Blended Families Can Overcome the Odds
As soon as 5-year-old Nate sees the two girls hop from their father's car, he starts squealing.
He dashes through the empty house as Shayla, 12, tears off after him, tackling him with hugs of affection. While they play, Simone, 17, examines the room that will soon be hers.
The girls' father, Tom Staley, and Nate's mother, Jakey Hoffman, have been working on the Rochester Hills, Mich., home since purchasing it earlier this month. The couple plan to marry in August, officially joining the ranks of more than 12.2 million blended American families.
"Blended families are the norm now," says Jeannette Lofas, founder of the Stepfamily Foundation in New York. "The majority of American families are in some form of step arrangement."
For every 100 marriages, 46 involve a remarriage for one or both partners, according to the Council on Contemporary Families. Of the remarriages, 24 are a remarriage for both people. About 65 percent of remarriages involve children under 19.
The Center for Divorce Reform estimates that at least 40 percent of all marriages end in divorce. But blended families face even greater challenges. More than 60 percent of remarried or recoupled families break up when children are involved, according to the Stepfamily Foundation, a research and support network based at Westbrook University in New York City.
"Yes, these families have lots of challenges," says Stephanie Coontz, a spokeswoman for the Council on Contemporary Families, "but they can be healthy to the extent that they're seen as an extension of the family instead of a break from one family to another."
Can we all just get along?
However, sometimes unrealistic expectations of blissful Brady Bunch bonding get in the way of reality.
"One of the biggest things that hurt us in the beginning was our kids weren't getting along," says Amy Retsel, 37, who married Jamie Retsel, 39, two years ago.
Her two sons from a previous marriage, Blair Peter, 13, and Louis Peter, 10, live with them in Waterford Township, Mich. Every other weekend his three children from a previous marriage — son Nic, 17, and daughters Nomi, 11, and Sierra, 8, visit from their home in West Branch.
Typical children's squabbles about little things like who gets to sit where in the family van and where to go on family outings became major battles with cries of unfairness coming from children on both sides. "We learned to say, 'This is where we're going and next time maybe it'll be your turn,' " Amy Retsel says.
"You had seven different personalities put into one household. There's just no way for it to be peace and quiet and delightful all the time," she says. "I think if anything in the long run, they'll all be better because it's teaching them to be open-minded, flexible and tolerant."
The transition to a blended family wasn't initially easy for DeAngelo and Linda Alexander of Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich.
Married for six years, their family includes her two sons, DeAndre Henderson, 20, and Khalil Gallien, 10, and the son they had together, DeAngelo II, who's 4. DeAngelo's daughter from a previous relationship, Asya Alexander, 12, lives with her mother in Detroit most of the time, but has her own room at her father's house.
DeAndre admits he wasn't ready to welcome a new man into their family with open arms. He'd been used to having his mother to himself. "It was really hard for me at first because I didn't want to share her.
"Then I thought about it and I realized I'm not going to be here forever, and who I am to deny her her happiness," says DeAndre, a junior at Howard University in Washington, D.C. "If you really love your parents, you want them to be happy."
Asya also says she didn't like the idea of another woman taking her mom's place, but she's adjusting. "Now it feels just like a regular family," she says.
DeAngelo and Linda work at making each child feel comfortable. "We never use the term 'step,' " DeAngelo Alexander says. "As a matter of fact, I sometimes forget I am not the biological parent of a couple of the kids. It's not like they have stepparents; it's more like they have extra parents."
A blended future
Jakey Hoffman and Tom Staley are optimistic about their future as a blended family.
Neither daughter has decided whether they'll live primarily with their father in Rochester Hills or remain with their mother in Macomb Township. But they're happy to be gaining a new family.
"I was glad when I found out they were getting married," Simone says. "I really liked her right away."
Shayla agrees. "Nate, he's like a real little brother. We're just like brothers and sisters. We've gotten along ever since we've gotten to know them."
Tom Staley grew up in a blended family and says he has learned lessons that will help his new family.
"You have to earn respect. You don't just walk in and take it," says Staley, who was raised by his biological mother and stepfather. When he turned 19, as a Father's Day gift he changed his name to Staley — his stepfather's last name.
"I am so blessed because we all get along with each other and with each other's ex-spouses," says Hoffman, a communications specialist at GM Online. "If our kids didn't like one or the other person, we wouldn't have planned to marry."
The girls' mother, Valeriece Staley, says she's glad her daughters will have another person in their lives who cares about them.
"I think Jakey's great," she says. "For me to be threatened or intimidated would be silly. It's not like people have a limited amount of love to give. Bringing someone else into their lives who loves them can only be a good thing."