How did Mike & Carol do it? Oh yeah, it was just a TV show…

Lenny escorts our blended family across the Maine state line.

Summer vacation spots, Thanksgiving dinner menus, birthday breakfasts, rabid devotion to Texas A&M football…culture…tradition…family…it’s great stuff.  Family culture evolves slowly but becomes so ingrained in us, that, even though most of the time we take it for granted, we will go to battle over it in a heartbeat.  It is who we are.

What happens, though, when family structure changes?  What survives, what dies, and what is reborn?  Because, there’s everyone else’s perfect little families…and then there’s ours!!

My husband and I faced a restructuring challenge when his 13-year old daughter moved in with us and my 11-year old son and 9-year old daughter.  We had been navigating the “steps in separate houses” issue, and, while that was not without its own perils, the boats sailed on relatively smooth waters.   Our main issue until the “blend” event was hurt feelings over time each parent spent with non-birth kids.

And then we blended.  With a plan.  Because I believe anything that needs doing should be done with a plan.  And a schedule.  Preceded by research (my husband actually puts up with this Type A nonsense, too).

We had just moved to Houston from the Virgin Islands, so we had three kids with no friends newly thrown together in the house for a long summer of empty days with me — I work from home — to shepherd them.  Oh yeah, and we were broke.  Zero cash, flat-out broke.  We weren’t going to be able to throw money at this problem.

Our plan/schedule involved holding themed family “events” each night of the week, on the cheap.  Monday — ping pong.  Tuesday — board games.  Wednesday — movies.  Thursday — kids’ cook.  Friday — swim night.  Saturday — Go Out (on a strict budget).  We had a rotation for which kid got to choose (which movie, which board game, the menu, what our night out would be) on each night involving choice.  We kept up this schedule all summer and some vestiges remain even now.  It was powerfully effective.  Why? We did things as a family.  We did not sit around and whine about what to do; we were ACTIVE.  We established a pattern that the kids looked forward to repeating.  We built memories.  We honored each others’ choices, although we weren’t above bartering with Clark to try to get out of another game of Stratego.

We did other bonding silliness, too.  At the end of the summer we had dinner for five at P.F. Chang’s from the contents of the parental contributions into the $1 “swear jar” but we also paid for one month’s water bill with the kids’ deposits into the $1 “turn off the lights” jar; we recently re-instated “turn out the lights” with a stiff $5 penalty and reduced our power bill by 50% while collecting most of the money needed to pay it from the kids.  We doled out chores on a rotational schedule.  Who sat in which seat in the car?  We enacted a strict “oldest to youngest” choice rule to avoid constant battles and fears of favoritism.  In other words, we all abused the youngest.

Another tradition we kicked off that first summer was picking up “tacky souvenirs” when we traveled.  Not just any old tacky souvenirs, but something odd, gaudy and large that would receive a place of honor in our living room display.  Our first purchase had been at our wedding, actually; we bought a jeweled wire gecko — hideously beautiful.  Using that as an example, we added “Lenny,” the wood and tin armadillo, on a weekend trip to Brenham, Texas in July.  This tradition thrives, still.  We have a steel cowboy, a log grizzly bear, and a ceramic dancing hula cat.  And many more.  Come visit us and see the collection.

In August, we decided our fledgling relationships had gelled sufficiently to attempt a two-week cross country journey from Houston to Maine and back with the five of us in the Suburban — on an impossibly tight budget — with an ice chest full of turkey, bread, mayo and soft drinks.  We logged 5000 miles, stopping in Auburn to visit Eric’s older daughter, Niagara Falls, New York City/Ellis Island, DC, and Jacksonville to visit Eric’s parents.  At each state line, we  took a group photo with…Lenny!  See photo above; Michelle is holding Texas Lenny at the Maine state line.   The kids kept a trip journal to chronicle every embarrassing moment, including Eric locking the keys in the car twice and Clark and Sami having to walk in front of the Suburban for half a mile due to bickering.

