Bonus Families | Co-parenting Advice For Divorced Parents And Stepfamilies
Bonus Families, as an organization was founded in 1999, but the ground work was laid years before. The founder, Dr. Jann Blackstone, a divorce and stepfamily mediator, had weathered the ups and downs of co-parenting children after divorce for ten years before she felt qualified to form an organization to help others.
I publish this every year out of respect for my daughter, and for her father…
January 20, 2016
Today is my daughter’s father’s birthday. He passed away a few days ago after a courageous fight with cancer and I would like to dedicate this article to him.
For all of you who think that “experts” have the answers to all the problems, we don’t. Of course I’ve had a lot of education and work with divorced parents every day, but most of the advice I give and what I have found really works comes from living it and my daughter’s father has been a huge influence in all that I have learned.
I rarely write about him. There are a few articles on this website about our struggles, but most of the articles I write are about my life after remarriage and how we struggled to combine our families. That family, what I call my bonusfamily, where my daughter had siblings, both bio and bonus, was loud and crazy and kid-centered.
My daughter had a different kind of life with her dad. Being that she was his only child, her life with him was much quieter, much more reserved, and it wasn’t until she was older that she really jelled with that side of the family. As an adult she developed an incredibly close relationship with both her dad and her bonusmom, so much so that there were many times I had to secretly admit there were aspects of her personality that really fit-in better over there than with the chaotic craziness we called home. My daughter’s back and forth life was at the root of my learning not to compare, not to put my child in the position of having to choose which home she liked best, and not to panic when she and her bonusmom planned special things like a trip to NY, just the two of them. It also taught me how important communication was, because for years her dad and I were very poor communicators. When we began to communicate better, our daughter’s life became better.
We always think our life with our children is their life. Our house is where they really want to be, but children of divorce have two homes and watching my child go to her father’s taught me to understand that it’s not me or her dad, but me and her dad. She was a product of both of us. She was not my daughter visiting her dad. She had a full life with him and her bonusmom—family friends, favorite foods, favorite things to do, her own room, family jokes, and memories that had nothing to do with me.
This was never more apparent than when my daughter’s dad took a turn for the worse. She flew in from Arizona to spend his last days with him and to help her bonusmom prepare for the inevitable. It was difficult to hear her so sad on the phone and not be able to put my arms around her to comfort her. I had never been in that position and I didn’t know exactly how to handle it, but it was evident that she wanted to be there for her dad and her bonusmom. It was their life together that was ending and I had no place in it.
Once again, this bonusfamilies life has taught me yet another lesson. When our children go back and forth between parents they develop relationships with their other parent and bonusparent that we think we understand, but we may not–and it really doesn’t matter. It’s not for us to do anything other than be grateful that they have other people in their life that truly love them. My daughter and her bonusmom are experiencing something together that’s theirs alone. And, at this point, now that my daughter’s dad has passed on, I’m grateful she has someone who was also witness to her dad’s life as she experienced life with him. That is a blessing.
My daughter’s father was a good man and a wonderful father. There were times, of course, like all divorced parents, that I wondered what made him tick, why he was responding the way he was or why he was being so cantankerous for what seemed to be cantankerous sake, but there was never a day, never even a minute that I was not grateful that he was her dad.
And with that, let me say, “Rest in peace, Michael, and thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Dr. Jann Blackstone specializes in child custody, divorce, and stepfamily mediation. She is also the founder of Bonus Families, 501 c3 non-profit organization dedicated to peaceful coexistence between divorced or separated parents and their combined families.
Q. I recently got divorced and my ex-wife has primary custody of our three children. I remarried a woman that has sole custody of her three children. Living with the three stepchildren has been a difficult transition because I see them far more than my own kids. My kids do come over every other weekend and my wife has her children on the same schedule so we can blend the children together. My problem is that my wife wants to go on a vacation with me and her children and we have a vacation planned for this Summer, but I’m having a hard time going on a vacation and not inviting my biological kids. It feels like favortism–like I’m choosing her kids over mine. My wife tells me that there are differences between her kids at our house and my kids at my ex wife’s house. I’m not sure I agree. My thoughts are there’s no favoritism in bonusfamilies.
