Q. What is your background story?
Juanita and I had eight children. She was very, very healthy, but then one day we found out that she had cancer. Our whole lives changed quickly. Her initial treatment was nine months, and then she had a round of chemotherapy, surgery, another round of chemotherapy and then radiation, and then she was in remission. She was in remission for nine months, and then the cancer came back. Fifteen months after that, cancer won and she passed away in April 2005.
I was a single dad for about a year before I met Tammy. The way that Tammy and I met was pretty cool. I had written an article in a magazine, and the article was published in April 2006. It was an article about principles and values that shape marriages and families. Tammy was a widow. Her husband, Mark, had been a basketball coach at a high school and just unexpectedly died of a heart attack. Tammy’s routine, as a single mom of four children, was to put the kids to bed, get in the Jacuzzi tub with a handful of chocolate chips and read from this magazine. That night she read my article and thought it was a fine article.
During the night she was awakened several times with a thought to send a comment to the editor of the magazine, thanking him for that insightful article. She dismissed that thought but in the morning, it kept coming back. Finally, around noon, she sent a comment to the editor. The editor at the magazine knew I was having a tough time and he thought that email would brighten my day. So he forwarded it to me about seven minutes after she sent it. I was having a particularly bad day that day, and the comment did lift my spirits. I figured out how to contact her back to thank her for the comment. Tammy and I emailed back and forth a few times and then we talked on the phone. Then we went out, and then we got engaged, and then we got married. And now we are blending a family with twelve children.
At the time we got married, there were four children married and there were eight children plus a nephew living at home. I really got the best end of the deal, because I went from being a single dad working full time with six children at home, and she went from being a stay-at-home mom with three children at home to then having nine children at home. It was a big adjustment.
Q. Starting out, was it a worry how the families were going to blend together in the same house?
I’m a professor. I’m a PhD. I know stuff like this. And it’s not comforting to know that what makes blending hard is having children from the two different families living in the same home, and then having that many children coming together! Our demographic has about an 80% divorce rate. The chances of us making it, the odds were about 1 in 5, because there were so many children from each marriage - together. So, yeah, we had real serious problems. Tammy and I both recognized that. We were not just getting married for us, but we were getting married for our families.
So, after we knew we wanted to be married, then we introduced each other to our families. We knew those introductions would be a show-stopper if it wasn’t going to work. For my family, I took Tammy with me and my kids on a backpacking trip. She was really worried about that - she thought it was going to be Parent Trap 2!
It actually ended up quite well. She slept in a tent with my daughters and I slept with my sons in another tent. I could hear them talking. I couldn’t understand what they were saying and it drove me crazy. I took an Ambien and six hours later I woke up and they were still talking. They had talked all night! It appeared that it was going to work from that end. And then the next week she took me with her and her kids on a trip, and it kind of worked out. So then we decided to get married.
Q. How did the kids adjust after you were married and had moved in together?
That is a very complicated question. The married children didn’t live with us, and more easily accepted it. Tammy’s youngest daughter had never really known her father, and had always wanted a dad, so she was okay with it. The ones that had the hardest time were the teenagers, particularly my teenage daughters. So that was a really tough adjustment. I’m a very easy-going guy, and teenagers kind of like it when they have total freedom. And with me, they had kind of had total freedom - along with taking on the role of mother with the younger kids. When Tammy came in, boy, there was some conflict there because of that. All of a sudden there was more structure, there were more rules, and they couldn’t just do what they wanted to anymore. There was a difficult adjustment period.
Q. If you were talking to other couples who are blending families due to divorce or widowhood, what specific suggestions can make that transition a little easier?
The very first thing is to have realistic expectations. If you do a really, really good job blending your family, after about four years it will start feeling like a first family. If you don’t get divorced and you make it to seven years, most families feel like a first family. That is just the reality of it.
