We all want to think (and hope) that once we have found our king or queen, happily ever after and a blissful family will automatically follow. But if you have ever experienced heartbreak and divorce you know the reality is that happy families (and healthy relationships) don’t just happen because we fall in love. They take a little bit of luck, a lot of effort and our most precious resource, time.
Time is something we all wish we had more of. Our perception of time is crucially bound up with memories and our experiences of people, places and events. It is not limited to a single series of events though, but as plurality of overlapping moments, events and sequences and durations. Our sense of time is also not a purely automatic or innate process. It is a complex activity that we develop and actively learn as we grow as an individual and as a family. For separating parents the actual break-up of the family unit, that moment when parents establish separate residences, abruptly changes everyone’s subjective experience of time. The intervals between seeing one loved ones can be regarded as painfully long, and the time spent together as lasting too short by children and parents, even in circumstances where it technically they might be the same amount of time as measured in minutes and/or hours. In this way everyday decisions we make as simple as either walking the children to school or taking car, are based on the experienced passage of time and anticipated duration. Unique to separating families is how time can almost become a material object that is intensely fought over (in Court), grieved for and ruminated about. Any chasm that might have existed between children and adults and between women’s and men’s experiences of time, at work, at home and with one another prior to separation can often widen post-separation and then again when parents re-partner and there are even more people vying for what is essentially the same amount of time. Time is a big deal.
Now, a strong stepfamily knows that spending time together is important for building meaningful stepfamily ties.
After all, the more time you spend together with those that live in your home, the better chance you have of creating and sharing memorable experiences. It is the intermingling of different experiences of time across a variety of contexts between various members of a stepfamily that form the hub of family life and which are critical for individual and family wellbeing. No matter which way you look at it, it simply takes time to forge stepfamily relationships that flourish and move beyond the superficial stage.
Somehow, in amongst the demands of modern day life, which let’s face it can leave even the closet of families feeling, at times, like ships passing in the night, stepparents need to find time to be with our partner/spouse (as a couple); time to be with family; time spent one on one with our stepchild; time with our own children if you have them; as well as time to play, relax, eat, sleep, and work. Thats a lot of time. So when quantity of time is be in short supply, it may come down to the quality of time spent together and the tradeoffs and/or tough choices that we are willing to make, in order to “find” enough time to make it all work.
Now, a trade-off is essentially giving something in exchange for something that you want; kind of like a bartering system, but a little different.
As we go about our daily life we frequently, sometimes without even thinking about it, create trade-offs between different dimensions of our well-being, whereby one aspect of our well-being improves but another aspect might decrease as a result of a choice we make. For example, we might choose to live further away from the CBD and/or our place of work in order to be able to afford the type of house we want or to pay cheaper rent; the trade-off might be that we have a longer commute to and from work, perhaps meaning that you do not get see the children until after dinner or just before they go to bed.
Throughout our adult life span, as we strive to find success in our work-life-family balance quest, the balance sheet continually adjusts and readjusts as we weigh up short term gratification against other short term needs and/or longer term goals – between which there can often be conflict. Not surprising given that time found to build and nurture relationships, will unavoidably encroach on other areas of our life that we value, including personal and/or professional time. In this context how we view, use, and seek to control time, and how successful are we at it depends, in part, about what trade-offs and/or tough choices we are prepared to make at any given moment.
So much of step-family life, like life in general, is a series of trade-offs and tough choices, made in order to reclaim lost time or find time. For instance, think about the parent/step-parent who loves surfing and has always spent a significant amount of time, before work in the mornings, during weekends or whilst on holidays, riding the waves, enjoying that feeling of being part of the ocean. Perhaps they even use surfing as a release for stress. It is possible that in order to build and maintain the relationships they want in their stepfamily life, they end up spending less time in the surf than they are used to, want to and would like to. Or how about the step-couple, one of whom might choose to forgo regular Friday after work drinks with work colleagues in order to ensure that the step-couple have an opportunity to spend time together, just the two of them before the kids arrive to the house, early the following morning. What about the parent holding off introducing their child to their new partner (until the parent is certain of where the relationship is heading) meaning that they and their new beau do not get to spend as much time together as perhaps they would like to in the early stages of their burgeoning relationship.
As stepparents and parents we work hard trying to balance multiple households, relationships and people, all with lots of different needs. And all of whom may experience time very differently. It can be difficult work. Choosing what to “trade” in order to have more time to invest in our relationships and in growing great kids & stepkids (or trying to), may mean less time spent in other activities. But the trade-off in creating a fulfilling step- family unit is the ultimate priority for many of us who have re-partnered.
We’d be interested to hear your take on this. What give-and-take have you seen in your attempts to find more time and build better balance in your stepfamily life? What tips or suggestions would you give to others? What trade-offs have you tried that worked well or perhaps didn’t work as well as you had hoped?