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Smart Stepfamilies

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by Kevin Lay


A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your

step as you walk the tightrope of life.  William Arthur Ward



   “Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could find a way to put my dad and your mom together?”  The creation of our stepfamily was initially the brainchild of two very enterprising young ladies who happen to be our daughters, Brooke and Katie.  As soccer teammates in the late spring of 1998, they put their heads together to devise the scheme of the century, the formulation of a modern Brady Bunch arrangement.  The plan started out innocently enough as cupid’s little helpers made the brilliant connection that would alter our lives immeasurably.  As only a pair of budding young romantics could do, they conspired to put their parents together and really make the sparks fly!


   Their plan worked like a charm.  After a brief and somewhat awkward introduction, Susan and I found that we hit it off quite well.  We soon discovered an additional value of summer soccer.  I was immediately taken by her beauty, wit and charm.  Also encouraging was the fact that she was divorced (as was I) and had two kids (as do I).  Though we were faithful soccer parents up to that point, it seemed as if there was an extra “spring in our steps” as we attended soccer events as the summer rolled on.


   The summer was fading fast and the soccer season even faster.  My opportunity for moving past the pleasant conversation and venturing out into the great unknown of potential courtship was quickly dissolving.  With but a few moments remaining at the end of the final game of the season I took a huge risk and asked Katie’s mom for a date … and to my delight, the answer was yes!


   We announced our engagement after the next soccer season.  Our wedding was in late September of 2000 and started off with great anticipation that we would consistently fill our home with love, hope and joy.  After all, isn’t it supposed to be easier the second time around, having matured and learned from previous mistakes?  Isn’t love supposed to be enough to carry the stepfamily members through the obstacles that will be faced?  Shouldn’t a strong faith in God protect us from reliving the pain of our previously unsuccessful marriages?  We thought we were prepared for our future as a blended family, but we had no way of preparing ourselves for what would soon become a daily walk along a tightrope!


   As the girls had envisioned, there “were” plenty of sparks and electricity as we adjusted to our new life together.  To our surprise, however, the twinkling fireflies frequently evolved into stinging firebombs aimed squarely at the heart of the relationship.  Seemingly, each struggle threatened to upset the equilibrium and balance of our new stepfamily.


   For us, combining two physical households, incomes, extended families and friends was much easier than navigating the emotions in our new stepfamily.  In addition to the pre-teen soccer players, Susan’s six-year-old daughter Michelle and my fourteen-year-old son, Mitchell rounded out our new family.  The growing pains we experienced included frequent emotional upheaval, a sort of “jockeying for position,” as roles were established and a pecking order within the new family structure evolved.  Favoritism issues developed as we tried to parent in tandem, with each of us bringing our own sets of beliefs, value systems and family rituals into the relationship. 


   Thankfully maturity, familiarity and God’s grace have led us to new levels of joy as we edge deeper into our sixth year together.  In our stepfamily, in addition to love, applying generous portions of grace, forgiveness and selflessness have really made a big difference in our ability to maintain a sense of balance in our lives. 


   There can be a fine line to walk to maintain balance and perspective, and I liken the analogy between daily interactions within stepfamily to that of a person walking a tightrope.  Imagine the trepidation of carefully placing one foot in front of the other, trying to keep proper perspective of the danger below while maintaining the balance to remain steadily on the oftentimes-difficult road that lies just ahead.  As we navigate our way through life in a stepfamily, there are often obstacles to each side.  To add balance, we have found laughter to be an incredibly steadying force for stepfamily members trying to press on while walking that tightrope.     


   Though seemingly insignificant, small acts of humor; teasing and just plain silliness between family members can make a powerful difference in keeping the atmosphere enjoyable.  It’s amazing how quickly a smile or laughter can turn around a volatile situation or change another’s perspective.  I’m not suggesting that the household becomes a three-ring circus or a series of stand-up comedy acts.  I am suggesting, however, that laughter and humor, delivered at well-timed moments, can bring stepfamily members together in ways that might not have been possible otherwise. 


   It is certainly no secret around our household that I have a somewhat active and imaginative sense of humor.  In fact, some might even suggest that this sense of humor might actually be more appropriately considered humor-less, at times.  Of our four kids, my stepdaughter Katie oftentimes seems to share a similar sense of inspiration and appreciate these attempts at lightheartedness.  For example, recently, while traveling home from work, I observed a sign that said, simply, “FOR SALE - LAB PUPPIES”.  Now, a majority of the population would observe this sign to mean that someone is selling Labrador puppies of some color, shape or size.  My mind, however, immediately gravitated to a very different scenario: I imagined a mad scientist-type, clad in a white lab coat, in his lab tampering with genetic codes while trying to create some kind of “super canine” with which he might use to implement plans to conquer the world, or at the very least, dominate dog show competitions.  


   Armed with this inventive interpretation, I continued homeward to share these details with the family around the dinner table.  This sort of enlightenment is typically met with groans, hisses and chuckles by most of the family members.  Katie, however, shares my sense (or lack thereof) of humor, and would immediately laugh with loud approval.  Mission accomplished!  Though this seemingly insignificant interchange doesn’t resolve the so-called “global issues” we face as a society, in a stepfamily atmosphere, the smiles (or groans) resulting from this kind of scenario can speak volumes as a tension-breaker and can help “rebalance” many of the daily stressors that might be brewing within the family.


   Another load lightener that has worked well for our stepfamily occurs when we take advantage of opportunities to look at our circumstances and thus, our own inadequacies in a less serious light.  Recently, an incident occurred in which Susan accidentally backed her car out of the driveway and bumped another car parked behind.  Susan took the incident in stride, thereby lessening the severity of the mistake with a humble smile.  The expression on Michelle’s face spoke volumes as to the relief she must have felt to realize that “Mom really hit a parked car … and she’s not mad.  Wow, she’s human after all!” 


   This incident proved to be an excellent example to our children that we are all human and mistakes should be taken as learning, rather than condemnation, experiences.  The fact that we were able to laugh about the incident afterward really helped the kids to understand that people and relationships are much more important than material possessions.  Once again, the delicate balance within our family was maintained or restored by a smile and a healthy attitude.   


   Today’s stepfamilies face many issues that can limit joy and happiness, and thus, affect the equilibrium of daily life.  In our experience, love and laughter represent the equalizing weights at each end of the pole that we use to balance our own version of the daily tightrope walk.  A well-developed sense of humor cannot alone guarantee the success of a stepfamily, but its proper use has helped us keep a sense of balance that has kept us from falling, so far.



Kevin Lay lives in Lakeville, Minnesota.


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