each visit with the girls (their mother had custody of them) added a new stitch – during those early happy times the stitches were fairly even and close together. As time marched on the novelty of our new patchwork family began to wear off. The older the girls got it seemed the more difficult it became to create even, careful, and close stitches. When our four other children were born new patterns and new stitches were made. During these years the stitches were sometimes uneven, awkward, far apart, and loosely stitched. There were times I was ready to give up and walk away. But I was determined to help our family succeed. And what I have experienced parallels the uneven stitching and priceless beauty of Grandma Friend’s patchwork quilts.
First, patchwork families are at a disadvantage to start with. According to the Pew Research Center, one in six children live in a blended family in the United States today. The statistics for the break ups of blended families are disheartening, with more than 60% of remarriages ending in divorce. Many who have been married twice before will enter into a third marriage.
Given the high rate of remarriage amongst first-time divorcees and the even higher rate of remarriages ending in divorce, many families are patchwork families. Yet, it has been difficult for the law to keep up with the legal needs and issues that arise in these families. As Marjorie Engle has said, “We’ve put ‘family values,’ first marriage, and absentee fathers high on our list of priorities but stepfamilies aren’t on the radar screen.” Family policies largely center around traditional family forms making it hard to define, understand and protect the legal rights of step-families.
A friend of mine found this out the hard way when she tried to protect her stepdaughters from their mother who was seeking to disprove their claims that their stepdad had molested them. She actively sought information to use against her girls in court (he had been indicted on six counts of child sex abuse), including obtaining their medical records. My friend called the girls’ pediatrician and asked them not to allow their mother access to their records, explaining why. However, she was stunned when the medical assistant told her that a biological mother would always be allowed to access their child’s records, even if she wasn’t the custodial parent. My friend was enraged. Since the law heavily favors biological parents and sees no legal relationship between stepparents and stepchildren, my friend’s request was ignored.
Second, patchwork families face unique relationship challenges. Stepparents aren’t often embraced and accepted by their stepchildren, at least not in the beginning. A child may feel threatened by a new stepparent and try to compete with them for the time and attention of their biological parent. When other stepsiblings are involved contentions can arise due to jealousy of split parental affections, and just old fashioned sibling rivalry. Many patchwork families deal with problems between ex-spouses, with the children bearing the brunt of those struggles. Perhaps one of the biggest struggles a patchwork family faces occurs when a stepparent tries to discipline a stepchild. That always got the sparks flying in our home and those resulting stitches in our patchwork family quilt were wild and easily came undone.
Despite the disadvantages patchwork family members face, there are things a patchwork family can do to create a beautiful, tightknit, family quilt. They include:
- Take time to enrich the relationship with your new spouse – keep the marriage healthy.
- Be especially sensitive to the ages and stages of the children involved in your remarriage. Younger children tend to be more accepting of a new family system and older teens also tend to fair better. However, children between ages 10-14 tend to struggle the most.
- Agree together that biological parents discipline their children – don’t try to discipline as a stepparent until the child accepts you as a parental figure. Even then, be cautious.
- Decide as a family what the household rules and expectations will be. Allow children to have a say.
- Work diligently to minimize contentious arguments with ex-spouses in front of your children.
- Finally, I have found that forgiveness and choosing to love, again and again and again is the key to building a unified whole. Forgiveness is the seam ripper that takes out those ill-placed stitches. Love is the needle and thread that re-creates those stitches in a more beautiful, secure, and even way.
Careful Seams – Loving by Choice
Despite the challenges our family has faced over the last 17 years, I now have enough distance to see our quilt from a broader perspective. It is vibrant, unique, and full of character. The stitches are uneven in some places and beautiful and close together in others. Some stitches have had to be taken out and re-stitched to strengthen the pieces and hold the quilt together. But, overall, our patchwork family quilt is the most beautiful creation I have been a part of. It is a work in progress and a witness of what happens when everyone pitches in and works to create a unified whole.
Many other patchwork families are also persistently working on creating their own beautiful patchwork quilts. If they persevere and don’t give up, they can demonstrate just what happens when family members choose to love one another when it isn’t required of them. They choose to add their own careful, awkward, uneven, perfect, wild, sporadic, lovely stitches one at a time as they work together to make the family a success. They are the essence of loving by birth and by choice.