In The Blend is a podcast series that helps parents navigate life within a blended family. Join host Laura Jenkins as she speaks with experts and guests to get practical advice on how to have a harmonious blended family life.
This series dives deep into the unique dynamics, logistics, and challenges of raising a blended family. From new partners, to juggling mixed finances – Laura will help guide you through it.
Dr Lisa Doodson (00:00):
There are no normal families. There’s no sort of standard family. We’re all different. All families are different. In the Blend is a podcast series that helps parents navigate life within a blended family. Join me as I speak with experts and guests to get practical advice on how to have a harmonious blended family life. This series dives deep into the unique dynamics, logistics, and challenges of raising a blended family. From new partners, to juggling mixed finances, we will help guide you through it.
Laura Jenkins (00:34): Hello, and welcome to In The Blend. In today’s episode, we’re very fortunate to have one of the UK’s leading experts in step families, Dr. Lisa Doodson. Join us for an episode where we’ll dive into the wellbeing of parents in blended families, and what it takes to feel happier and more fulfilled with your situation in a blended family. I know, although I wouldn’t change a single thing, I have sometimes wondered whether life may have been a little less complicated had I met someone without kids. Instead of comparing yourself to others though, or wishing for something different, what if there was a way to not only accept and find peace with your situation, but to actually thrive into a truly happy, successful blended family parent? My guest today is here to provide you with plenty of realistic and hands on ideas to help you do just that. Welcome, Lisa. Thank you so much for joining me on In The Blend Podcast. How are you today?
Dr Lisa Doodson (01:31): Hi Laura. I’m great. Thank you. Really pleased to be here.
Laura Jenkins (01:34): Wonderful. I am very much looking forward to our chat today. As I just mentioned to you earlier, I have read your book, How to be a Happy Stepmum, which I found immensely helpful. Lisa, I’ve got many questions that I want to ask you, but to start off today, in your book you had a whole chapter on learning how to cope more effectively, and you talk about the importance of focusing on the positives in your relationship, rather than wishing for something different, for a first family type situation. What are some of the ways that people can focus more on the positives?
Dr Lisa Doodson (02:06): It’s a really interesting question, Laura, and it’s something that I think most people, when they find themselves in a blended family, it’s a lot more complex than they thought. When we’re struggling to cope, we could become stressed and anxious, and those thoughts sort of pervade our thinking. So we end up focusing on all the negatives, all the difficulties, and we forget why we’re there. We forget about all the positives. And I think it’s important to breathe, take a step back, and actually think about how much you love your partner, and what you do together, what you found the beginning of your relationship that you loved.
(02:42): And don’t forget that while you’re trying to build and integrate your family, your new family, think about what you enjoy doing together and don’t lose that. So it’s about keeping all those things present whilst you’re focusing on challenges… all the difficult little nuances of blended families that we all experience at different times. So it’s keeping that joy, I suppose, really, rather than being mired down in all the sort nitty gritty and the difficulties and the bad behaviour and you know, you are not my mum, and all of those things that are so common. We do get over it, but actually it’s about keeping positive throughout that.
Laura Jenkins (03:20): Definitely. I know in my own personal situation, I have at times, on reflection, been a little bit perfectionistic, I think, in terms of thinking about what is the ideal family, and that state of comparison can end up just creating a lot of anxiety, rather than making you feel very good about yourself, and your circumstance. So I think that’s really helpful.
Dr Lisa Doodson (03:43):Yeah. I think it’s worth remembering that there are no normal families anymore. We’re not… there’s no sort of standard family. We’re all different. All families are different, and it’s just a layer of complexity. So blended families are just quite tricky, because there’s lots of different relationships still current… it’s about managing all of that. So it’s just difficult and it’s about giving yourselves time. And that perfection, we all want to be the best we can be, but it’s only when you let yourself relax into who you are, rather than just trying to be this perfect step-parent or blended family that you can actually start to enjoy it.
Laura Jenkins (04:19): I love that. And as blended families learn to live together, how do the different stages of the development that they will go through as a family, impact one’s ability to cope more effectively?
Dr Lisa Doodson (04:31): The thing to think about here is that, most people that are in a blended family have gone through and are going through grief, whether it’s physically losing somebody, or there’s a breakdown of their relationship. And so for the adults, it’s moving on, and for the children it’s accepting that loss of parents living together maybe, and moving house, and finding new friends, and everybody’s got different challenges, and I think the thing to remember is that everybody moves on at different rates, and anyone who’s gone through any form of grief, will know that grief isn’t linear. We don’t just sort start getting better and recovering over time. It hits you in waves. So you might be going through a period where you are really happy and the kids are, for whatever reason, being grumpy or difficult or whatever, and that’s okay, but it’s about trying to understand why.
