Blending a family is like trying to learn the "new math." I remember when my kids first came home with math homework that I couldn't help them with because, "Mom, we do it different than in the olden days." What looked like the same old long division I learned back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, turned out to be some new, complex, uber-modern, new-way to figure out what 394 divided by 5 actually is. While my old-timey method brought the right answer, I learned that, in addition to a "new way" to get the answer, the answer no longer counted. What mattered most was the process.
I always thought of math as one of those absolutes. You know, black & white. It's either right or wrong. But I soon learned that, like many other things in our society, mathematics was becoming subjective. What mattered most was that you followed the process, and if you didn't come up with the exact right answer, that was okay, because you used the method you were taught, and came up with something close. I never knew that close worked in math. Certainly a new way of thinking for me. Incidentally, I've tried using the "new math" concept at the bank a few times, and obviously they are old too, because they still go by the old-timey rules where the answer matters most. Go figure.
When I became a part of a blending family, I sort of felt the same way. New math. A different process. The "right answer" seemed elusive. In a matter of a few short years, my family equation looked liked this:
4 - 1 + (4 - 1 ) = 6
Then a few years later it became:
4 - 1 + (4 - 1) + 1 = 7
I have to admit, in the early days, I sometimes had to stop and actually think when getting plates out of the cabinet. Now, how many places do I set?
Which brings me to the dinner table. I don't know how it happens, but it seems in normal families (see earlier blog), people just sort of migrate to "their spot" at the table. I don't ever remember having to assign anything. Everyone just found a place and all was good. And that was their place. Of course, with just the four of us that was easy, because every parent was next to a child and every child was next to a parent, and mom and dad could even sit next to each other and not upset the geometric balance.
When my husband died, there was a time when the boys and I STOPPED eating at the table. I call it the Empty Chair Syndrome. I'm sure it must be diagnosable, and included in the most recent edition of the DSM. For some reason, we could not bring ourselves to sit down to eat and face that awful empty chair. So, we started eating out. Or sitting on the sofa and using TV trays. Or making a pallet on the floor in the living room and having a picnic. Even eating in the minivan (yep, I was one of those moms) was preferable to eating with the empty chair.
But, I digress. Just about the time we were getting used to being the three musketeers, things changed. And its not like there was an accident or something. We chose the change. Rather I chose the change. I said yes to another family of four, minus one equals three.
So, on day nine of my marriage, there were three new people who had moved into our home, and two of them were in sleeping bags on the floor next to my bed plus the other two who already lived in the house, who wanted to sleep there as well. As I lay in the darkness, pondering what, exactly, I had done, a wave of panic swept over me. These people are not leaving.
And the crisis at the dinner table only intensified. No one wanted to fill the empty chair. Everyone wanted to sit by a parent. The problem? The parents were out-numbered. No matter what kind of "new math" geometric principles we applied, there were just not enough sides to the parents to go around. The delicate balance that I had so taken for granted those years ago, became impossible. There were arguments and tears. There were angry words of hurt. There was a feeling of despair. No matter how hard I tried, this was one math problem I could not master.
I know you'd love to have answer for this. And I'd love to give you one. But honestly, I don't know what it is. While time certainly helped, there were still times when the dinner table became a battleground and tears were the order of the day. You and your spouse are only two ... or one, depending on your theology.
But here's my nickel's worth of advice ... and you may even want some change back. The advice? Just Talk. Talk to each other and talk to the kids. Be honest and allow open conversation. Model what it means to share your feelings honestly yet gently, with grace. Pray together. Pray around the table and do more than thank God for the food. Ask Him, in front of the kids, to help your family learn how to live together and work together as a team. Pray for the relationships that struggle. Go ahead and just pray it out loud. Everyone already knows who-rubs-who the wrong way. Saying the words doesn't do anything but relieve everyone from having to pretend that conflict doesn't exist. Open, honest dialogue may just be one part of the equation of this "new math" problem.
Your new family is developing patterns. Just like your former family developed patterns. What kind of patterns of communication are you developing? But, that's a topic for a later entry.
Finally, the best advice I can think of right now? Laugh together. Not at each other, but with each other. Give everyone the freedom and the opportunity to release the frustration they have through laughter. And Mom and Dad ... you set the tone. Choose to laugh together even when you would much rather cry.
A cheerful disposition is good for your health; gloom and doom leave you bone-tired. Proverbs 17:22 (The Message).