Holidays can be complicated for any family, but when children, stepchildren and new spouses are involved, things can get really crazy. Consider the dilemma facing Merritt Patterson when her daughter Emmajane, then 7, requested a Barbie Jeep for Christmas two years ago. How could she possibly buy such a lavish gift for Emmajane and not get a similarly high-impact present for her stepson Michael Jr.?
And if those two got a fancy set of wheels, how could she leave her younger daughter Addie out of the equation? The high-priced solution she and her husband devised: three kiddie Jeeps. "We laugh at ourselves now," says Patterson. "That was $900 driving around in the backyard. If we were not a blended family, there's no way we would have done this. We go overboard to be fair."
Ah, but what is fair? Parents in blended families struggle every day, in matters large and small, to make decisions that do justice to all their children--his, hers and theirs. Fifteen percent of American children live in a blended family, reported the U.S. Census Bureau in 2001. Unfortunately, studies repeatedly show that kids in blended families fare no better than those in single-parent households. While many factors, especially how well the exes get along, contribute to making such families work, the kids' perception that they are treated fairly is a key ingredient of success.
Many divorced parents struggle with guilt, feeling they've caused their children a loss or that they don't spend enough time with them or have hurt them in other ways. Special occasions like holidays and birthdays and even back-to-school shopping tend to bring out those feelings of guilt. Children sometimes see money spent on them and their siblings as a scorecard showing who is more loved. Yet in most families, total equality is impossible to achieve. What to do? Be realistic, experts say, and accept that the playing field may not be level. The message, says Jennifer Coleman, a life-transition counselor at Rosen Law Firm in Raleigh, N.C., should be that no matter who spends what on whom, all the children are valued equally.
It took Susan and David Emerling a few years to figure out how to bring that message to their blended family. Susan, a dental hygienist and artist, receives child support from her ex-husband and uses it to buy necessities for her two teenagers. David, an engineer, pays for his two. "I take care of Mariel's and Jillian's needs," she says, "and he takes care of Rachelle's and Ben's." To avoid hurt feelings over clothes shopping, they decided to give each child cash or a gift card in the same amount every fall and spring. It worked like a charm. "Before we did that," says Susan, "the kids would say, 'Why does she have that and I don't?'"
What parents in blended families can't even out are the things their exes buy for their kids. When Rachelle got a new car for her 16th birthday, for example, Mariel and Jillian, who drive the family car, were upset. Ultimately, says their mother, they made their peace with it: "The kids realize they have separate households. It's part of the reality of their lives."