A. You’re right. Favortism is the bain of bonusfamilies–and you guys are in serious trouble. Unfortunately, you may not see that you’re setting yourself up for failure, so let me explain to both you and your wife why taking only her children on a vacation may be a mistake:
First, there’s a fine art to combining families. The fact that your wife thinks that ” there are differences between the kids at our house and my kids at my ex-wife’s house” is concerning. It’s sounds like she’s basing things on where the kids live most of the time–and that is a dangerous mistake to make. This implies she perceives your kids as merely visiting, but their “real” home is with their mother–just as she perceives her kids’ “real” home is with her. That kind of attitude promotes favoritism, resentment, and jealousy— and there you are right in the middle wondering why your children reject you. (May not be happening now, but I predict it will if you continue like this) After a while your kids won’t want to visit–and you’re thinking, “Why? What have I done?” You treated them like “step” children.
I rarely use the word “blend.” Reason being, when you blend something you lose the individual components, and an important part of making a stepfamily a bonusfamily is to acknowledge each members individuality and history. Something else–you’re not only a bonusfamily when the kids are around. “Bonus” is a state of mind. It’s up to you and your wife to make those kids feel welcome and included 365 days a year, not just the 4 days a month they reside with you. Bottom line, you’re planning a family vacation with only half the family and your kids could very easily perceive that as favoritism. They may see all this as your wife’s doing and resent her and her kids for taking away their father. Plus, you don’t want your memories of your kids growing up to stop with your divorce.
I can offer a story from my own life: We had tickets to go to an A’s game and my daughter, my husband and I were on our way when we ran into my bonusdaughter on her bike on her way to visit us. She asked where we were going and we said, “An A’s game.” You should have seen her face. We explained we didn’t ask her because she was at her mom’s that week. It made no difference to her where she was sleeping. She was hurt she wasn’t included. We never did that again.
Getting all the kids on the same schedule is great, but it doesn’t give your kids one-on-one time with just you. I suggest you check with your ex to add a dinner visit each week that gives you some alone time with your kids. If you live too far away for that–set a Skype date every week and stick to it. Anything to let them know you think of them more than just when they are with you. It’s up to you to create the family you want. It doesn’t just happen.
Finally, taking only mom’s kids on a vacation may be cheaper now, but it could be a very expensive decision down the road.
Q. I have been married to my husband, Jerry, for a year. He was previously married and has a son, Jay, who will be seven in a week. His mother is having a birthday party, and, of course, asked his father, but asked that I not attend. That’s fine, we don’t have much of a relationship, anyway, but my husband has refused to attend his son’s party unless I go. It’s not that big of deal to me. I don’t have to go, but my husband is making some sort of statement. What should I do? How do I put the 10 rules of good ex-etiquette into practice with this one?
A. My answer depends on a couple of things. First, if you were seeing your husband while he was still married to his first wife, that’s a problem. All moral judgments aside, when you start a relationship like that, it’s will be very difficult for both the kids and the ex-wife to accept you. Of course, it’s possible some where down the road, but highly unlikely after only a year. If this is what happened, your husband’s demand that you attend is out of line. It’s only been a year and his son may not be ready to see Daddy with another woman, especially if he understands that his father’s actions caused his mother pain.
If this is not the situation and its just a case of the first wife not liking the second wife, that’s a different story and the situation may be a good opportunity to begin better communication with your bonus son’s mother.This is where many say, “Are you kidding me? Better communication with my husband’s ex?” When the kids go back and forth between homes, all parents, bio and bonus, must strive for a positive working relationship so that they can raise healthy kids together. It doesn’t matter who reaches for the “hand across the water” first. Somebody has to do it. This time it can be you. It’s an excellent time to look to the 10 Rules of Good Ex-etiquette for Parents for guidance. I’ll note the rule as we go along.
