Dealing with transitions in a blended household

By Byron Delpinal

A lot of people look back at their high school experience as a time when the world seemed so much easier. A simpler time, with very little responsibility. High School Byron didn’t really worry about taxes or politics. He didn’t concern himself with what was happening in other parts of the world or whatever the deal was with Julius Caesar (He died? Or something?). Those things were Future Byron’s problems. 

One portion of his education that High School Byron should have paid more attention to, however, was sex education. You can imagine the difficulty this care-free, sweet, summer child had in explaining to his aunt and uncle during his sophomore year that his girlfriend at was pregnant. My aunt and uncle took me in when I was 14 and their reward a year and a half later was having to make room for an infant in the house. They’re saints and I never thanked them enough at the time. I can’t imagine the stress this put on them.

I don’t know the stats on high school sweetheart relationships lasting, but I’m guessing the numbers are even lower between couples who dated on and off throughout high school and had a baby together. Either way, Aiden’s mom and I didn’t last very long.

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Fast-forward to 2012. 22-year-old Byron was now working part-time at the computer lab in the engineering department at the University of Akron and trying to finish a degree in computer engineering (Spoiler alert: He didn’t. No regrets). Enter, Kirsten. I met my wife a year or two prior to us dating when we both worked at Staples. We weren’t very fond of each other initially. I took my job very seriously, trying to get promoted with thoughts of quitting college to get into middle-management at the retailer, and she was Marshawn Lynch at a press conference every day, killing time and saving money for her future career as a designer. Our goals didn’t align. We didn’t start dating until after we reconnected on Facebook and actually took the time to get to know each other. She knew I had a kid, but it wasn’t something we discussed regularly. It took a while before I introduced the two. We took that very slow, and I remained protective of the relationship I had with Aiden. I had only introduced him to the two people with which I had serious relationships.

Kirsten and I moved in together in 2013 and made the transition to officially becoming a “blended” household, although I don’t think we ever used that term to describe it. We lived in Highland Square. Around the same time, Aiden’s mom had come back into his life in a more serious capacity. It was a big change for a lot of reasons. Aiden and Kirsten hit it off well, but we were having a lot of difficulty with Aiden when he would come back from his mom’s house on the weekends.

Aiden went to St. Sebastian for 1st-3rd grade. They had a “clip” system that they used to monitor the kids’ behavior during school. Green was good. After your first incident, your clip gets moved to yellow, then orange, then red, then for some reason…purple? I’m not sure what purple did to receive this kind of treatment but apparently, it’s the worst. I digress. 

We were noticing that anytime Aiden came back from his mom’s house, his clip would get moved. He was short with us at home and it was difficult to get him to listen. It wasn’t fun.

It’s incredibly difficult to only raise a child 65% of the time. Each house has its own rules and “normal” is never established. In an ideal world, both houses would agree on similar rules and there would be consistency, but I’m not here to sell that fantasy. We tried really hard to do that and after everything, I’m not sure I believe that level of harmony can even exist. In our situation, the environments at each of our houses were so different that it started to create two completely different versions of my own son. There was the version of him that I interacted with, and the version his mother interacted with. When she reconnected with Aiden, she was grateful for every visit they had together. This led to her being the “fun parent,” and it created a monster. There were times where she would call me and ask me to yell at Aiden for things I could never even imagine him saying or doing. “Aiden said what?! To who?!” I would ask.

Over time, we learned different techniques and tactics that worked to mitigate most of these behavioral swings. Every kid is different (and as we found out, even the same kid can be different in different environments) but I’d like to share what worked for us in raising Aiden when he was at our house.

Supplement consistency with self-dependency. To help mitigate the effects of having two totally different sets of rules and traditions in two totally different households, we tried to instill as much independence in Aiden as we could. Aiden was making his own breakfast and packing his own lunches for school in first grade. He had a chore chart that he knew how to fill out himself and we even made him his own laminated checklist so he could pack his own bag for his mom’s house (with an added bonus that we’d know everything we sent over would actually come back). At a minimum, this level of independence allowed us to rest easier when he wasn’t with us because he could begin to govern his own decisions more and more toward the (hopefully) good choices we were modeling his independence around.

Accept their other family. When Aiden was 6 years old, his mom had another son named Christian. When Christian got older, one thing would weigh on me: Every time Aiden would come to our house, we were leaving another child alone without his sibling. We hated that feeling and eventually started transitioning both children from home to home when we could. Aiden still went to school with us, and Christian with his mom, but on weekends and during summers, they spent a great deal of time together. We even paid for Christian to go to the same summer camp as Aiden, and at one point, Kirsten and I considered talking to his mom to see if Christian should switch schools and live with us part-time. This never happened, but we considered it. The point is, we were not Aiden’s only family, and we had to respect that. To you, their mom’s other children may be strangers, but to them, they’re siblings. Adopting this view helped both children transition from home to home because they could always count on being together.

