We’re all in this tepee together

Navigating a blended family’s world


Laura Distler


Oprah touches on it. Dr. Phil offers his advice. Even Sharon and Ozzy speak out. It seems that everyone has an opinion on how to incorporate blended families and, as a member of this growing faction, I welcome their step-by-step instructions.

Although the experts provide a good foundation, much of the well-intended advice has little practical use. Experience has taught me that issues of discipline and bonding have their place, but it’s the small stuff that rocks our blended world.

Last names are a huge issue for blended families. Yours, Mine and Ours may have worked for Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda, but my daughter doesn’t like the sound of “Eva Mine.” Different last names within the same family cause confusion, bewilderment and panic. I think Cher and Madonna may be on to something. I rarely call my kids by their correct first name and getting the last name is a major accomplishment. Expecting a new acquaintance to remember all the parties’ first and last names, along with the corresponding “why,” feels more like a geography test than an introduction.

In a blended family, the skill to master is the ability to respond to a variety of names. Personally, I have learned to answer to, within reason, just about anything thrown my way. This, however, results in the occasional awkward moment when a caller, after quite a bit of chitchat about my day, realizes he has dialed the wrong number.

Filling out insurance forms, school registrations and miscellaneous paperwork can be a nightmare for a typical family. For the blended family, it is a full-time job.

Our doctor’s office still files a child’s records under the head-of-household name, secretly meaning the child’s father. I feel strongly that medical records should be filed under the name of the person most likely to drag a vomiting child into the doctor’s office, but that’s a topic for another day.

I once had a conversation with an admitting nurse regarding my stepson’s admission to the hospital, and it sounded like a “Who’s on First” skit. While I would not normally get into my family lineage, I do come clean when money is involved. Trying to explain to this woman why the child had a different last name than his insurance-carrier mother, but the same last name as me, was like trying to explain Newton’s theory to my golden retriever, Max (no last name.)

The potential for an extremely large, extended family exists the moment you divorce.

My fourth-grader is studying Native American history. She recently informed me that Native American families lived together in one tent—the entire family. She determined that my husband and I would live in her tepee, along with her two brothers and two sisters.

She then continued that her father (my ex), his new wife and her two sons would also reside there. Then, of course, that group would include her stepmother’s ex-husband and his girlfriend.

She thoughtfully wondered if she should ask my husband’s ex-wife, her new husband and young son to stay as well. After a terrifying visual, I calmly explained to her that this was why Indians did not divorce.

On the first day of middle school, I sought out the school’s social worker. I explained that my son would appear perfectly fine, but that anyone with two sets of parents, two siblings, three stepbrothers, one half-sister, six grandmothers and 15 grandfathers deserved to be monitored.

When it comes to the blended family, every expert dwells on maintaining consistency and routine. This theoretically lofty goal is practically impossible, so I don’t even try.

There is a reason my ex and I are divorced. Sitting down and mutually agreeing on issues such as curfew, homework and friends has a high probability of looking like an episode of Jerry Springer. I have learned to stop fighting this uphill battle.

In those situations when the kids are under the watchful eye of their father, I pretend that they have been shipped off to a remote, unknown location where I have no input or control—like the traveling soccer team or as if they were a contestant on “Survivor.”

The stepparenting experts are no different from “traditional” parenting experts. Suggesting that divorced individuals agree on all child-raising issues is about as likely as the seven of us playing a board game after dinner.

But maybe it is the experts’ job to suggest the unattainable, the impossible or the “not-in-my-lifetime” goals. While it is my job to reflect on those that are remotely achievable.

Otherwise, the real challenge will be to recover all the hours spent attempting to accomplish impossible feats. I don’t have that kind of time—I need to vacuum the tepee.  

A mother to four and stepmother to one, Laura Distler lives in Hinsdale and writes between soccer games and teacher conferences. Inspired by the daily antics of five children and a severely overweight dog, she writes a weekly column for Pioneer Press, although her biggest stress continues to be the production of the elementary school newsletter. Contact her at [email protected]


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