It’s 6 a.m. in Wadsworth and Dr. Jenn Popovsky and her husband, JP (John Paul) Paxton, are listening for the sounds of her three teenagers — twins, Roxanne and Jordan, 17, and 16-year-old JD (Julian David) — getting ready for the school day. Their alarms go off at 5:45 a.m., but if she doesn’t hear them by now, pulling covers and tickling feet are her go-to tactics to get them moving so they can get to school on time.
While the teenagers dash out the door, satisfied with breakfast on-the-go like a protein bar or smoothie, their younger stepbrothers, Nicholas, 11, and Nathan, 10, enjoy a more substantial meal like eggs, fruit, cinnamon rolls or a bagel and cream cheese.
By 7:15 a.m., JP’s sons are off to school, too. This leaves Jenn and JP time to tend to a veritable menagerie of animals on their farm before they start their work days as a dermasurgeon and a sales and marketing professional for medical devices.
Jenn and JP met over five years ago and married last winter, effectively blending their families into a home with five children and an ever-growing number of farm animals — from horses, donkeys, chickens and goats to cats, dogs and bunnies.
When the couple was dating, they immediately recognized the sensitivity and innate tenderness involved in bringing two families together. Jenn and JP blended their families slowly and deliberately.
“We could not force it and I am sensitive to how acceptance of a new family structure is different for each of our children,” Jenn says. “We waited to introduce our families until we were sure we were committed to each other. At first, we introduced the kids with non-threatening group activities. We both continued to spend quality time alone with our children, but at the same time began to spend some holidays and birthdays together.”
“It was a gradual progression,” JP says. “You just spend so much time together, in time it doesn’t make sense to be apart at the end of the day.”
According to the Pew Research Center, about 60 years ago, 37 percent of households included a married couple raising their own children.
According to the Pew Research Center, Blended families are much more common now, especially since the number of remarried adults has tripled since 1960.
“Families today are more blended and differently constructed,” reports the Pew Research Center. “Nearly half (44 percent) of young people ages 18 to 29 have a stepsibling. About half as many (23 percent) of those ages 50 to 64 — and just 16 percent of those 65 or older — have a stepsibling.”
According to a nationwide Pew survey, today more than four in 10 American adults have at least one step-relative in their family — either a stepparent, a step or half sibling, or a stepchild.
Becoming a Stepparent
Jenn is a down-to-earth mom who jokingly describes herself as a ‘70s parent.
“I am certainly not a helicopter parent,” she says. “I give my kids a lot of freedom and they are very independent. I work hard to foster their independence. I have made sure that we have really open and honest lines of communication. My kids know they can come to me to talk about anything without judgement or any worry about punishment. It’s the only way to keep them safe in today’s world.”
Jenn never questioned getting involved with a man whose kids were younger than her own children.
“When we met, (his kids) were still wearing pull-ups at night, drinking out of sippy cups and had car seats,” she says. “My kids were in middle school and independent. JP is worth it. The children are adorable and I have all the extra love in my heart for these kids. When you do it for the second time, it was like revisiting what I’ve already done and it’s much easier the second time around. I am much more relaxed with stepchildren. You don’t have the pressure of ‘what if I’m doing it wrong?’ You get to be the extra parent.”
Jenn concedes, “It’s a different world now with the internet and how open everyone is. I like how protective JP is of the girls and how emotionally connected he is to all the kids, including the girls. He’s a great, warm father figure role model for the girls.”
JP admits he was more cautious, saying, “I was hesitant in taking on girls. Little kids, little drama; big kids, big drama. Girls are challenging. Even though I’m the stepfather, you hear them talking about stuff…”
At this point, JP’s hand goes to his forehead and he woefully shakes it back and forth muttering, “No, no.”
JP goes on to say, “Hearing them talk about boys makes me want to ban boys from the house and put them in an all-girls school. I feel protective of the girls to an extent. No one is good enough for the girls. I want to tell these high school boys to go to college, then come back and see us.
“Having JD (his stepson) is easier,” JP adds. “I can relate to a teenage boy because I was there. I’ll even ask my mom about what I did as a teenager.”
With this, Jenn laments, “My son never talks to me.”
JP quickly fires back, “He talks plenty.”
Blending a Family with Two Working Parents
Jenn readily admits that their individual work situations complement one another. As a dermasurgeon, Jenn’s job does not have much flexibility since she is seeing patients throughout the week and appointments get booked months in advance. If she needs a day out of the office, she needs to plan far in advance for it.
As a sales and marketing professional, JP mostly works out of his home office and has the flexibility to set his schedule and appointments based on his and the family’s needs.
“We have different ages of kids in many different schools and lots of different activities — it can be challenging,” Jenn says. “When there is a kid emergency, JP can rearrange his schedule a lot easier.”
Evenings are just as busy as mornings. After-school activities include football and soccer practices and games, play rehearsal, voice lessons and cello lessons.
“Everyone is coming and going at different times like Grand Central Station,” JP says.
As for dinner each night? “We are in survival-mode,” Jenn says. “There’s a lot of take-out.”
Not to mention the ever-growing brood of farm animals requires care, feeding and cleaning.
“I put in an hour either before or after work feeding everyone, cleaning stalls or cages and then do the big maintenance on the weekend,” she says.