Be honest about what isn’t working. There is no “right” thing to do. Even these are just suggestions of things that worked for us. Not everything we tried should be on this list because not everything worked. An example of this is screen time limits, something we never really “solved,” if I’m being honest. In the beginning, we tried telling Aiden that he would get 1 hour of screen time on weekdays, and 2 hours on weekends. When we first started this, we said “You need to keep track of this, and make sure not to go over.” After a few weeks, we realized that level of self-accountability just wasn’t happening. It was probably too much to ask anyway. He was 8 years old, and we still wanted the limits, so we bought a device that hooks up to the surge protector and would just shut off after X amount of time was being used. 

After a while, we found ourselves making too many exceptions, having to override the thing, and just generally being frustrated with it. Think “I-just-need-to-finish-this-level” situations. As someone who plays video games, I get it. I’m not gonna make the kid lose his progress because we made up some arbitrary number of minutes he’s allowed to play. We ended up scrapping this idea pretty quickly. Afterward, we tried limiting it in a simpler way: time windows. You can watch TV from A to B on weekdays, and from C to D on weekends. Again, this was really just a huge chore on our part and ended up breaking down. As I said, this section is about being honest about when something just isn’t working. Screen time limits just did not work for us. The closest we’ve been to a successful experience here is what we have today: He knows he has to eat, attend school, do homework, and do chores before getting on his Xbox and he’s done with all screens an hour before bed. Good enough.

Be the consistency that’s missing. This one was and still is tough. We tried to make sure that Aiden could always count on us when he was with us. We had traditions we tried our best to uphold like family game night and eating together at the table. He grew to look forward to these things. Yes, it has been a little maddening at times having to reschedule game nights on busy weeks, or making time for dinners when it seems like you’re always on the go, but overall I really enjoyed the routines we set up in our house and they made it easier for Aiden to mentally jump back into “being at dad’s house” when he knew to expect these things.

This also applies to setting and enforcing rules. There are two parts to rule-setting:

  1. Trying to agree on rules between households
  2. Enforcing rules consistently within your household

The first one is a communication and alignment problem. I won’t try to give advice on how to do that part, but I will urge you to try. For us, this looked like having bi-weekly parenting phone calls scheduled and on the calendar for us to talk after Aiden’s bedtime. I will admit, some of those calls didn’t end well, but we kept them up for a while and it worked for us.

The second part is being very consistent in the way that you set and enforce the rules at your house. There were always differences in rules between our two houses and when Aiden came back, we needed a way to make those clear immediately. We did things like print and laminate a rules poster, talk with Aiden when he came back about our rules to remind him, and define consistent punishments for when he breaks those rules. It helped create a process that we could point to instead of having to yell at him when he did something wrong. When a rule was broken, we had a printed thing on the wall we could point to that said “If you break one of these, this happens”. It was consistent and eventually eased the transition between houses by ensuring there was no ambiguity in structure.

Always leave time intentionally for a transition. Aiden never came home at bedtime on Sunday night before school. It didn’t allow him enough time to transition back into who he was expected to be at our house, and more importantly who he needed to be at school. Instead, he would come home Saturday night or Sunday morning. We needed time for him to acclimate to his environment. This helped us solve the behavior problem at school for the most part. We didn’t actually solve the problem, we just shifted the responsibility from his school dealing with it to us. We’d spend all day Sunday making sure he knew he was back in the mode of being at dad’s house. 

This applied to everything from family photos to important dinners to weddings we would attend. We never picked him up directly from his mom’s and went anywhere. This was a scheduling nightmare, but it really helped. Also, we set aside more time for larger transitions. He would come back from his mom’s house two weeks before school started in the fall, or one week before leaving for summer camp or family vacation.

Validate decisions with each other. Communication is hard, especially when there are other factors like the emotions of being separated as parents. If you let the emotions from your relationship push you apart as parents, your children will sense this and (not necessarily with malicious intent) use this against you. I don’t remember the exact scenario that played out, but at one point Aiden’s mom and I had a conversation on the phone that went something like this:

Me: “This is the fourth time Aiden’s told me that you let him stay up late at your house. He needs more sleep. Why are you letting him do this?!”

Aiden’s Mom: “I was going to ask you the same thing! He’s not staying up late here, he told me you let him!”

Hmmmm…That was interesting. Had we been played by a 7-year-old? Seems like it. After this, we called each other every time Aiden made one of these claims. Pretty soon after, he stopped trying this tactic altogether.

Working to raise Aiden across households hasn’t been easy. We’ve learned a lot, and we’re continuing to learn a lot as my wife and I have our own children together and learn to navigate how best to ensure that everyone gets treated fairly and equally. It’s tough sometimes. I hope these things we’ve learned the hard way can help you ease your transition and give your kiddos a head start in cozying into their “new normal,” whatever that means for you and them.

Byron Delpinal is a community enthusiast and professional procrastinator. He’s worn many hats and dawned many titles: Software Engineer, Husband, Consultant, Teen Dad, Public Speaker, Aspiring Woodworker, Adult Child, and Mentor just to name a few. His favorite hobby is collecting books he may one day read.

Photo provided by Byron Delpinal