Co-Parenting in a Blended Family: Challenges and Perspectives
I recently welcomed author Dr. Jann Blackstone, the founder of Bonus Families, to the podcast to discuss co-parenting, conflict resolution strategies, and her personal experiences with her own bonus children.
Some of the biggest problems that tend to appear for parents after a separation or divorce agreement are those around child custody. Although many divorcing couples believe it may be unnecessary to put every last detail into their parenting agreement, they may also find themselves at odds when it comes to the small things.
In some cases, it really can come down to which toys and clothes go to which parent’s house, or who gets the children for Halloween, and when these are not spelled out in a custody agreement, ex-spouses can find themselves back in court arguing and litigating over small issues – time that takes away from actual parenting.
Adding another family to the mix through remarriage can present challenges. Dr. Blackstone, however, offers a variety of strategies to reduce conflict and ease the stress of today’s blended families. With her expertise as a former Superior Court Child Custody Mediator, and her own experience as part of a blended family, writer and author Dr. Blackstone coined the term “bonus family." She spoke to me about how her own bonus family enhances her life – although it did not come easily at first.
What’s a bonus family?
According to Dr. Blackstone, the basic concept behind the bonus family is collaboration. She calls it a “collaborative existence between two homes,” where the step-parent (or “bonus parent”) gets involved in decision-making about the child, or children. As she points out, “You have to have a collaborative effort because you’ve got kids at both homes.”
Along with her bonus kids’ mother, Sharyl, they came up with the term “bonus” to put a more positive spin on “step.” She tells Schein that, even though she and Sharyl worked to put their differences aside and came together as a unit, the kids were distressed by the term step-mother. So, they came up with a warmer and more realistic way of saying it.
We were just knocking around different things and that’s how we came up with “bonus.” I went home and went, okay, it’s an addition…In sales, if you reach quota, you get a bonus. So it was a level to reach for. It was a very big compliment when somebody would call their parent or their child a bonus, because it means that you’ve accepted them and that you’re working hard.
“Working hard” is the key term here. Dr. Blackstone explains to Schein that a successful bonus family comes with challenges, and all parents must work together to put the children first.
Reducing conflict among ex-spouses
One of the most important things Dr. Blackstone tells us is “joint custody is for the parents.” So how can ex-spouses learn to work together post-divorce? Dr. Blackstone explains that co-parents must have a problem-solving plan in place – and not the one they used before they divorced. After all, couples divorce for a reason.
She told me, “When I was in mediation with parents, I would ask them, how do you problem solve? What do you do when you butt heads? The ones that didn’t make it work…they fought the same way they did before they broke up; they’d withhold, they’d not talk to each other.”
However, co-parents who were willing to make it work tended to approach conflict resolution from a more positive place. They understood they were in a different life and needed to put the children first, rather than their hurt feelings. Dr. Blackstone notes these types of parents had more successful outcomes.
Rules of ex-etiquette for parents
One of Dr. Blackstone’s more popular blogs, The 10 Rules of Good Ex-Etiquette for Parents, serves as a type of “Ten Commandments” for co-parents and bonus parents alike. You can read the details over at the blog, but the 10 rules are:
Put the children first.
Ask for help if you need it.
Biological parents make the rules; bonus parents uphold them.
Don’t be spiteful.
Don’t hold grudges.
Use empathy when problem solving.
Be honest and straightforward.
Respect each other’s turf.
Compromise whenever possible.
At my firm, Berkman Bottger Newman & Schein, I can affirm that we find these rules incredibly valuable for divorcing couples or even in your day-to-day relationships, whether or not you have children. As Dr. Blackstone says, “They’re all just logical things.”
VP Harris and Tom Brady have blended families, too
This brings us to working with your bonus family – the collaborative approach and getting ahead of issues before they occur. Blackstone encourages blended families to establish a private forum for conflict resolution, and try not to fight in front of the kids. If you do, however, ensure your children see fair disagreements and proper apologies.
One bonus parent who recently stepped into the spotlight is Vice President Kamala Harris. A recent New York Times article highlighted her blended family. Says Ralph Richard Banks, a law professor at Stanford, “It’s striking. In some ways they are at the frontier of different aspects of American families and how they’re changing.”
NFL legend Tom Brady is another great example of blended families doing it right. Currently married to model Gisele Bündchen, he also has a son with his ex, actor Bridget Moynahan. Brady and Moynahan co-parent Jack along with bonus mom Bündchen. Gisele recently told Page Six, “I couldn’t have asked for a sweeter bonus child.”