Start by initiating a phone call, not email or a text. Too much can be misconstrued when someone is trying to interpret the written word. That’s why “smilies” or “emicons” were invented–to clarify a feeling when the written word doesn’t quite cut it. In a calm voice, try something like, “I know you don’t feel comfortable when I am around, (Ex-etiquette for parents rule #7, “Use empathy when problem solving) and I am sorry, but Jerry is asking me to go. I would just stay home because I do not want anyone to feel uncomfortable, but Jerry is rather adamant about this and I feel I have to support him.” Go on with more like, “Plus, your son is a wonderful boy and I enjoy his company. If you honestly feel it will make Jay uncomfortable if I attend, then I will talk to Jerry and explain why you don’t feel I should be there, but right now I’m sort of stuck in the middle of the two of you. I hope you understand it is not my intention to upset anyone” (Ex-etiquette for Parents rule #8, “Be honest and straight forward”). Perhaps even pose the question, “Isn’t there a way we can work this out so your son has the great 7th birthday party he really deserves?” (Good Ex-etiquette for Parents rule #1, Put the children first” and #2, “Ask for help if you need it.”)
Here’s another tip: So much of the way we communicate is unspoken. People read between the lines and get the wrong impression not necessarily from what is said, but also from what is not said. When talking to your husband’s ex-wife, I would suggest you not refer to Jerry as “my husband.” Until you can communicate easily, call him ‘Jerry’. Saying something like, “But my husband wants me to go” is just rubbing salt in the wound. (#5, “Don’t be spiteful.”) That is not the goal. You’re looking for ways to heal this situation in the best interest of the child.
I’m often asked about gift giving at this time of year, in particular, shopping for gifts for people you probably don’t want to deal with—in my case, it was my husband’s ex. Contrary to what I advise other co-parents, my kids’ dad and I moved very quickly when we decided to move in together. (That’s the reason I always say to go slow at the beginning when there are kids in the mix—I saw firsthand the damage it can do if you move too quickly.) He had two kids, I had one, and we later added one of “ours.”
I started this Bonus Family experiment a long time ago–in 1989. My kids’ dad explained he had joint custody, but I thought that meant joint custody like I had joint custody—every other weekend and I rarely spoke to my children’s father. I soon came to see that his idea of joint custody was not standard–at least in those days. The kids went back and forth every other week and his ex was always around. We were not crazy about each other—she still had a key to my house and used it and I was bathing her kids. After watching the kids’ reaction each time we were in the same vicinity, she and I decided we had to at least act cordial for their sake–but it took years, mainly because we didn’t know better. We, like so many others, were attempting a joint custody co-parenting parenting plan with an old fashion attitude about how you act after a break-up. Something had to change and miraculously we realized it was up to us..
I remember the first time I took the kids out to buy a Christmas present for their mother. Their dad had left it to the last minute, which was typical. I thought he was crazy to ask me to do it and told him so. He didn’t care, he just needed my help, so reluctantly, I loaded the kids in the car and we headed for the mall.
When you buy a present for someone, you must consider what they like. I didn’t know, so I had to consult the kids. I watched as they lit up talking about their mom—and that was my “Ah ha moment.” It wasn’t me against her—it was all of us for the kids we all loved. We had just wasted a lot of time acting foolish.
As the kids and I considered this or that for their mother’s present, my then 9-year-old bonusdaughter, squealed “This is so fun!” I can still hear her voice—and there was the shift. Rather than feel jealousy or anger, the act that I had been dreading instantly became a privilege. Buying a present for her mother made a child I loved happy. From then on, each year I took the kids out to buy a present for their mother. Sometimes their dad went, sometimes he didn’t, but the act of openly considering what their mother might like brought us closer. Although we never discussed it, it brought their mom and I closer, too. She knew who was buying the presents and it changed her attitude toward me, as well.
You know the saying, “Out of the mouths of babes?” My kids taught me the meaning behind the season, no matter your faith, is Love. I realized first hand, we, all the parents who took care of them, were teaching them how to be in a relationship and how to solve conflict gracefully. We were their role models and if we loved them, we had to set the example–and that became the essense of Bonus Families and “Good Ex-etiquette.”
Q. The kids’ father and I broke up only three months ago and it’s been rough on us all. This is the first holiday we will be spending in different homes and not only do I feel the added stress, but I think the kids are feeling it, too. Got any tips to help us help them through this tough time?
A. Holidays become stressful for children when they perceive their parents (both bonus and biological) as vindictive, floundering, and disorganized. So, if you are angry all the time, can’t make a decision, and don’t know where their stuff is when they can’t find it, they will feel disoriented and be short tempered. Being organized will ensure that your kids feel safe and secure and willing to accept the inevitable changes between past and present.