Another key factor is that whenever there is a blended family, there has been incredible loss. If there has been a death, there’s grief. If there has been a divorce, there’s bitterness and guilt. Those are all very powerful emotions that tend to be transferred to the incoming family - to the stepfamily. A step-child might yell at you and say, “I hate you! You’re not my Dad!” As a step-parent you have to realize that’s not about you. It’s about grief, or loss, or something else. You have to be big enough to not take it personally. And that is a challenge. Just realize that is normal and it is a period of time before step-children feel that you’re a friend. Your objective should not be to be a parent to your step-children, especially initially. It should be to be someone they can count on, someone who is a friend, and so forth. And just take time.
I always say, T.T.T. = Things Take Time. And life is hard, but you can do hard things. When life doesn’t go as planned, don’t get frustrated, make the best of it. That’s what you’ve got to do when you’re blending families.
Q. How long have you and Tammy been married?
Q. You said the success rate is low. You’ve made it through those first seven years, now that you are over the hump, what is it like now?
There is a great reward in knowing that you can love a whole different set of people. I didn’t really realize how much the biological really connects you with people. For example, being a father-figure to children that I didn’t father, it’s a lot more difficult. But when it works, there are just these moments that are so satisfying.
There are some real benefits to the kids in the fact that they have had the opportunity to have extra parents. Most kids just get two, but our children all get to have three. And you learn something fundamental from each parent, so the fact that they have had three, that is an extra benefit.
I actually feel like I have had two different lives. In the groove of a life you don’t appreciate it because it becomes more routine. My life is very different now than it was ten years ago. It is really, very different. It is like the difference between day and day. Not night and day. The difference between two days. Both really wonderful - really wonderful lives.
Q. What did/do Tammy’s kids call you?
We made sure that we didn’t insist on anything. Some would call me Jeff. The period of time has come now that all of the children call me “Dad,” and all of the children call Tammy, “Mom.” All of them.
There is a cute story about my son, Seth, the youngest one. He had always called Tammy, “Tammy.” Tammy is very good about teaching our kids about intimacy. And so she said one day, “Jeff, what have you taught him?” And I said, “I haven’t taught him anything!” And she said, “Well, don’t you think it’s about time that we talk to him?” She has a real nice, warm, wonderful way about teaching about the sacred things of intimacy, that is really quite tender. So we set up a time with Seth, I think he was ten, and sent all the other kids away so we had an hour just with him. We talked all about this and it was really a sweet thing. Well, just a few weeks later they had the maturation talk that they have in 5th grade. So all the boys were there, and Tammy went with Seth. Tammy said the instructor did a great job, but a lot of the boys were just really immature, awkward, embarrassed, and saying crazy things - you know how boys can be. As Tammy and Seth were leaving, Seth took her hand, and said, “Mom (and that was the first time he had ever called her mom), thanks for talking to me. I would have been so embarrassed if you hadn’t have talked to me about those things. Don’t you think those boys were so immature!” It was a really cute thing.
Another funny story. We were sitting down one day and Tammy was talking with the kids, and it was her daughter’s birthday. So Tammy talked about the day her daughter was born, and going to the hospital and all the things that happened on the day that she was born. And then she came to her other son, and talked about all the things that had happened the day that he was born. And then she came to my youngest son and she said, “I’m so embarrassed, I just can’t remember the day that I gave birth to you!”
That was kind of an indication that we had gotten to the point where we just felt like one family.
Q. What are little things you and Tammy do for each other that nurture your marriage?
The kids were kind of uncomfortable about us expressing physical affection so one ritual we established early on was to make-out every day, in the mud room, when I came home from work. It strengthened us. It didn’t take much time, but it really connected us and helped us to be strong for the kids. Tammy would always say, “If we hold on to each other, the kids will eventually hold on to us.” So we tried to do that.
One thing that I really like that Tammy does for me, is that I just lay down in her lap and she takes that lavender essential oil and rubs it all over my face. I breathe it in and it is so relaxing. It doesn’t take long either, just two or three minutes, but I totally relax and then I can fall asleep.
