Falling in love and re-marrying with children is both exciting and challenging for everyone involved. One Katy couple talks about how they're creating an atmosphere of love and harmony as a blended family.
KATY MAGAZINE |April 2018 By Tassie Hewitt & Ashley Lancaster Opening photo by Magnetic Photography, Wedding photos by Buller Photography
When Clifton Kulhanek proposed to his wife, Lindsay (Zae), five years ago, she embraced him and his three children from a previous marriage, and discovered that although blended families may have more dynamics to deal with, there’s also a beautiful opportunity for profound love.
Yours, Mine, and Ours
Zae and Clifton Kulhanek, who were friends long before they considered dating, earned the approval of Clifton’s kids, Cliffy, now age 21, Justin, age 17, and Kailey, age 14, before they even considered marriage.
“We weren’t even dating. The youngest was about eight at the time. She said they all voted that I’d make the best step-momma,” said Zae, who is a child of a divorced family, herself. “If they hadn’t had that conversation with me, I don’t know that we would have been brave enough to take the step right then.”
The couple involved the children in the union from the start. The boys walked Zae down the aisle and served as Clifton's best men, and Kailey was her junior maid of honor “When we exchanged rings, the kids gave me a mom necklace with all of our birthstones,” says Zae. “The vows talked about not just honoring each other, but our relationship with the kids.”
“They’ve known her eight years of their lives,” says Clifton, who jokes that Zae married him for his kids. “She’s always been around. No one will ever replace their mom, but they live with us and she is the mom when they’re here. The biggest thing the kids have to deal with is sometimes feeling guilty that they care so much about her.”
Trials and Transitions
According to Dan Johnson, licensed professional counselor for REID Counseling Group in Katy, loyalty confusion is common for children whose parents remarry. They also tend to suffer from a lack of identity, and a feeling of loss.
“All second families are formed from loss,” says Johnson, who specializes in stepfamilies and remarriage. “Loyalty confusion is through the ceiling. I believe there’s something deep in us that longs for that first family. Children wonder, how can I love step mom when I need to be loving mom?”
In fact he says the role of step mom is the most difficult job in stepfamilies, because she has to earn the love from her step kids.
Zae recognizes the challenge of being a stepmother. “You put in all the work of a mom, but you’re not The Mom. One of the biggest struggles in the beginning was feeling like an understudy,” she says, adding that boundaries are always shifting. “Just when you think you get a grasp on what your role is in the family, a different situation comes up and it shifts.”
Johnson says second families are more complex because of the increase in the number of people involved, and as a result, they are four times more stressful than first marriages.
“Four adults can be involved in a marriage, and two of them you didn’t choose,” he says, adding that one of the major determining factors of a successful second family is how well the ex’s get along. “You’re not ending that relationship. You’re just ending that marriage.”
And although the divorce rate for a second marriage is a staggering seventy percent in the first three years, there are steps to take to make the transition smoother for everyone.
“Slow down and learn,” says Johnson, adding that couples need to start out with a solid relationship, check their unresolved emotional baggage from the first marriage, and identify stressors. “Trouble begins because couples aren’t prepared to handle the amount of stress that’s inherent in second families. The more structured and purposeful you can be, the more helpful.”
He suggests being open and honest with children, and moving into a neutral, new home, if possible. Also, give children space to adjust to weekend transitions from house to house. “We have to keep working at preventing re-divorce and keeping families together,” says Johnson.
It helped the Kulhaneks to develop new family traditions and memories together. They discuss highs and lows of their day at dinner, take vacations together, and enjoy new holiday customs. They also benefit from the support of their families, and having friendships with other couples in blended families.
Despite the unique challenges inherent in blended families, the rewards are immeasurable, and the Kulhaneks love their big family.
Two years ago, the Kulhaneks welcomed a new baby, Emmalyn. “Our lives feel complete,” says Clifton. “For me the reward is the moment when I walk through the door from work and Zae and the kids are laughing. It’s seeing the happiness on their faces that I hadn’t seen in years.”
In February of 2018, the family dynamic became even more special when their oldest son Cliffy and his wife Elizabeth welcomed a baby boy, Clifton Gene a.k.a "Lil Bo" into the world, making them first-time grandparents. "The love of a grandparent is like nothing else in the world, seeing your own child become a father, and the joy on their face when he holds his own son for the first time is like nothing I ever felt before," says Clifton. And last year, their youngest son Justin's best friend Jake came to live with them full time, whom they love like a son.
"He's been our son Justin's friend since junior high, and when his mom had to move, she asked if he could live with us so that he could stay at Katy High School. We became his temporary guardians, but love him like a son."
“We’re just so fortunate,” says Zae. “I always wanted a big family, and God’s given it to me in a unique way.”
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