Solid After a Shaky Start
Mallory Van Dover and Brian Cato met through their sons, both named Mason. They brought two children each (including the two Masons) to all blend (almost) seamlessly under one roof.
By Amy Gordy, Photography Courtesy of Van Dover
We can’t all be "The Brady Bunch,” and honestly, who would want to? Blended families bring together many different personalities to all suddenly reside together under one roof. Add some teenage emotions and complicated adult relationships into the mix, and you are almost sure to have a kink or two to work out along the way.
Six years ago, Mallory Van Dover with her son, Mason, now almost 20, and daughter, Emma, 16, joined Brian Cato with his sons, Mason, 20, and Nic, 16, in what all members of the family hoped to be a harmonious union.
“At first everyone got along and everyone was excited. Mason and Mason shared a bedroom and quickly found that they didn’t get along quite as well as we had hoped they would as siblings. It took them a while to find their groove as roommates, plus my stepsons’ lives were kind of turned upside down for other reasons at that point. Looking back, they probably just needed their own space.”
At times, Van Dover said she felt the blame for the unrest, more often than not, was directed toward her, and she struggled at first to find her path as a stepparent.
“I think it’s normal for parents in a newly blended family to want everything to be OK right away—especially moms or stepmoms. I was guilty of that, and I probably tried too hard in the beginning. My advice would be to go slowly, and give everyone in the family time to adapt to all the newness,” she said.
Van Dover has been able to draw from her experiences with her own stepmother and stepfather to source the understanding and patience that are essential to making a blended family work. “I love my biological parents deeply, but my stepparents have their own special places in my life. At 46, I can’t imagine my life without the influence of all four of my parents. Getting stepchildren to understand that they can benefit from the positive influence of other figures in their life, without feeling like they are being disloyal to their biological parent, takes time, but it should be one of the goals of all of the parents involved.”
Though any relationship is always a work-in-progress, six years later Van Dover feels that the bumpy part of her journey with her stepsons is largely in the past. “It’s safe to say it’s been a bumpy ride, but it’s also safe to say we are definitely through the toughest spots, and I think my relationships with my stepsons are stronger than they’ve ever been.”
THE INSIDE SCOOP WITH MALLORY
Would you describe yourself as an active stepmom? Yes.
What is the hardest thing about being a stepmom? Knowing the boundaries between being a responsible and nurturing parent figure and overstepping those “invisible” boundaries.
What about being a stepmom brings you the most joy? Seeing my stepsons grow up and exhibit the behaviors and traits we have tried to instill in them. Also, watching the relationships between my biological children and stepchildren deepen. Those relationships have become much more organic, and that’s been very rewarding. And I think my stepsons trust me more, and to me, that is everything.
How would you describe your relationship with your stepsons? Better. Better than it was, and always improving. Six years in, we have a good relationship, but there are still times it’s hard to know how far I can “parent” them. I love them, provide for them, and want the best for them, but I still know I’m not their mom.
What lessons did you learn about how to strengthen your bond with your stepkids? Spend time with them while you are not trying to parent them. Whether in a group or one on one, this allows the relationship and trust to develop.
What are the three most common feelings you experience as a stepmom? Confusion. Uncertainty, and, finally, some satisfaction.
Recall an instance your husband really supported you as a stepmom. There are several times my husband has reminded his boys that the decisions we make about their lives are made “together.” If I ask any of our children to do something, he expects them to respond accordingly. If he disagrees with a decision I make (which sometimes happens), he and I discuss it privately and try to understand where our parenting methods and choices are coming from.
How long did it take you to get to a place of amiability within your blended family? We were always amiable, but honestly, it took about three years for things to start to feel more natural. In January, we celebrated six years of being a family. Our family has continued to grow closer as we have spent time together and found our own “groove.”
What is a common misconception about stepmoms? That they cannot have a positive impact on their stepchildren. By having all of our kids together, all four have benefitted from both mine and my husband’s examples. Everyone benefits from having as many sources of love as we can get, including kids who gain extra parents. I was lucky to have a stepmother and stepfather in my own life that I now refer to as my “parents.” Stepparents can be a huge influence, just as a great coach or teacher can be. Your impact can be enormously positive, but it takes a tremendous amount of patience, communication and time.
What is one piece of advice that’s gotten you through? Be patient. Go slowly. Back away when you feel resistance, and try to understand where your whole family is coming from. It’s very natural to approach stepparenting as if it’s all about you and how YOU feel, but it works better if you can stop and realize that every member of your family is going through an adjustment period.
What tools do you recommend as a co-parenting guide? Brian and I attended Ron Deal’s seminar on building stronger blended families just after we married. Ron offered incredibly valuable advice and I still think about and incorporate his messaging, even now. I highly recommend it! smartstepfamilies.com.
What advice would you give other women about to become stepmoms? Make sure you and your husband discuss how you will handle parenting your kids. Be open to learn from your spouse and try to see the logic behind their approach. My husband and I have learned a ton from one another. Brian is a LOT more fun than I am, but I’m the one who makes sure clothes are washed (with soap) and put away, chores are shared, and that our children learn to operate in their first community—their family.