Both Tammy and I realize that you never know how long you have with the people you love. We both regret, a little bit, the fact that we didn’t take more opportunities to be alone on 2nd or 3rd honeymoons with our first spouses. So we have been very good about making time to be alone, just for us. I think I added it up the other day, and in the eight years we have been married, there have been over 40 times that we have gone overnight alone without any kids.
I also think we try and serve each other. Tammy had always wanted to be a marriage and family therapist. So one thing that has really brought us closer together is her being able to go and do that. I had to be more involved at home in order for that to happen. She would be in class Friday nights and Saturdays, and I would be in charge at home. It actually helped me get closer to all the kids, especially her kids. They were closer to me because she was gone and they had to depend on me. And that was really helpful.
Tammy works two days a week, along with teaching at a university, and being home with the kids. She is in high demand and usually has 10-12 clients on Tuesdays. Can you imagine doing therapy with 10-12 couples in one day? One little thing I do for her, is that when she comes home, I have everything spotless. (She loves a clean, orderly home.) And then I have a bath for her so that she can just come home and get in the bath and tell me all about her day. That is fun.
Q. If you were talking to someone who was going through this process of blending families, but in a particularly hard part of this process, what advice would you give them?
It’s probably going to get more rough. You have to realize it’s a long-term process. One of the wonderful things about blended families is that they challenge you to be a better person. You have to be humble, patient, long-suffering, gentle, all of those good things. If you’re going to be successful at blended families, you’re forced to be that way. And so you can look at the experience as a growing experience - even though it’s difficult and even though it’s not comfortable. Blending families is never comfortable. It is if you stick with it. It is worth it.
Q. When you’re married, you have companionship with somebody. For you and Tammy, as you had both dealt with the death of a spouse and trying to be single parents, what was it like missing that companionship and then having companionship back again in your life?
It was total heaven. When I was going through Juanita’s death I thought, “How can I ever love someone else?” And then it really took me totally by surprise the intensity of the feelings I had for Tammy. They are very real. At first I thought they weren’t real, so I kind of had to put things on hold for awhile, because I thought, “This is too good to be true. It’s too good to last. I must be infatuated or something.”
Tammy received some advice from her father the night before we were married. He said, in essence, “Remember now is now and then was then. And don’t try and bring the two together. Just try to live this new life.” We’ve tried to do that - tried to set a boundary. We’re living this life. We don’t live in the past. We honor the past. We do some things to remember Mark on his birthday, we have his favorite meal; and on Juanita’s birthday, everybody gets a half gallon of ice cream and we read and eat ice cream, because that is what Juanita used to do. Two to three days a year we remember and honor them, but most of the time we are living this new life.
I think that is the key, that you don’t go back to how things were before, or try to go back. Just appreciate the goodness of today instead of trying to long for something in the past. It’s also really easy to idolize someone from the past that you have no contact with their humanness in the present moment. You can just remember the good things. It’s really better not to try and compare the two lives. Just live the life that you’re given. It’s a great life.
Q. What resources are available for blended families?
- Jeff & Tammy are highlighted in this episode on “Strengthening Blended Families” and on this episode of The Matt Townsend Show.
- National Stepfamily Resource Center -- Clearinghouse of information, resources, and support for stepfamily members. Topics include counseling, finances, co-parenting, co-grandparenting, and more.
- Step-parenting and Blended Family Advice – Concise suggestions for improving relationships in blended families.
- Real Families, Real Answers – a 13-week “reality” show produced by the BYU School of Family Life providing practical, science-based advice for strengthening families. Shown regularly on BYUtv.
Life Tips from Professor Hill
1. Life is hard, but you can do hard things.
2. When life doesn’t go as planned, don’t get frustrated...make the best of it.
3. T.T.T. = Things Take Time
7 Tips for Successfully Parenting Stepchildren
"There is properly no history; only biography."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
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