Blended Is the New Traditional
One in six kids are part of a blended family. It's hard work, but parents and stepparents can come together for the sake of the kids. Meet two moms who make it work.
By Amy Gordy, Photography by Lily Darragh and Courtesy of Carter and Herndon
Kim Carter has been stepmom to Luke, 14, and Chloe, 13, since she married their father, Carl, five years ago. She’s been a part of their lives, though, since the teens were toddlers. “As far back as they can remember, whenever they’ve gone to stay with their dad, Kim was there. It’s always been Kim and Dad, and we’ve never really had any issues. They are both really great kids,” Carter said.
Not to say that her role in their lives doesn’t come with its unique trials, but she’s found that a willingness to be open, admit to her own faults, and to be able to just let things go sometimes has been helpful in her journey.
“I have a stepmom, and I talk to her all the time now. I have a new found respect for the title,” she said.
Carter describes herself as a “back seat driver” when it comes to parenting the two. “They have parents. I try to intentionally be the ’cool one.’ I’d like to be the one they can joke with or come to if they have an issue and not be scolded,” she said.
While she may not take charge when it comes to making decisions for the kids, Carter definitely pulls her weight in parental duties around their house, especially now that she and Carl are also raising their 2-year-old son, Collin.
“Sometimes, for me, being a stepmom can be an endless, thankless job. I struggle because my Love Language is words of affirmation. For example, for Christmas I bought all the gifts, wrapped it all, and on Christmas morning it was all ’Thanks, Daddy!’ It’s sometimes a thankless job, and you have to really love them. They are truly such good kids, and I wouldn’t change a thing. Sometimes I just have to look at myself and say, ’Kim, why do you need thanks for this?’ And I probably did the same thing to my stepmom. I call her all the time now and tell her ’thank you.’”
The relationship between the adults in a blended family can often be a source of tension, but the Carters get along well with the kids’ biological mom, Alicia Herndon. Kim even goes as far as to liken their relationship to a friendship—with boundaries, of course.
“Alicia and I have always gotten along. I feel like in the beginning she was glad I was there, to have a female presence. And I’ve always respected the fact that she’s their mom. She’s the ultimate decision-maker. She and Carl have always had good communication. They were able to put everything aside and make the kids the No. 1 concern.”
Since having a child of her own, Carter has been able to gain some insight into Herndon’s role with Luke and Chloe. “I think I have a better understanding now for Alicia’s need to nest and keep her kids close. She’s always been a mother hen, and I get it now because I’ve become that way, too, with Collin.”
While the two households don’t do things exactly the same way, Carter has learned to let go of the things she can’t control. “We don’t keep junk food at our house. I don’t want it around, because if it’s here, I’ll eat it. The kids are used to having it at their mom’s and I just have to say ’Well, we don’t do that at our house.’ I’m not saying our way is better, it’s just our way and we don’t try to influence what happens at the other house, and they do the same for us.”
When asked what others may not understand about what it’s like to be a stepmom, Carter reflected for a minute and responded with: Nobody wants to go through a divorce. We [stepmoms] didn’t expect to fall in love with someone with children. It’s not our ’princess scenario.’ But, if all parties can come in with respect—if everyone can decide to get along—it can work.”
THE INSIDE SCOOP with KIM
What is the hardest thing about being a stepmom? Parenting, as a whole, can be a thankless job, but being a stepparent is a bigger step in that direction. A lot of work goes into making the kids feel comfortable and welcomed in their other home, but most of that recognition tends to go solely to their dad.
What about being a stepmom brings you the most joy? Seeing Luke and Chloe interacting with Collin (their stepbrother). They love each other very much and show it.
Describe your relationship with the kids’ bio mom in three words. Admiration. Respect. Love.
What are the three most common feelings you experience as a stepmom? Comfortable—I’ve known Luke and Chloe since they were 4 and 3 years old, and have never felt out of place or like I couldn’t be myself around them. Respected—they are very mindful and respectful to what I say. Blessed—they are such great kids. They are so kind, understanding and loving.
Recall an instance your husband really supported you as a stepmom. I can’t recall any certain instance, but I think he supports me everyday as a stepmom by just being a family. We go about our days as a family and don’t point out what our “normal” is versus other families.
How long did it take you to get to a place of amiability with the other household? It happened pretty early on. We all came to the table and made the decision to all be involved and co-parent the best way for the kids.
What is a common misconception about stepmoms? "Evil," obviously, is the first choice, but maybe also insecure and controlling. The idea that stepmoms want to come in and take over—for me, that has never been the case. I just want to be there to help and be someone they know they can always come to for good news and support during bad times.
What is one piece of advice that’s gotten you through? I think it takes being a great stepmom, by having a great stepmom. Donna (my stepmom) has been in my life for 35 years, and honestly, I just try to follow her example.
What tools do you recommend as a co-parenting guide? CALENDAR. I live by calendars. I have a paper one on the fridge, a planner and constant phone calendar updates.
