Because Mike and I were widowed, not divorced, we thought we'd found the easy button for blending families: no joint-custody or child-support hassles. And two of Mike's kids were grown. His youngest, Alex, was a senior in high school, so he was the only one who'd be living with us, along with my two children.
We were a little surprised, and a lot disappointed, when Alex became a consistent no-show at the house, even for dinner. He'd go from school to his part-time job and often end the day at his grandparents'.
It wasn't until his grandfather told us that it was hard for Alex to watch his dad spend time with me and my children, Tanner and Katy, that we realized why Alex had been distant. In Mike's effort to build a strong relationship with his stepchildren, he had sent an unintentional message to his son.
Alex had told his grandfather that his dad spent more time with Tanner than he did with him. So Mike asked Alex about it. "It's true," Alex said. "You and Tanner do stuff together. It seems like that's all you talk about."
"I'm sorry you feel left out," Mike told Alex. "I have been spending a lot of time with Tanner and Katy, but that's because they're here. They come in after school and hang out; we're all home for dinner. I'd love to spend more time with you, but you're not around."
Then Alex opened up. "Dad, it's hard for me to see you with Cyndi. It's not that I don't like her. I do. But when I see you together, I can't help but think of Mom. I stay away because it's so painful."
Mike and I had been clueless. We'd assumed Alex's behavior had changed because he was a senior — spreading his wings and just needing some space. We didn't realize the depth of Alex's pain or how our marriage and the shift in family dynamics had affected him.
The conversation between Alex and his dad opened the door for honest communication. From then on, Mike and I were more sensitive to Alex's feelings. I made a bigger effort to let him know he was welcome and wanted in our home. Eventually he came around — joining us for dinner, bringing his friends over and even going on a family vacation with us.
After that first year of adjustment, Alex left for college. Because he was nearby, he'd bring friends home on weekends. I believe our hospitality toward them further helped Alex recognize our desire to strengthen lasting family relationships.
Mike and his college-age daughter, Lizzie, had a heart-to-heart conversation that led them to attend counseling together. Like Alex, Lizzie had difficulty accepting her father's relationship with someone other than her mom. She also missed spending time with her dad, so Mike made a commitment to have father-daughter date nights with her.
Today, some 10 years later, our family relationships are stronger than ever. Blending a family may not be as easy as pushing a button, but it's definitely worth the effort.