There are some changes divorced parents can make that will help ease their children’s transition from house to house during the holidays. Notice I didn’t say “suggestions for parents to cope with the holidays.” It should be your goal is to create an environment where your children can flourish; therefore you have to make the necessary changes. Your ability to cope is a result of the positive changes you make.
Begin by making the transition from house to house as stress free as you can by:
Have a plan. Having a plan in place–knowing exactly what time your child will leave (or when you will pick them up) with bags packed at the door rather than scrambling around at the last minute will reduce the stress and anxiety associated with going from house to house.
Avoid saying things like, “I’m going to miss you so much.” Even if you are, saying so just makes the transition more difficult for the child. He or she will worry you are not happy or lonely and if they stick around you might be okay. Your well-being is not their responsibility–but their well-being is definitely yours. Give them a hug and tell them you love them and then send them on his way. Agree on a time you will check in and stick to it.
Do not call him every five minutes to check up or to remind your child that he or she is the most important thing in your life. That is quite disruptive for the other home and actually causes the child more anxiety than comfort. If your child is truly the most important thing in your life, allow him to settle in at his other parent’s home so they can enjoy their time together. A constant reminder that you miss him is not putting your child first—it’s putting your child in the middle.
Don’t stew over the agreement you just made. “I should have said this.” Or, “I should have held out for more time.” Move on and celebrate the day. Be the example.
Finally, something I have learned over the years is to remember…it’s just a day, not a world crisis–and no matter how much the break-up hurt, it’s no longer about you. Your job now is to help your kids navigate the aftermath. Fighting, arguing, and openly disrespecting their other parent will make them sick–literally. Let them see you compromising, looking for other solutions, and cooperating with their other parent and that’s when you have given them a present that will truly impact the rest of their life.
Q. My ex wants to tell our kids, ages 4 and 7, that there is no Santa. He said it’s because he doesn’t have a lot of money and wants the kids to know the presents come from him. I don’t have a lot of money, either, but I refuse to take this approach and have reinforced that Santa is definitely coming to my house. My ex is furious. He thinks if the kids think Santa is coming to my house and not his, they will not want to be with him. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A. Breaking up is difficult and it’s not hard to understand how ongoing disappointment can throw someone into feeling as if he or she is not getting a fair shake, but when how you celebrate a holiday with the kids becomes a competition between the parents and the children’s welfare is in question, you’ve lost perspective.
So, from that standpoint you know that Dad can’t buy the things he would like to for the kids. That makes him feel inferior and as if he can never win. He feels defeated before he starts, and as a result feels as if the only alternative is to appeal to the kids. “It’s not my fault. Let me tell you what’s true.” That can be anything from your father beat me to your mother is a drug addict to Santa really doesn’t bring you presents, I do.”
This information supposedly levels the playing field. However, if you’re locked into a competition, even both of you having the exact amount of resources will not stop the competition. It becomes who wins. If you want the kids to win, even if parents are so angry with each other they could spit, you have to work together.
Problem Solving Tips
When problem solving, it helps to find a mutual interest on which to base an agreement rather than concentrating on things on which parents do not agree. In this case, the parents’ mutual interest is their kids’ happiness and security. Both parents both have to ask themselves what information would be beneficial for the kids to know this holiday to achieve that goal.
Would it be to their benefit to know that money is tight at either home? Perhaps. If it is approached from from meeting a household budget and not rooted in competition.
Would it be beneficial to teach the kids to compare homes? Doubtful.
They have two parents. Asking children to weigh each parents’ value by what each parent can buy them is not good parenting nor good ex-etiquette.
Kids love the magic of Christmas. That’s easy to sell, and from a practical standpoint, far less expensive than the stuff you can buy them.
Finally, Ex-etiquette Rule for Parents rule #2, is “Ask for help if you need it.” In this case, asking for help could mean going together on purchasing a present for the kids. They do not have to know who contributed more. That knowledge will not make them feel more safe and secure at either home. Working together and reinforcing each other’s parenting certainly will. Continue to fight with each other and the best present you will be able to give your children will be counseling.
Happy Holiday, Merry Christmas, Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward all living creatures.
Q. My kids’ dad and I broke up last year and this is the first Christmas we are spending apart. With Christmas right around the corner, I’m wondering if it’s proper to continue giving gifts to my former mother in-law, brother and sister in-laws, and young nieces and nephews?