And the whole time we were in Maine at his parents’ cabin on beautiful Lake Mooselookmeguntic, we searched for the perfect tacky travel souvenir.  Our hearts longed for a moose, but none we saw were just right.  So, when we got home, 13-year old Michelle — the little sweetheart we had so worried about blending into our established tribe — built a wobbly-legged moose out of scrap lumber and tool box odds and ends.  And she put together a massive scrap book of the trip.  Success.

Michelle built this moose to commemorate our first blended family vacation.

Last year, we added a tradition the kids love: picking different recipes/menus for each night of the week. Eric and his daughter came from an eat-out/no-leftovers household, so we had to do something to make eating at home more fun, and this has worked great.  Now, ours being a Pamelot-household, we choose from Cooking Light, but we trust the kids get plenty of junk food the other 23 hours of the day.

By far our favorite family tradition is Swami.  Swami is an elaborate game of wagering — for pride only — on football games. Eric derived the game of Swami as a young engineer; he played it with his co-workers (and still does).  We put Swami in place at home during our first fall as a five-some. Talk about cutthroat!  Starting in pre-season and running through the Super Bowl, we plot, strategize, and trash talk college and pro football, incessantly.  We love it!  Our youngest has shown an uncanny ability to pick games, but this year Pamelot/Momela took it to the house and earned the Swami title for next season.  Yeah, baby.

Now I can’t pretend all goes perfectly in Brady-land.  For instance, one heartbreak we face is that Eric does not get any holidays with his kids.  Since he gets his youngest daughter nearly full time, holidays are with her mother, and his older two kids follow suit.  This makes it harder to establish traditions around the holidays, although we do celebrate together, albeit early.

His daughter spends most of the summer with her mom, too, so there are no more family vacations of any length.  We make do by cramming in three day weekends when we can, and the big favorites are trips to DeLeon, TX to my parents’ small ranch and to Angel Fire, NM to their mountain cabin (Maine would be a bigger draw if it were accessible).  There just never seems to be enough time to relax together, though.  Sports — mostly swim meets — dominate school year weekends, so we rarely find the chance to leave town.

But that’s all about what has been born anew in our new blended family.   What “survived” the transitions?  Going to the cabin in Maine was a continuation of a Hutchins’ house custom , and one we hope to keep alive for generations.  My kids have kept-up their lifelong tradition of the DeLeon Peach and Melon Festival, although occasionally with a Hutchins kid or two thrown in.   Eric still makes  the disgusting half-baked pancakes and waffles that his daughters have always loved, and none of the rest of us can stand.

Sometimes the traditions of one family of origin bump into the traditions of the other with a loud crash.  The most dramatic culture clash we have experienced involved Christmas Cards.  In my birth family — and in all of the South, in my experience — sending holiday cards is a BIG DEAL.  You start planning for the perfect photo for next Christmas on December 26th, you struggle to write an obnoxious family letter that is only one page (and usually give up and write 3-4 pages), and your mailing list is the size of the yellow pages.  When the holiday season arrives, the best moment of each day is when the mail comes and you get to dive into the day’s offerings of cards! letters! photos!  You display them all over the house — sometimes on special arts and crafts card thingymabobbies.  You read them over, and over, and over.  Even if you don’t talk to these people all year and your only remaining contact is the cards, you hang on every word of the letters and read them aloud to your spouse and kids.

That’s my family. Not my husband’s.  And his older kids did not get it at all.  They thought that participation in a family holiday photo with their father would hurt their mother’s feelings; and the last thing we want to do is ever make any of the kids feel they are having to choose between the feelings of one parent over another. Eric’s youngest did not mind, though — anything that entailed a picture with her in it was bound to be awesome.

Anyway, I developed a family culture blending rule.  Most things aren’t important enough to battle over.  But Christmas Cards Are!  🙂 I wouldn’t include a picture of anyone that didn’t want to be in it, but I would not stop doing photos for cards or pretend that my family did not now include more wonderful people in it than it had before.   We adopted a “living in the household” photo for the cards, and this has been an acceptable compromise.

2009 "Living in the Household" Christmas Card (and note the tradition of outdoor sports in our blended family; no surprise, I'll bet!)

