By Bernie Dunning, retired Marriage and Family Therapist
At one time in our history a family was defined and assumed to be mother, father and children. There were some exceptions. There were rich people who had nannies to take care of the children and became part of the family. During the First and Second World Wars, as a result of the death of fathers killed in action, mothers took full responsibility for the family. Sometimes there were sisters who took responsibility, and at times there was the mother and live-in friends. However, society still thinks about a family as being father, mother, and children.
There is one other factor which needs to be acknowledged, and that is the inclusion of the family of origin. These members of the family unit have an influence in the nuclear family we are discussing. I cannot talk about all the issues surrounding the family of origin since this would take up too much space. For the purpose of this article we will discuss primarily what is called the nuclear family.
As we move into the 20th and especially the 21st century families have become very diverse. The reasons seem to be three-fold: couples divorcing and remarrying, homosexual couples adopting and some having children with a surrogate, and since people are living longer siblings are experiencing one parent dying and the other remarrying. There are many single women bringing up families as a result of being financially independent, and not wishing to marry. It seems that our image of what is a family is becoming obsolete. However, I feel that the basic issues of family life are the same as they were from the beginning of time: that is creating an environment which allows each person to fulfill their humanity and their full potential. In this article I will focus on families that have multiple parents all trying to parent and help each other with family life issues. In my opinion the challenges today in bringing up a family require people to be more mature today than in the past.
The first challenge is to help children whose parents are divorcing to understand the basic reasons for the divorce. This is important because children are quite ready to blame themselves for the divorce. There needs to be a family meeting with both parents present to make sure the children do not take any responsibility for the divorce. Children may try to prevent the divorce, so parents need to be specific (without going into too much detail) and firm about their decision. This will help the children with their process of accepting reality. Children, especially young children want to know if their life going to change in any way. They want to know things like, will I still be able to have my friends? Will I still be going to my school, and will I still have my own room? You get the idea. For children life is concrete. The big question (usually without asking) is always and always will be “am I loved”? There should be as many meetings as possible, since there may be more questions in the second meeting.
The next issue for the children is who is going to take care of me? Do I get a say in where and with whom I will live? It may be because of lack of resources and limitations that everyone will not get entirely what they want. These issues need to be worked through. After all you may be asking the children to eventually deal with two sets of parents, and possibly have to relate to siblings they inherit. They may have to live in two homes at designated times. This will require both sets of parents to iron out basic parenting issues. Thus, frequent meetings are needed in order to sort through issues about parenting which will arise.
Some behaviours need to be avoided: first, not dealing with issues by sending messages with your child to the other parent (such as, “you will get the money owed to you next week”). Second, try not to get into the middle of issues between parent and child. If you start seeing your child as being persecuted by the other parent, do not get in the middle and be the rescuer of the situation. Stay out of the middle and try to let the two involved solve the issue. The solution they come up with may not be to your liking, but it will be their solution. If you try to rescue the situation, you will become the persecuted person in the triangle. The only time you need to rescue your child is if he/she is being abused or their life is being threatened. Third, try to be as specific as possible if the partner (who is not the biological parent) will have authority and if so, what authority will that be. An example would be, can he/she give out consequences for poor behaviour on the part of the child. Fourth, every adult needs to back up what consequences a parent gives out. Again, if there are issues, the adults need to get together to work through those issues. Fifth, the adult who is coming into the family as a stranger must refrain from trying to bribe the children to gain their love and admiration, and /or compete with the natural parent. This is important, because the child may play one against the other to get what they want. This scenario will lead to poor behaviour on the part of the child. Sixth, if you have feelings of rescuing the natural parent who is having a difficult time with his/her children, resolve those feelings, or do not get involved with this family. You will fail and do more damage than good if you do not resolve your feelings of rescuing.
Remember, all the adults are parents of the children. Even the person who is new to the children, and might not want to be involved as a parent, is being a parent by simply being there. It is impossible to not be a parent. He/she is living there and interacting with their spouse, and responding to life situations. Modeling is always occurring because children are always listening and observing. The adults of families are always giving messages to their children about life by just being. Therefore the adults in the family need to realize that parenting is an ongoing process. It never ends until children become adults.
Adults need to be open to each other and realize that their children want them to be happy and succeed in life, and to be there for them. They do not want perfect parents, and realize this is impossible. It is parents who have problems with the realization that they are not perfect.
Families are evolving. Regardless of how many parents are involved in raising children their task is to provide an environment that encourages those children’s potential and full expression of humanity.