(05:25): So put yourselves in their shoes and think, well are they struggling? If you are with their dad, and their mum perhaps has found a new partner, maybe that’s difficult for them. Maybe they’ve moved to a different school, and so they’re feeling more vulnerable or anxious. And so I think it’s just being aware that you are in a process, and that process takes time and whilst you are okay, not everybody is at the same point. So it’s just being aware of that, and recognizing it, and using a range of different coping styles that you are comfortable with, to allow you to help everyone else, gather them all up, and bring them on that journey together.
Laura Jenkins (06:02): There’s no one-size-fits-all, in terms of how you go about any of this. That was something that really stood out for me as well, in your book, the ability to be able to either answer a quiz, or I could really identify with the different types of scenarios that you displayed in the book through the various examples… so everyone’s got a slightly different situation.
Dr Lisa Doodson (06:27): Yeah, exactly. And that’s what makes it so hard, because you can’t just sort of say, here’s the rule book, if you are a sort of blended family, there you go, it’s easy, because we all start… it’s not like a biological family where you know, you start with a couple, and then you add the children. You are all thrown together, and the children are at different ages. You might both have children, you then go on to have children together. There’s this whole mix, not to mention ex-partners and the wider family. So it’s complicated.
Laura Jenkins (06:57): So what are some of the different coping strategies then that listeners can think about, Lisa?
Dr Lisa Doodson (07:03): Perhaps the first place to start, is to look at what you do in any situation. So if you’re at work, what’s your sort of… what do you tend to do? Are you someone that relies on friends and you just sort want to go for a coffee and chat things over? Are you someone that sort of thinks about solutions and you’re much more practical or… there’s lots of different ways that we all cope with everyday life and that’s exactly the same thing, and all of those things are absolutely fine. So if you’ve got a challenge, you might want to write things down, you might want to talk to somebody, you might want to just sort of have a little break, and go and let your hair down. That’s all fine.
(07:42): The difficulty is when… what I found in my own research is that I was looking at stepmums in particular in this research, but stepmums tend to rely on what we call maladaptive coping, much more than biological mums. And that’s due to the stress. A maladaptive coping mechanism is when it’s not actually working. So it’s a coping mechanism that doesn’t help you cope. And those are the ones where we effectively… it’s a bit like an ostrich. You put your head in the sand, can’t see, don’t want to see, not listening, put your fingers in your ears, la, la, la, don’t want to hear, you’re not fixing a problem, you’re not addressing it. So it might help you in that moment because you just, you’ve run out of the ability to cope. But you need to come back and think, okay we have got this issue, how am I going to cope?
(08:30): A good example is when I was doing sort of research and talking to a lot of families, there was this lovely lady, and they just had a baby together, and she had two stepchildren, and they used to come and visit regularly, and she got herself into such a pickle because they would come to stay, and she got so anxious before they even came, that she’d work herself up so that the moment they pressed the door… she heard them coming in with their dad and they were excited. She would literally throw her coat on, grab the baby, put the baby in the push chair and say, “Oh I’m sorry. We’re just going out. I’ll see you later”. And she would run out and then she’d come back a bit later and find that her family were then all set, having fun without her. And so her coping mech mechanism actually was making her feel worse because she’d come back to feel the outsider in her own family. It was only by recognizing that issue and saying, okay, that coping mechanism isn’t working, it’s getting me out of the situation, but it’s not addressing it.
(09:30): So she had to stop and say, “Right, okay, I’m going to have a different mechanism where I’ll come in, I’ll welcome them but I’ll know I can go and call my friend later for a chat”. And so she had a routine that allowed her to channel that anxiety, if you like, so that she could cope in a small way and then move on. And over time it got better and better and things improved. So it’s about not relying… if you find yourself relying on these strategies where you’re not fixing the issue, that’s when you need to find new ones. And there’s lots of books, it doesn’t have to be my book, but there’s lots of different ways you can look at different coping strategies. They’re all effective in different ways, but it’s about how it works for you.
Laura Jenkins (10:12): And it takes some self-reflection as well, doesn’t it, to stop and think about how you’re behaving and why, and how that’s making you feel and then what you might do differently.
Dr Lisa Doodson (10:23): Yeah, exactly. And I know we talk about this, it’s a journey but it really is, it’s about just looking back and thinking, well why did that go wrong? What am I not doing or what could I do differently and what could my partner do differently to help me? You’ve got to be a team, you’re in it together, not on your own.
