Blended families: the silent, unserved majority

Blended families are on the rise in almost every country, as divorce rates go up and marriage rates go down. Yet most policy — across countries — doesn’t account for the way modern families look, feel, and pay for things.

Blended families.

What a weird term. I’m in one, and it’s weird to me.

We aren’t blended, like ingredients you mix together. We’re distinct identities, sets of parents and kids, sets of kids, a couple holding it all together.

Forced blending doesn’t work, really, just like forced families don’t.

For us, success is less about blending and more about confirming and holding on to those many identities, giving them space to thrive, while filling in the edges with the glue of all of us together.

My kid doesn’t want to lose me by blending in; they want to keep our relationship separate and special, as it should be. His kids don’t want to lose him; they want to hold to the traditions and time and inside jokes they made that make them feel safe and loved. And we don’t want to lose each other to the constant pressure of bills, work, mortgage, cleaning, school runs, parenting, dishes, and laundry.

Yet there’s a magic that comes out of it, too; we don’t carry all the same baggage of identity and forced belonging. There’s something pretty amazing about sitting down with a bunch of kids and reminding them that this family is a decision we consciously make every day, that this whole complicated messy living together thing was a choice we made because we thought life was better when we were all together.

For the most part, it is.

There are nights when I see them all lying in a tangle like a pile of puppies watching TV, everyone from the four-year-old to the sixteen-year-old glued to the screen of an old DC cartoon, and my man is pouring whiskey for us to share on the porch and the place is decently clean, and I think: this, this is it.

There are days when the house is full of screaming, running, laughing children having tickle fights and blasting music and playing jokes and I think: this, this is it.


There are days when I am convinced that if I step on one more Lego my head will actually explode; when everyone is home during my one hour of writing group and won’t stop asking for help, time, attention, or, my favorite, the location of their own things; when I run the bills and realise that this was the most terrible financial decision I ever made.

I was almost done raising kids and now I have to remind people to FLUSH AND WASH THEIR HANDS again and I don’t know if I can do it.

I’m in the kind of new family where I inherited a lot of young kids although mine is almost grown, and let me tell you, it is way bigger love than the fairy-tale wedding. Blended couples really do have the ultimate power-up of all relationships. I can’t think of something that says “I love you” more than “yes, I had less than a year til parental retirement but now I’m willing to deal with toddler tantrums, food that must be cut into particular shapes and the 7 am searches for one single shoe, for another fifteen years on top of the ones I already put in.” (Or, on his side, “yes, I’m willing to take on yet another angsty teenager who spends too much time on social media and thinks they know everything even though I have two of my own who already think I know nothing, Jon Snow.”)

In the middle of all that — and with the added pressures of working with other co-parents and ex-spouses to manage schedules, money, time, and emotions — the last thing any blended family wants to do is think about things like policy and taxes. But those things are creating silent, unserved multigenerational problems that affect millions of households around the world every single day.

so very many neuroses to manage. they should give us prizes for staying sane. photo by author.

In the US, the Census Bureau didn’t even start tracking nontraditional family arrangements until 2000, but we can still get some useful information from their tracking on the last two decades:

  • 1,300 new stepfamilies are forming every day, just in the US
  • 65% of remarriages involve children from a prior marriage on at least one side
  • 1 in 3 Americans is part of a blended family in some way — more than 100 million people

And that’s just in the US. Millions of couples around the world are trying to navigate this messy gray area that was established a hundred years ago by some Puritans in Britain.

The morality of legislating marriage as the boundary around what’s supported by society and what isn’t has failed us all — blended families and birth families alike.

There are no tax benefits, even if you get married — you’re already ‘splitting’ kids on tax returns with your exes. There are no custodial benefits, since usually the new co-parent has literally no legal rights to make decisions about what’s best for kids. And it’s a hard place to be when the exes are angry and sad and will hate you no matter how much the kids love you so that any change to anything requires a lawyer and a couple grand down.

In the US, if you get divorced (or don’t get married) and have kids together, both parents can’t claim their kids on taxes, even if it’s equal custody. You and your ex must “split” them in custody agreements and decide who gets the tax benefits of having a child together. Some trade years, some split refunds, some just screw each other over with a better lawyer. We write policies that treat kids as if they are property to be divided, as if kids are just the expression of their monetary value in tax credit systems.

But why wouldn’t parents be able to claim kids that they split time with equally, even if those kids aren’t their own? For birth parents who aren’t together any longer, you’re funding two houses, two sets of toys and clothes and food and school supplies and activities and car rides and sleepovers. For blended families, you’re funding all that for kids who aren’t even your own and who you have no legal or custodial rights to support. What’s so bad about recognizing and supporting parents of all kinds, not just the ones who get married in a Christian church and stay married?

Until those legal and policy systems catch up with modern humanity, the only benefits are the personal ones, the ones that you can’t count or quantify or articulate.

It’s things like the way it feels for a scared kid to wrap their arms and legs around you and hold on tight, the way it feels when you get covered in endless kisses while you’re washing dishes, the way the teenagers will come out of nowhere to talk to you about big deep important things and then disappear again just as suddenly. It’s sharing a silent moment of total victory with your partner when a kid uses their manners without being asked. None of the days are easy, but you always get to remember that you chose it, and they chose it, and you’re all here together figuring it out.

Those benefits are the reasons we do it, but there’s no reason it has to be this hard. Policy needs to catch up with humanity fast on this one — before we all start running for office and you realise just how many of us there are.