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Video: Balancing a blended family

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    SAVANNAH GUTHRIE reporting: This morning on PARENTING TODAY , balancing blended families . Whether it's due to death or divorce, it's a stressful transition for both adults and children . Jane Green is the author of " Another Piece of My Heart ," and TODAY contributor and psychotherapist Robi Ludwig is here as well. They've both got some helpful advice on making the difficult adjustment a little bit easier. Good morning, ladies.

    Ms. ROBI LUDWIG: Good morning.

    Ms. JANE GREEN (Author, "Another Piece of My Heart"): Good morning.

    GUTHRIE: And, Jane , you know whereof you speak. You have four kids, you have two stepkids, and you wrote about this in a fictional way in your book. But tell us about some of the obstacles and struggles you encountered as a stepmother.

    Ms. GREEN: Well, thankfully, my own experiences didn't go into my book, which features a 17-year-old going off the rails with drink and drugs and everything else. But during the research for the book I came across so many stepmothers that there was a dynamic that I kept coming across where they found a man, loved him, his children didn't like her, and they thought, 'But I'm a good person and if I love them enough and if I'm kind enough and do enough nice things, I will make this work.' And...

    GUTHRIE: Robi , this has to be textbook.

    Ms. LUDWIG: Right. And I think a lot of people have this myth that when you have a blended family , everyone will come together easily and effortlessly, it'll look like the " Brady Bunch ." And really, it does take about three to seven years for everybody to adjust to their new role.

    GUTHRIE: Which is really interesting. Measure your progress in years.

    GUTHRIE: I mean, Jane , did you encounter some of those struggles and difficulties initially?

    Ms. GREEN: Yes, I -- certainly some of the issues that I had were parenting when you're not the parent.

    GUTHRIE: Hm.

    Ms. GREEN: And particularly, you have one set of rules for your own children , but then when your stepchildren are there you don't want to be the enforcer...

    Ms. LUDWIG: Right.

    Ms. GREEN: ...because you want to be liked, you want to -- you want everything to be wonderful. And so you end up saying to your children , you know, 'Clear the plates,' and your stepchildren -- you don't say anything at all and then that causes problems.

    GUTHRIE: And I want to talk about that dynamic in a moment...

    Ms. LUDWIG: Yeah.

    GUTHRIE: ...between the difference in how you treat the stepchildren plus -- and your own children . But first, Robi , I know you've got some tips at how to make this transition as easy as possible.

    Ms. LUDWIG: Right. I think you need to let the children also grieve, because these blended families come about due to loss either through divorce or through death. So each person needs to find their role. And part of what helps that happen is finding a new family ritual. And it doesn't mean doing something exciting like going on a vacation because we can 't do that every day. But maybe it's a family dinner where everybody gets to talk and connect, or a game night or watching a movie, something on a regular basis so everybody can kind of find their new rules, their new ways, their new language of being together.

    GUTHRIE: And, Jane , you touched on what must be one of the thorniest issues for parents, which is discipline, and I suppose you really want to have a unified front.

    Ms. GREEN: Yeah. And actually that -- in my own life, we found that the key to everything was really working together as a team. I love what Robi said about finding your own traditions because we absolutely had that. And also, I had to really accept that although for us as adults it was gain -- we thought, 'Well, we're creating this wonderful big family' -- for the children it was not only more loss on top of the loss they'd already experienced, but it was permanent loss. When their -- when their parent marries somebody else, the loss becomes permanent. And I think so important, for me, to realize that when we hit the bumps, it was a child in pain.

    GUTHRIE: Robi , what's the bottom line? I mean, if you are a stepparent, should you be attempting to parent your stepchildren or should you be saying, 'Well, I'll leave that to my spouse'?

    Ms. LUDWIG: Well, what the experts say is that the two parents coming together need to make those rules ahead of time so that there's an agreement and so when a stepparent needs to discipline they don't feel like they're going outside of the boundaries of what they can and cannot do.

    Ms. LUDWIG: And you have to remember this new couple is the foundation of the new family...

    Offscreen Voice: Hm.

    Ms. LUDWIG: ...so you need to figure out how to stay strong so that everybody else can fall into line.

    GUTHRIE: We have about 20 seconds left, so let's leave them on a high note. You say there are a lot of benefits to a blended family .

    Ms. GREEN: Oh, when all the kids are together it's completely magical. And also, I've learned how to be a better mother because I've been more present for my stepkids because I've had to be. And it's helped me in so many ways and...

    Ms. LUDWIG: And it can bring new people into your life, new friends.

    Ms. GREEN: Oh. Yeah.

    Ms. LUDWIG: And families are fluid.

    Ms. GREEN: Yeah.

    GUTHRIE: Yeah.

    Ms. LUDWIG: If you're a nuclear or blended, it doesn't matter. So there are always people coming in and out, and that's a beautiful thing.

    Ms. GREEN: Yeah.

    GUTHRIE: "And that's the way we became the Brady Bunch ."

    Ms. LUDWIG: That's right .

    GUTHRIE: All right, Jane Green and Robi Ludwig , thank you so much .