Laura Jenkins (10:42): So let’s touch on the support, of course, your partner, and family and friends, as well. How important are those networks, in terms of your own wellbeing, as someone in a blended family, and what are some ways people can go about widening that support network if it’s become a little bit narrow as well?
Dr Lisa Doodson (11:01): Just sharing, very quickly, some of the research in my past, that I was working on, I was expecting, but I found that step families, people, adults in step families, actually have less social support than biological families. And I thought that was a really strange finding. When you look at some of the reasons behind it, it makes sense. So for example, if you’re a single woman, and you meet someone with children, and suddenly you find yourself in a blended family, or a young stepmum, your friends are perhaps, not even mums yet. So suddenly you’ve got less in common. So you sort of tend to find that, you then see less of them perhaps, because they’re going out, and you can’t, because you’ve got the children to look after. You might even find you move houses to be closer to your partner and the children, the schools, and all of those things mean that you are less connected to people that you love and trust, and have a lot in common with, because you have less in common with them now.
(11:59): And even parents… your in-laws, if you like, often they can keep close with the biological mother or the biological father and it means that you are less connected. You don’t feel that they are supporting you in the same way perhaps. So all of those things mean that you can have less support. And we know that social support is so important for our wellbeing. It bolsters us, it gives us that confidence, and we know that the less support you have, the more stress you have, the greater the potential for depression, anxiety.
(12:30): It really is important to look at who you can lean on for support. And there’s three areas really it’s your partner, your friends and your family, your wider family. If you do a bit of a stock check and you’re looking around thinking, well I’ve lost a few friends or whatever, I think it’s about, okay well how can I either reconnect with those friends, or maybe if you’ve moved into a different area, look at how you could find some. Look at joining a club, or trying to find people that might have similar interests, or even are in a blended family, there might be some groups locally.
(13:07): So reconnect. And if you find that actually your own family or your partner’s family are not being as welcoming as you perhaps were hoping, it’s worth talking to them. It’s worth your partner talking to them and helping them understand, because there are no rule books for step families and we all have to struggle and find our own way. But equally, our friends and family need guidance as well. So we have to help them. So if they’re not doing what we want them to do, then perhaps sort of say, we could do with a bit of… could we have a bit more help and maybe you can help us with the children, or so that we can have a date night, that sort of thing. So it’s about recognising it first of all and then doing something about it.
Laura Jenkins (13:49): I identify with what you were saying a moment ago, Lisa. That was my own situation when I met Matt, in that, I was a single girl prior to that living in inner city Sydney in Surry Hills. And then when I met Matt, I moved over the other side of town to the northern beaches of Sydney, and it’s this whole new world and sort of instant family. But I found exactly that, that a lot of the friendship groups that I’d been part of prior, were no longer part of my day-to-day, from both of a geographical perspective and also just because of the stage of life in terms of having that instant family. So really interesting to hear you paint that example.
You talk about resentment being closely linked with stepparents’ wellbeing, and I really loved how you used something called the Social Exchange Theory in your book, to help readers understand the way that resentment can build. Can you explain that to us, and provide an overview of what you mean by the cost benefit thinking?
Dr Lisa Doodson (14:48): Yeah. So the first thing to think about is resentment. And it’s not a feeling that we like, as adults, as individuals, to feel resentful of something. It doesn’t feel good, does it? It’s not something you want to admit to, but I think it’s important to say it, because actually it’s very common with… certainly in my own research and speaking to clients over the years, it becomes very common for step families, because you’ve lost a lot of what you had, your life has changed quite a lot, and the resentment can appear because if you are, for example, like we talked about, if you are single and then suddenly you’ve got all these commitments and their instant commitments, they’re not just, they don’t just happen over a slow period of time. You can resent… the children can arrive, and suddenly, oh we can’t do anything this weekend because the children are coming.
(15:42): Oh I can’t go out. I can’t meet my friends. I can’t do… so you end up focusing on all the cants, rather than the cans. It’s like, well if they weren’t here, we could do these things. It builds, and clearly it’s not their fault, and it’s not fair to blame the children, but they become this sort of embodiment of that resentment. And actually it’s about recognising that feeling, and where it comes from, because whilst it’s common, it’s not great to keep having it. It’s about saying, right, I don’t like feeling this way. How do I change it? because the children aren’t going to disappear, and nor should they. How do I find a different way of coping?
