The term ‘patchwork family’ has gained some currency for a family in which at least one parent brings a child from a previous relationship. As might be expected, putting the patchwork successfully together can sometimes prove a delicate process.
Give yourselves time
“Everybody loves the idea of a normal, perfect family,” says Becker, “but it takes considerable time and a big dose of sensitivity before two families can grow together.” Many couples are somewhat overoptimistic in the early stages, but it is not advisable to put everyone under pressure to be ‘normal’ and happy. Naomi (31) chose her moment carefully before introducing her two children to Tom (37), the new man in her life. “I wanted to be sure that he and I were really serious about each other. I was pretty nervous about how the children would react to him.” Women in particular tend to feel guilty if, when they start a new relationship, they can’t be available to their children 24/7. Natasha Becker reminds them that “You have a right to a lovelife - and in the longer term your children will benefit from growing up in the context of a happy and stable relationship”.
To start with, Naomi’s children were somewhat sceptical, comparing Tom with their real father and taking a confrontational stance. This distressed Naomi, as might be expected, but their jealousy and anxiety were typical manifestations of a child’s fear of losing its mother to her new partner. “It’s important to discuss things with you children,” advises Natasha Becker, “and to keep up the conversation. Explain to them - in appropriate words – that a grown-up person needs a grown-up partner if they’re going to be really happy, that this new partner will satisfy needs that are not within a child’s frame of reference. At the same time, constantly make clear to the children that you love and appreciate them just as much as ever.”
Naomi made sure to show lots of affection and understanding for her children, praising and cuddling them at every opportunity - not least when Tom was around. Tom gave himself time to get used to things too. “It wasn’t easy, he says. “I wanted to show the kids that I was interested in them as people, but I didn’t want to overdo it. It was also important to show them that I wasn’t going to take their mother away from them.” He spent a lot of time with Naomi and the children, first altogether and then with the children on their own, helping Naomi’s daughter with her maths homework and taking her son to football. Gradually, they all got used to each other, built a relationship and came to love each other.
Things don’t always run so smoothly for new families. Often, the new stepmother or stepfather has problems with the children: they don’t share a past; the absent father or mother can become an object of (often subconscious) jealousy, and they can perhaps never love the children as their own. Natasha Becker’s advice is not to try and be better than the children’s own mother or father. Often, someone coming from a failed relationship makes the mistake of trying to do everything perfectly this time round, and that just isn’t realistic.
If both partners bring children to the new relationship, the situation can be even more delicate. The teething troubles can be serious, but it’s worth making a special effort to see things through. Children from a patchwork family often grow up with greater emotional intelligence and are more ready to make reasonable compromises. Of course, each situation is different, but Natasha Becker reminds us that it is perfectly normal to make mistakes and not to react exactly as one ought. A conventional family is hardly friction-free, so it can only be expected that a patchwork family should take time to gel. “It can take years,” says Becker, “but if the adults’ relationship is stable and harmonious, and everyone tries to be understanding of the other people in the family, then the outlook is positive.”