TODAY books
updated 4/10/2012 4:00:28 PM ET 2012-04-10T20:00:28

In Jane Green's "Another Piece of My Heart," the celebrated novelist explores the complicated, emotionally charged dynamic when a woman marries into divorced father of two. Here's an excerpt.

On their first date, Ethan talked about his children nonstop, which was, as far as Andi was concerned, an unexpected bonus.

They met through Match .com, a continual embarrassment to Andi. But where else did anyone go to meet people? she wondered.

She had done a series of evening classes with what she thought was a masculine bent— Fundamentals of Investing, Estate Planning 101, and Beginner’s Best Barbecue. (Which was a dud. What red-blooded American man, she realized, as she sat in an empty classroom, would admit to not being able to barbecue?)

None produced so much as a date. There were, admittedly, random times she would meet men, or be flirted with in a coffee shop, but they never led to anything permanent.

At thirty-seven she realized, with a shock, she had to be proactive. Sitting back and assuming, as she always had, that she would be married with a large group of smiling kids wasn’t the natural order of her life, and unless she took the bull by the horns, she was possibly going to fi nd herself single, frighteningly, for the rest of her life.

It wasn’t as if her life wasn’t full. Her twenties were spent working in interior design, for a small store in Fairfield, Connecticut, where she had grown up. As she approached thirty, her mother suggested she get a real-estate license, and although Andi enjoyed selling houses, it was what she had to suggest to the homeowners they do, in order to sell their houses, that was her true passion.

Andi loved design. She saw how the addition of new rugs and curtain panels, and moving furniture could transform a home. She started off ering her ser vices as a “home- stager”—someone who would come in and beautify the interiors, for minimum cost, in order to sell. Soon she had a ware house fi lled with furniture she would rent out to her clients, and reams of fabrics from which she could have curtains, or pillows, or bedspreads quickly made.

Hear Jane Green read an excerpt from the audio book, "Another Piece of My Heart."

It wasn’t long before it was her primary business.

Her mother got sick after that. Breast cancer. She fought hard, and won a reprieve, for a while. She assured Andi that moving to California with Brent, the man Andi thought she would marry, was absolutely the right thing to do.

St. Martins Press

Even when the cancer returned, spreading to her bones, then finally to her liver and lungs, she insisted that Andi stay in California. She knew that Andi had found a peace on the West Coast she had never found at home.

It was true that one week after landing in San Francisco, despite having spent her entire life on the East Coast, Andi knew that at heart she had always been a West Coast girl, through and through.

The sunshine! The warmth! How laid- back everyone was! San Francisco! The Pacific Coast Highway! The redwood forests! The wine country!

The list was endless.

Brent married someone else: in fact, the woman he had started sleeping with almost as soon as he began his new job in San Francisco, and Andi stayed, staging homes all over the East Bay.

Match.com was fun for a while, then disheartening. She always prepared for a date, terrified he wouldn’t like her, that somehow, although she was blond, and green- eyed, and girl-next-doorish, they would be disappointed.

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All of them wanted to see her again, but she rarely wanted to see them. Until Ethan. He seduced her with his open face, his wide smile, his easy charm. They had met for drinks, which had become dinner, and when he left to go to the bathroom, Andi had watched him walk through the restaurant with a smile on her face. He has a great butt, she found herself thinking, with shock.

He had been divorced three years. His little one, Sophia, was great, he said, but Emily was harder. His eyes had welled up as he talked about Emily—how much he loved his firstborn, how difficult this had been for her, and how he would do anything, anything, to bring her some happiness.

I will help you, Andi had thought, her heart spilling over for this sensitive, kind, loving man. One date led to two, led to them sleeping together, led to Andi realizing, very quickly, that for the first time in years, she could see herself spending the rest of her life with a man. With this man.

She could see herself building a life with him, having children with him. He was clever, and creative, and hardworking.

Hear Jane Green read an excerpt from the audio book, "Another Piece of My Heart."

Ethan was supposed to have been a banker, he told her soon after they met. Or have run a large corporation. He was supposed to have done something that would make his parents proud, not to have started a landscaping business in school— merely to pay off his loan—a business that became so successful, so quickly, he had decided to devote himself to growing it once he had left school.

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He’d started mowing lawns himself, paying a cheap hourly rate to Carlos and Jorge, who had recently made the arduous trek from Mexico.

“I was a clean-cut college kid with good ideas.” He dismissed Andi when she said how talented he must have been. “And I was willing to work hard. That was all. I’d show up with some men to mow a lawn and start chatting with the homeowner, asking the wives if they’d ever thought of planting a lavender bed next to the path, or the husbands if they’d ever considered a built- in barbecue, or fire pit.”

“I bet they always said yes.” Andi’s eyes sparkled in amusement.

Ethan just grinned.

He took on a mason, and by the time he had graduated from Berkeley, he had four full- time crews working for him.

When he met Andi, he had six. Now he has ten, plus a thriving landscape- design business.

Andi couldn’t have imagined a more perfect man for her had she tried.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive


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