In this interview, Professor E. Jeffrey Hill dives into the topic of blended families – a topic he knows a lot about. A professor of Family Life by trade, Jeff Hill shares his life experience of dealing with the death of his wife, remarrying, and blending two families together. Our favorite tips from this interview include having realistic expectations, making-out in the mud-room, and remembering that blending families is never comfortable, but worth it.
Q. What is your background story?
My wife had died of cancer, and I was a single dad for about a year before I met Tammy. The way Tammy and I met was pretty cool. An article I had written about principles and values that shape marriages and families was published in April 2006. Tammy was a widow. Her husband, Mark, had been a basketball coach at a high school and just unexpectedly died of a heart attack. Tammy’s routine, as a single mom of four children, was to put the kids to bed, get in the Jacuzzi tub with a handful of chocolate chips and read from this magazine. That night she read my article and thought it was a fine article.
During the night she was awakened several times with a thought to send a comment to the editor of the magazine, thanking him for that insightful article. She dismissed that thought but in the morning, it kept coming back. Finally, around noon she sent a comment to the editor. The editor at the magazine knew I was having a tough time and he thought that email would brighten my day. So he forwarded it to me about seven minutes after she sent it. I was having a particularly bad day that day, and the comment did lift my spirits. I figured out how to contact her back to thank her for the comment. Tammy and I emailed back and forth a few times and then we talked on the phone. Then we went out, and then we got engaged, and then we got married. And now we are blending a family with twelve children.
At the time we got married, there were four children married and there were eight children plus a nephew living at home. I really got the best end of the deal, because I went from being a single dad working full time with six children at home, and she went from being a stay-at-home mom with three children at home to then having nine children at home. It was a big adjustment.
Q. Starting out, was it a worry how the families were going to blend together in the same house?
I’m a professor. I know stuff like this. And it’s not comforting to know that what makes blending hard is having children from the two different families living in the same home, and then having that many children coming together! Our demographic has about an 80% divorce rate. The chances of us making it, the odds were about 1 in 5, because there were so many children from each marriage – together. So, yeah, we had real serious problems. Tammy and I both recognized that. We were not just getting married for us, but we were getting married for our families.
So, after we knew we wanted to be married, then we introduced each other to our families. We knew those introductions would be a show-stopper if it wasn’t going to work. For my family, I took Tammy with me and my kids on a backpacking trip. She was really worried about that – she thought it was going to be Parent Trap 2!
It actually ended up quite well. She slept in a tent with my daughters and I slept with my sons in another tent. I could hear them talking. I couldn’t understand what they were saying and it drove me crazy. I took an Ambien and six hours later I woke up and they were still talking. They had talked all night! It appeared that it was going to work from that end. And then the next week she took me with her and her kids on a trip, and it kind of worked out. So then we decided to get married.
Q. How did the kids adjust after you were married and had moved in together?
That is a very complicated question. The married children didn’t live with us, and more easily accepted it. Tammy’s youngest daughter had never really known her father, and had always wanted a dad, so she was okay with it. The ones that had the hardest time were the teenagers, particularly my teenage daughters. So that was a really tough adjustment. I’m a very easy-going guy, and teenagers kind of like it when they have total freedom. And with me, they kind of had total freedom – along with taking on the role of mother with the younger kids. When Tammy came in, boy, there was some conflict there because of that. All of a sudden there was more structure, there were more rules, and they couldn’t just do what they wanted to anymore. There was a difficult adjustment period.
Q. If you were talking to other couples who are blending families due to divorce or widowhood, what specific suggestions can make that transition a little easier?
The very first thing is to have realistic expectations. If you do a really, really good job blending your family, after about four years it will start feeling like a first family. If you don’t get divorced and you make it to seven years, most families feel like a first family. That is just the reality of it.
Another key factor is that whenever there is a blended family, there has been incredible loss. If there has been a death, there’s grief. If there has been a divorce, there’s bitterness and guilt. Those are all very powerful emotions that tend to be transferred to the incoming family – to the stepfamily. A step-child might yell at you and say, “I hate you! You’re not my Dad!” As a step-parent you have to realize that’s not about you. It’s about grief, or loss, or something else. You have to be big enough to not take it personally. And that is a challenge. Just realize that it is normal and it is a period of time before step-children feel you’re a friend. Your objective should not be to be a parent to your step-children, especially initially. It should be to be someone they can count on, someone who is a friend, and so forth. And just take time.
I always say, T.T.T. = Things Take Time. And life is hard, but you can do hard things. When life doesn’t go as planned, don’t get frustrated, make the best of it. That’s what you’ve got to do when you’re blending families.
Q. How long have you and Tammy been married?
Q. You said the success rate is low. You’ve made it through those first seven years, now that you are over the hump, what is it like now?
There is a great reward in knowing that you can love a whole different set of people. I didn’t really realize how much the biological really connects you with people. For example, being a father-figure to children that I didn’t father, it’s a lot more difficult. But when it works, there are just these moments that are so satisfying.
There are some real benefits to the kids in the fact that they have had the opportunity to have extra parents. Most kids just get two, but our children all get to have three. And you learn something fundamental from each parent, so the fact that they have had three, that is an extra benefit.
I actually feel like I have had two different lives. In the groove of a life you don’t appreciate it because it becomes more routine. My life is very different now than it was ten years ago. It is really, very different. It is like the difference between day and day. Not night and day. The difference between two days. Both really wonderful – really wonderful lives.
Part 2 – Adjustment is here.
This interview is taken from Nurturing Marriage.