(16:23): And I think one of the ways is to look at this exchange theory. So we use social exchange. We don’t realise we’re using it, but life is all about cost benefits. If you decide to, I don’t know, to do some charity work, why do you do it? Well there’s a cost isn’t it? There’s a cost of your time. It might cost you money to travel there. It might miss things that… you can’t go to a party because you’re doing this work or whatever it is. There’s a cost. So what’s the tangible benefit? Well it’s less tangible, I suppose, in that example because it’s about feeling good, isn’t it? It makes your heart feel better. You feel you are doing something to help people maybe, or watching other people benefit from what you are doing. So it’s recognising those benefits and we don’t generally sort of write them down, we don’t go, Why am I going to do that? Well I’ll write down the negatives and the positives and then I’ll decide. We don’t do that.
(17:17): In our heads, we’re doing it all the time, because we make these decisions about everything in life. In terms of looking at when you’ve got this resentment, it might just be about reminding yourself of all the things you’ve gained. So yes, you might have had a difference in friendship groups, or having to move home or whatever, but presumably you’ve done it because you’ve met this wonderful person and they are your world at the moment, and you want to enjoy that. So when you are doing things, for example, if we go back to the children arriving and you thinking I can’t do this now, think about why you’re doing it. You’re doing it in the beginning of the relationship, not because what you’re going to gain, because quite frankly if you don’t know these little people that well, it’s not going to be a wonderful experience. You’re not going sit there genuinely going, “great”, because you are all getting to know each other.
(18:09): But you should be looking at your partner and thinking, look at his face, look at the joy now when these children walk through the door, they are so happy that they’re here. Conversely, your partner has to recognise that you doing all the things for the children are actually for him or her, and say to you at the end of that weekend or whenever they go home, give you a big hug and say you are amazing. And it’s about that exchange of feelings and knowledge that you are both doing it for each other. And it might not come naturally, it might not feel perfect at the beginning, but you’ve got to support each other, and it’s recognising all those positives that sort of set the scales a little bit, because in the example of the helping in charity, they’re intangible benefits, but it’s about what it feels like and it’s recognising those things in your step family.
Laura Jenkins (19:04): I love that. Being really comfortable with the here-and-now, and the little things… being more mindful of those.
Dr Lisa Doodson (19:12): Exactly.
Laura Jenkins (19:13): Something else, Lisa, is this idea of role ambiguity, which you talk about as well in some of your work. How can role ambiguity contribute to factors that might detract from your confidence as a stepparent in a blended family?
Dr Lisa Doodson (19:29): Basically, in our life, we have multiple roles. We might be a manager at work, we might be a teacher, we might be taking our kids to school, so we might be homeschooling them, when they’re doing their homework. We might be doing the washing, the cleaning, the cooking. We do all these roles. We cope with them really well generally speaking, where we sort of juggle, and it’s only when there’s a crossover, there’s a clash in roles that we struggle. And a good example of that is being a mum, and being a stepmum, or being a single person, and then suddenly being a stepmum. What does that mean, and how do I cope with that? What is that role? And if the role isn’t clear… imagine if you’re at work, and someone gives you a new role, and you say, well, what does the spec say? What do I have to do for this role? What are my expectations? You normally like to know what the boundaries are for that.
(20:25): Whereas you’re suddenly handed this stepparent role and it’s really fuzzy. It’s like, well do you help with schoolwork, or do you go to parents evening, or do you tell the children off if they’re a bit naughty, do you take them to bed? Do you bath them? There’s all of these things, and I can’t and shouldn’t be sat there going, “Well yes you should or no you shouldn’t. And Laura, no absolutely, that’s not on your list of to-dos” because it depends on so many variables… the age of the children, how long you’ve been together, whether you are living together, not living together, whole range. So it’s up to you and your partner to decide. And I think the important thing is to work out what you want your role to be.
(21:06): And it’s not so much whether that’s right or wrong. There certainly is no right or wrong. It’s only whether your definition of that agrees with your partners’, because the closer it is, the less issues you’re likely to have. If your partner thinks, well I want you to be the replacement dad or the replacement mum, and you just want to be the… I’ll just step back for a bit, I don’t think I’m ready for that, then it’s not going to work. It’s going to cause lots of conflicts. So really my advice is to work out what feels right, what feels appropriate, and talk to your partner, and make sure they support that so that’s how you interact. And it can change. It doesn’t have to be fixed, because as the children grow, and your confidence grows, it can change.
Laura Jenkins (21:51): That’s so helpful thinking about it that way, rather than thinking there’s one answer, or one way that it should be, in your role as a blended family parent.
Dr Lisa Doodson (22:01): Exactly.