If you had asked me at the age of 22 whether I wanted a failed first marriage and the responsibility for blending a family in my final marriage, I would have cringed and said, “Not just no but hell no!”  But I would not trade any of our five kids, beautiful and perfect in part because of who their parents are, nor would I trade the opportunity to have them all in my life.  And I certainly would not have wanted to miss out on this incredible journey that Eric and I have traveled together, blending the worlds and traditions of these young people until that wonderful moment when you hear all of them fighting and yelling at each other, without respect to who is related to whom, and you say to each other, “Ah, at last, we’ve done it.  Everything is just perfect.”

“Now quit yelling at your step-sister, and stay on your own side of the back seat.”

All my best,


26 Responses to “How did Mike & Carol do it? Oh yeah, it was just a TV show…”
  1. Christina says:

    This was the perfect thing for me to read first thing, Pamela. Josh and I recently had another talk about starting a family, and while the answer is still “We’ve already got the one we want” (and we don’t forsee a change) it helps me to read about other people who aren’t doing the Ozzy and Harriet thing.

    • Pamela says:

      If you’d have had to pick someone out of my high school class least likely to end up responsible for bringing together and “nurturing” 5 kids not to mention a NEEDY husband (I threw that in to get a rise out of him, let’s see if it works), it would have been me. Boy did I resist this role all my life. I had kids not because I was dying for a baby, but to ensure a family and eventual grandkids knowing I couldn’t change my mind when I was 50 and childless. And, having my own kids and Eric’s kids has been fabulous. But I refuse to give up completely on being Pamela, ya know? I respect other people that parent differently, but I think we have awesome kids who have excelled at being themselves without me sacrificing all of myself (and by that I mean, giving up myself in ways beyond what they needed and beyond what I was willing to relinquish). For instance, we knew Sami was a handful as compared to the others from babyhood. So it is no surprise that she is now…a handful…but she needs to be be completely herself, even as Michelle is the super good middle child, and Clark is the spacey ADHD kid, and Nicole is the overachiever, and Steven is analytical and self-questioning. They all will be who they will be, and Eric and I get to be who we are too, as long as we fulfill our responsibility to be good parents to them — which I humbly submit that we have done and continue to do, with much love and pride. Our kids seem to enjoy and be proud of our individuality. And we are proud of how they showed us — and everyone — that they weren’t the “statistic” that I was told they would be when I divorced (“you have now made your kids just a statistic”). They rock. But there is purpose and a plan behind it, too, and that’s my role, however surprising it might have been for me to find myself in it 🙂

  2. Pamela says:

    It’s funny how themes converge, and as I re-read the last paragraph of this post (checking obsessively for missed-errors) about my unlikely journey with Eric and the kids, it hits home again why despite lots of other good suggestions of what to call it, I named this blog Road to Joy. Well, that and road-cycling. See…converging themes. Serendipity.

  3. Eric Hutchins says:

    Aside from that, awesome blog and awesome comments. Are we perfect parents NOOO? Are there things we wish we had done differently SURE? But, man do I love where we are now and where the kids are now. Particularly when you compare how they are doing to some alternatives. I do see in them things that they have learned from us (none of which they will admit till much later in life). And some may be “when I become a parent I will do it THIS way instead of how Eric and Pamela did it” thats really OK with me. As long as we are engaged and involved in their lives and showing with real action not $’s, that we care.

  4. Although I have no kids, I really, really enjoyed your post! You must have had so much fun those summer evening playing ping pong… You’re definitly a girl with a plan. Great big family!

    • Pamela says:

      Thanks Mari-Jo! I should have added how important our mutantly huge yellow lab, wannabe Siamese cat and boxer were to the melting pot process 🙂 And family participation in bicycling events — we have 7 bicycles hanging in our garage, and next year we are doing the MS150 together (hopefully 6 of the 7 of us). But I blog too many words as is. @rgrissom is guest blogging Monday… It’s athletics and health week from this Friday to Wednesday. Thanks again! Pamela

  5. larry Simpson, SR says:

    Mighty brave to travel so far and being so confined.

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