What advice would you give other stepmoms? Be patient. Be kind. Remember they are always watching and listening, so be the example you want them to represent. Being a stepparent is a very important role, in such an unassuming way. It tends to be overshadowed most of the time, but it is rewarding knowing you’ve had a small part in the person they are becoming.
Alicia Herndon is very familiar with stepmoms. She has one; she became one when she remarried eight years ago; and her two oldest children have one, on whom she depends to help watch over her flock.
While her own stepmom didn’t come into the picture until after Herndon, 34, had left home, she does gain some insight from that relationship in navigating the blended families in her life—and making them work.
“My stepdaughter is 29 and has lived with us at different times. Some of the time my stepmom and I didn’t see eye to eye, and that’s helped me now to work through some of the issues that arise in our family. With me being close to my stepkids’ ages—29 and 30—it’s probably more awkward to step into that role. I’m a big ’mother hen,’ so I have to find the balance when she’s living with us and respect her privacy and her age. I’m not her mother, but I need to be there when she needs me.”
Herndon and her husband, Jimmy, work on the blended family under their own roof that includes their 6-year-old son, Caleb, while also co-parenting with ex-husband Carl Carter, and his wife, Kim, in the raising of Luke, 14, and Chloe, 13.
Herndon wanted to immediately form a partnership with Kim. She attributes their successful co-parenting to the ability to set feelings aside for the sake of the kids, and invite an open line of communication with the other household.
“Sometimes I think our nature as people is natural emotion. I’ve found that if ever there were a time things got uncomfortable between us it’s because I didn’t step back and take my emotions out of it and say ’Wait a second, let me figure out what’s going on with me.’ To be able to step back and reflect before any response is given is a huge benefit to everyone,” Herndon said.
She and Kim have gotten along from the beginning. “Kim is an open book, she’s not one to hide her feelings. When I met her it didn’t take me long to see that she’s real, and she showed me respect, and there was comfort in that.” Herndon echoes Kim’s thoughts on the necessities of boundaries between the households. While blended families can become close, there is always a line that’s not to be crossed in order to keep the harmony.
“Boundaries are necessary. We know where not to go. None of us are ignorant of that. There are times you can feel tension in the atmosphere and we can all recognize it and change the subject. If it’s something that can’t be maneuvered away from, then we are mature enough to work through it.”
Maturity and selflessness are sentiments Herndon uses as a guide to co-parent in the best way possible for her children. “The last thing I would want is for Carl to marry someone who hates my children. Kim loves my kids and they love her, and that’s what is best for them. If you have the natural feelings of being a mom, then you can reach past any petty or jealous feelings and see that it’s all about your children. You want them to have the same love and nurture when they are away from you as when they are with you.”
THE INSIDE SCOOP with ALICIA
Do you and your ex generally agree on fundamental elements to raising your children? Yes and no.
If not, how do you navigate making decisions for the kids? We do agree on education and discipline. We work together to reinforce the standards we expect from our children. If the standards aren’t kept, we equally uphold the disciplinary decisions. We do have a religious difference, but we respect each other and each other’s boundaries.
Do the kids’ stepparents play an active role in parenting, or do mom and dad handle all the decisions? Kim and Jimmy do play an active role in the children’s lives. I feel that they have equal authority as Carl and I if need be. Kim and Jimmy respect the role that Carl and I have and let us take the lead accordingly.
What is the hardest thing about co-parenting? Trust and communication. Depending upon you and your ex’s background, these two subjects may already have been an issue in the past. Moving forward in a co-parenting situation, these can be magnified or misplaced if there isn’t positive affirmation.
Describe your relationship with the kids’ stepmom in three words. Loving, determined, worthwhile.
What are the three most common feelings you experience as a mom who shares her kids? Determination, hesitation and fear/guilt. Determined that your children’s lives will be best, despite the uncontrollable circumstances. Hesitation in daily living to make sure the co-parenting relationship is positive and welcoming for the children. The guilt and fear that comes as your child grows in a co-parenting home.
How long did it take you to get to a place of amiability/trust with the other household? I really don’t remember when I arrived at this point, and maybe I wouldn’t say that there is a certain time frame that you reach this amiability. I feel that it’s a daily walk of trust and respect (as in every relationship) and it is vulnerable to the support that it is given.
What tools do you recommend as a co-parenting guide? The Bible—it teaches us how to love one another. It doesn’t say if they are perfect, it just says forgive, love, work together. Move past the circumstances and find the hope that’s in the midst.
What advice would you give other moms who are about to become co-parents? Love! Love them like your own. I’ve seen situations where after a biological child is born of the new family, that the co-parenting children become second to the biological child. If both co-parenting families now have their new family unit and we can’t see past the subtle differences, where does that leave the coparented child?
What advice would you give moms on how to get along with stepmoms? Moms, put yourself in their place.Role reversal has always helped me see a new perspective. Treat them with the respect that you want your children to show you. Don’t get angry and think they want to take away your motherly role. Be thankful and feel blessed that your child feels so loved that they would want to put them in that place. That’s what you really wanted, right?