A. Let me rephrase this question in order to make the answer more obvious. Essentially, you are asking, “Is it proper to continue giving birthday or Christmas gifts to my children’s grandmother, uncles, aunts, and cousins after my divorce?”
The key to answering future questions of this sort is to remove yourself from the scenario and use the children and their relationship to various “ex-relatives” as your criteria for your decisions. Then there will be less question of impropriety. The relatives in question are only “ex” to you. Their relationship with your children remains the same even after the divorce. If, after the divorce, you choose to maintain a cordial relationship with former extended family, which, quite frankly, seems more appropriate than severing ties, then of course it is proper to give gifts to any one you choose.
Know upfront that it may upset your ex, however. It’s not uncommon for divorced people to expect their relatives to severe ties after divorce as a sign of allegiance, and when their relative, especially if it’s a parent, wishes to continue a relationship, they feel completely betrayed. As a result, parents and former extended family may resort to keeping a continued relationship secret–and that can certainly work against them if the relative finds out.
I once worked with a family who had a complete communication break down because grandpa secretly met his daughter’s former spouse and his grandson for a weekend of camping and fishing. It had been a treasured family outing for years and something to which grandpa, father, and son all looked forward. Mother knew dad and son were going, but when her son came home with stories of the one that got away from grandpa, she was shocked to hear her own father had gone along and she was not told. Keeping the trip a secret was done in an effort to keep the mother’s discontent to a minimum, but what it actually did was make things even more complicated. She explained, “I can’t believe he chose him over me.”
Choosing one over the other wasn’t the issue. The mother’s ability to successfully deal with the situation rested with her ability to allow the relationships to continue to exist separately on their own merit—not necessarily in relation to her. That’s tough to do, especially if you have been hurt. But, she had to learn to accept:
One, her father loves her and his allegiance to her as his daughter has not wavered.
Two, the grandfather (her father) loves his grandson.
Three, the grandfather cares for his grandson’s father and wishes to maintain that relationship.
Four, the three who created the family tradition wish to continue the tradition and maintaining that tradition was their choice.
Rule #7 suggests that you put yourself in the other’s shoes. That way you be able to understand how difficult it might be to stop a fun tradition with beloved family members. Grandpa probably looks forward to spending alone “guy time” with his grandson and his dad, and stopping would impact the child’s memories and his continuity after the break-up. It’s bad enough that mom and dad have broken up, now the child can’t hang out with grandpa and dad, either?
Finally, break-ups are difficult on everyone, not just those breaking up. Around this time of year, especially, we are reminded that empathy, compassion and love are the great equalizers–always for the sake of the children in our care.
Q. Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, but since I’ve broken up with the kid’s dad, I hate when October rolls around. I’ve been letting their dad go Trick-or-treating with us for the last two years, (we altered the parenting plan for that day only) but this year he’s taking them to Disneyland for Halloween and I won’t see them. I’m so angry! I have include him, but he’s not including me! What’s good ex-etiquette?
(Note: For all of you who are not familiar with the term, “good ex-etiquette,” it’s another way of referring to “good behavior after divorce or separation.” Check out our Ex-etiquette Department!
A. Halloween is a big deal at Disneyland and if he has tickets for Halloween night, the kids are probably so excited they don’t see the internal family conflict this may cause. Thank goodness. This is the parent’s problem, not the kids.
There are major red flags to be taken into consideration: First, The fact that dad is not including you this year is not bad ex-etiquette. It may make your Halloween sort of lonely, but if the parenting plan designates holidays with the kids to one parent or another, it’s that parent’s decision to make plans for that day. Of course, Ex-etiquette for parents rule #1, “Put the kids first,” is an important consideration, but it says “the kids first,” not the ex, first.
There’s a fine art to sharing with an ex–and sharing the holidays is the MOST difficult. It can stir up all sorts of feelings of “how it used to be,” or “let’s try it one more time,” or “Now, I realize why we split you, #$#%$$!!! Remember, keep you wits about you!