When Kids Have More Than one Home
Both Jenn and JP have shared custody of their kids with their exes. Jenn and JP purposely set up their custody schedules so they have all five kids together on weekends.
“We want the kids to have a sibling experience together,” JP says. “When we have the kids on the weekend, that’s our priority. We focus on being together as a family and schedule adults-only dates or activities on the other weekend.”
Additionally, one night a week they each have one set of kids alone. The teenagers are at the farm on Mondays and JP’s boys are with them on Wednesdays.
Co-Parenting and Being a Stepparent
Pew Research Center reports having a stepfamily is not something most people anticipate or plan for, and that is reflected in the survey findings. When asked whether their family life has turned out about as they expected or if it is different than they expected, a 54 percent majority of those who have at least one step-relative say things have turned out differently than they expected.
This sentiment is reflected as JP says, “This is totally outside of the scope of what I pictured for myself growing up as an only child with a small family. Now we have seven people in the house and I wonder how we make it all work, but we do. It’s totally outside of my comfort zone and actually a lot of fun.”
“I understand my stepsons have a mom and their circumstances are difficult for them,” Jenn says. “I am sensitive to the fact that they sometimes struggle with a loyalty issue: if they are close with me, do they feel like they are being disloyal to their mom? They are too young to be able to totally rationalize these feelings, so when they need it, I give them some space and reassurance. I’ve told both of them I know they have a mom and I want us all to get along and they should think of me as an extra mom. It’s OK to love both of us and no one will be jealous. Putting it in little kid terms really helps.
“Furthermore, it is not my place to get in the middle of disagreements between their mom and dad,” she adds. “In fact, those are none of my business. I am certainly here to support them and their dad when they need support, but I otherwise mind my own business. I do not create drama for them.”
JP notes, “Your role as the partner/spouse is to support your partner/spouse, be supportive when they are struggling and be a sounding board during difficult times when emotions are charged between exes.”
“Sometimes you have to let the kids work it out themselves,” Jenn says. “Split custody and split parenting are really hard when you do not have a say in what happens in the home of your ex. You have to accept when kids go to their other parent’s home, they are there and you need to step back. ”
The Challenges of Bringing two Families Together
Discipline can be a challenge and both parents need to really communicate what their expectations are for how much or how little the other parent should be involved or participate. Children will have expectations, too, and the parents need to present a unified front.
“My husband’s boys look to him as the first line of help, and mine look at me similarly,” Jenn says. “I have noticed that I can be standing in the kitchen and his boys will come in and ask, ‘where’s dad?’ instead of asking for my help with an issue. At the same time, my older teen children, interestingly, do it, too. They will ask, ‘where’s mom?’ for help first. At first, I took it personally and felt a little sad that my stepsons didn’t want my help with things, but once I realized my kids do the same exact thing, I realized it’s just normal for them. The children never refuse help or guidance from their stepparent if it is offered, they just look for their primary parent first.”
Furthermore, Jenn personally saw her son struggle the most because he went from being the only boy, and her youngest, to being one of three boys with two younger stepbrothers.
“He was only 10 years old when my husband and I became seriously committed as a couple,” she says. “In one conversation, he sadly stated he wasn’t my baby anymore. JP’s son was only 5 years old at the time and my son was just 5 years old when his dad and I separated. I reminded him of how hard it was for him to spend weekends away from me at such a young age. Little kids need extra help and attention to do things like tie shoes, which my 10-year-old son could do on his own. I reassured my son that even though I was helping Nathan with these things, he would always be my baby. Giving our kids a lot of honesty, love and communication went a long way toward helping our kids blend.”
Lessons Learned: Tips for Blending Families
It’s important to be really open and honest with kids on an age-appropriate level, Jenn says.
“We never hid our relationship from the kids as things grew and became more serious,” she says.
Include the kids in big decisions to foster a feeling of inclusion and importance. Allow kids to have an opinion, and to discuss and share their concerns, says JP, who adds, “The children were involved in any big decisions we made. When you approach it in that manner, it doesn’t create resentment.”
When introducing the kids, start off slow by doing appropriate activities for the kids and rotating what the activities are by age. Do not overlook the kids based on the ages of new stepsiblings.
“Prioritize and focus on the kids when you are all together,” Jenn says. “Because we have all the kids together every other weekend, we do not schedule date night or things with other couples. When we have kids, it’s really all about the kids. It really helps a lot.”
Be thoughtful about calendars and how split custody is shared. Jenn and JP noted that county court systems view holidays differently. Some courts view holidays as just the day of (like Memorial Day is only one day), while other courts view holidays as the whole weekend.
Jenn adds, “The more the merrier — it’s a lot of fun and the rewards of having a blended family are plentiful. When we blended the family, we didn’t have kids of the same ages and sexes, so because the kids were at different ages of development and school, no one felt challenged or [like they needed to] compete for attention.
“It is fun seeing them call one another stepsiblings, cheering for one another at sporting events,” she adds. “Having a big family is really fun. there are more children to love, more smiles, more hugs and kisses, more fun as a family. Some of my friends have said they don’t think they could raise someone else’s children. I have never felt this way. I find I have so much love in my heart to give that it doesn’t matter they are not my biological children. And I have found that when I love a man deeply, my love extends to his children, as well.”