Laura Jenkins (22:02): We’ve covered a lot of ground here with all sorts of different ideas to help us create more wellbeing in our blended family lives. Are there any final top tips you can provide to help parents in blended families perhaps, better cope with their situation, to feel less anxious, and overall feel that greater sense of wellbeing and happiness?
Dr Lisa Doodson (22:25): Tough ask there, Laura. I’ve got to do all of that in a few words, but I’ll do my best. I think the first thing I would say is that, you need to have realistic expectations. Step families, blended families, take time. And I don’t mean months, I mean years. And that doesn’t mean that you know are not blended and then five years later you are. It’s a slow process, but it’s about giving it time, because like we talked about really early on, there’s a lot of grief in loss. So everybody’s sort of lost something, and it’s getting over that loss, and everybody getting to the point where they feel comfortable in this new family unit. So it’s setting those realistic expectations. Don’t expect the children to be comfortable with you as the stepparent really early on. Why would they be? They don’t know you. You don’t know them. So it’s about getting to know each other.
(23:18): I think it’s important to talk to your partner about what’s going well, as well as, not going so well. So as we said, again, don’t focus just on the negative, focus on the positive. So if things are improving, it’s about saying, I really enjoyed yesterday afternoon when we went to the park, or when we did that activity, went for a bike ride, whatever. It was really good fun, let’s do it again. And recognising that and making sure you put it in the memory bank. And it is about making memories. If you try too hard, it feels forced, the children will know, it feels forced as well. You’ve got to do things together to make memories that you enjoy. So I know that’s difficult if the children are perhaps different ages, and how do you find something that everybody’s going to enjoy and you are going to enjoy.
(24:08): Make sure there is something, even in a small way… you might go for a bike ride together, and then go and have something to eat or have a picnic. Just enjoy it. Enjoy the time together, because if you are relaxed, you’ll be just yourself and they get to know you. If they’re enjoying themselves, they’ll be relaxed. And actually you can have those in your memory bank and then when things aren’t going so well, you can think, well that’s okay, we had a really good time last week. What’s gone wrong? What have we done? Or is it just somebody’s tired or whatever? So make your memories together. And I would say plan. Plan is really important, particularly in the early days. So if you’ve got the children coming for a weekend, for example, think about what you’re going to do over that weekend. Don’t just sort of leave it open and say, oh, let’s see, because actually if you are feeling anxious, that’s just going to make your anxiety just skyrocket.
(25:03): Have a plan, think well, okay, maybe split it into… if it’s a Saturday, a morning and an afternoon, and a Sunday morning, afternoon and have some time where maybe the children are just with their biological parent, and you can have a bit of time out, a couple of hours to go and visit a friend. Just go and have a little time reading a book or whatever you enjoy, because you can recharge your batteries and when they come back you can feel completely engaged again, and sort of, tell me about your afternoon, what have you done with your mum, with your dad, and that’s a good thing. So split it up, plan, make those memories, and don’t try and do everything. Don’t run before you can walk. Just take it slowly, keep talking to your partner, keep talking to friends, even about things not related to the family, but just so that you have other outlets that you feel you can just sort of have fun and be yourself. Things will improve, I promise, over time, but it’s just about, it will take time.
Laura Jenkins (26:00): So many good tips. Thank you so much Lisa for that. I could keep firing the questions at you all day today, but we’re out of time. Lisa, where can listeners go to connect with you and learn more about your book and the work that you’re putting out into the world via your Happy Steps website?
Dr Lisa Doodson (26:20):
Oh, thanks Laura. Well, they can go on my website. I mean, I’m based in the UK. The website is happysteps.co.uk. They can join me on Instagram. Ever since lockdown, I’ve done quite a few videos and different posts on Insta, too, so that people can access things as quickly and easily as possible. So that’s Happysteps_DrLisa. Obviously, there’s the book. I think you can get that on Amazon or it’s quite freely available. And I think those are the main things and if they want to contact me, the details are on the website, but I’m more than happy to hear from anyone, and I’d love to hear feedback from the podcast.
Laura Jenkins (27:01): Amazing. Thank you so much, Lisa. And we will link to all of that in the show notes. Once again, thanks for your time and hope to have you on the show again soon.
Dr Lisa Doodson (27:10): Oh, well good luck with everything Laura. I hope it all works well. I look forward to hearing all about it, and it’s great to link up with you and making the world a bit of a smaller place. I think it’s great.
Laura Jenkins (27:21): Thanks for listening In The Blend Podcast. The show notes for this episode are available at intheblend.com.au, and if you like what you heard, be sure to subscribe and please rate and review in your podcasting app. You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.