Finally, the main concern is what does all this togetherness says to the kids. On one hand kindness and consideration is contagious, and not holding a grudge demonstrates that people who do not get along can make the decision to kindly interact if it is necessary. This is an important lesson our kids can use not only in their personal life, but in their professional life as well. However, exes being too friendly in front of the kids can also be very confusing and that often translates into anger. Parents find themselves wondering, “What’s wrong with Billy?” when it could simply be that his parents were giggling on the couch at a holiday celebration while reminiscing and then he could go home with only one of them. It’s sort of like an emotional hangover–and Billy can’t handle it. So, if you notice your children acting up the day after a holiday that you have done your best to spend with their other parent, check your behavior at that holiday celebration. If you were short tempered, watch it. If you were too friendly, watch it even more.
Q. Before my ex and I were divorced, I always took the kids Trick-or-Treating. When we were married he never wanted to go. Now, all of a sudden, after being divorced for three years, he wants to go along–and bring his new girlfriend, who I think has kids the same age as our children (6, 7, and 9). I don’t want to go Trick or Treating with his new girl friend!
A. Studies suggest that most divorced parents find a new long term relationships within five years of their divorce, so after three years, it’s time to look at this in the proper perspective. He’s going to date someone else–and so will you if you haven’t already. Therefore, the real question is, what is the most positive way both of you can handle all this for the sake of your children?
However, if your ex is thinking that Halloween is a great time to introduce the new love interest, plus let all the kids meet each other…go find him and send him to this article.
Dad? You out there? Bad idea.
Holidays, especially holidays with specific family traditions, (like trick-or-treating with the neighbors) are not good times to introduce new girlfriends or boyfriends. And, if your prospective new partner has children, that makes it twice as bad. Both sets of kids are reminded first hand that there’s competition out there. You may think they are getting along just fine–and they may be–but more often than not, it registers. Better to set aside an afternoon for the first meeting and keep it light. Ease into it, for the kid’s sake–all the kid’s sakes. Yours and hers.
The ultimate goal in co-parenting after divorce is to be able to comfortably interact and problem solve with your ex-spouse for the sake of the kids. Therefore, the ultimate goal is both of you go trick or treating with the kids–yes, at the same time. You don’t have to hold hands while you skip from house to house, but a cordial conversation will put the kids more at ease–and help to create positive memories for your children.
How do you co-parent with someone you hate? Hate is just a state of mind. It’s what you think about the other person and the feelings it conjures up when you think about that person. If you want to let it go, if you want to have control of your own life and not let someone else control you, you must a change the way you think about things.
I always say, “Control your thoughts and you control your life.”
Here are some quick tips to help you find that change in mindset:
1. Consider Ex-etiquette for parents rule #1, “Put the kids first.” Putting the kids first means forget about what the ex has done to you and look at what you are doing to your kids by wishing ill will on their other parent.
2. Stop visualizing yourself not getting along with the ex. Visualize the relationship you want. If you’re angry and want revenge, then you’re picturing yourself getting back at him or her. That’s what your kids are seeing each time the two of you interact. Is that what you want?
3. Don’t dwell on their mistakes. They will become yours. I often tell a story about an ex I have worked with who was angry that her ex was always late dropping off the kids–until she realized that the ONLY appointment she was on time for was picking up the kids. She was so angry at her ex for being late that she made a special effort to be on time just to prove him wrong. She didn’t realize this until her best friend told her that their friendship was in jeopardy because she was late for everything they planned together. So, it’s not uncommon for you to mirror what bothers you in some other aspect of your life. You think about it so much, you manifest it. That’s why I say, “Don’t dwell on their mistakes. They will become yours.”
The most important thing to consider…ask most kids of divorce about holidays and they will tell you they do not have happy memories. Holidays, from birthdays to Christmas, are reminders that Dad and Mom do not live together. And, if Mom and Dad add to that stress by quibbling over whose time it is with the kids, why were you late, why did you bring her (or him) yada, yada, yada, it just puts more pressure on the kids. If you can change that trend, for your kid’s sake, do it. Start to set the example.
That said, it’s not a good idea to ever share parenting time with an ex if you aren’t ready to be civil in front of the kids. If you can’t get past your own issues this year, then switching between parents is the fairest way to approach Halloween T-or-T. This year with mom, next year with dad. If you can trick-or-treat together, the non-custodial parent should go to the neighborhood of the custodial parent so that the kids can trick-or-treat with their friends in a familiar neighborhood.