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Yours, mine and ours: blending families

socks hanging on a clothes line
Credit: iStock.com/hamikus

Yours, Mine and Ours – Blending families

Here's the story of a lovely lady, who was bringing up three very lovely girls.

And here's the story of a man named Barrie, who was busy with a boy of his own.

You know the rest… and now you have that theme song stuck in your head, meet Jackie and Matt Barrie – the parents in a family they fondly call The Barrie Bunch.

Matt and Jackie are the quintessential "yours, mine and ours" set up.

When they met, Jackie had three daughters and Matt had a son and together they added two more little boys to the mix. Six kids.

Now for the uninitiated, or those who might not know better, six kids might be a handful at the best of times. So what happens when you throw the whole 'blended' dynamic into the mix?

"A lot of people ask us how we make it work with six kids," Jackie says.

"I think it's just because we have to; it is what it is."

"This is just the way our family developed," Matt adds.

"I think that whether you have one child or six, it's so important that you're consistent and on the same page. You need to always be on the same page."

While there is the usual juggling and coordination that comes with all families, there are some things which apply regardless of the number of children.

"I think that whether you have one child or six, it's so important that you're consistent and on the same page. You need to always be on the same page," says Jackie.

"If there is something we need to deal with or if something comes up then we don't just wing it. We make sure we sit down, talk it through, decide on how we are going to handle it and then make sure we back each other up and communicate the same message.

"I read somewhere about how step parents shouldn’t discipline children, but I just don't agree with that.

"A step parent needs to be able to discipline the children and not always palm it off to the parent. That would not work for us; we always make sure we are on the same page and we are lucky that we have always had the same approach and outlook to our parenting."

"The thing is, we have a standard and expectations in this family of all the kids and they know this is how you behave," Matt says.

"Whether they are in my company or in Jackie's they know the expectations are the same and both of us will stick to the same approach.

"If you say you're going to do something, follow through with it."

So, what about favourites? How tricky is it to manage favouritism of the 'mine' or 'ours' children?

"You just cannot have favourites," says Matt.

"It needs to be understood that we all have our jobs, we all pull our weight.

"It is something we need to make a consistent effort at and yes, it is challenging.

"We are fortunate that Jackie and I are both strong minded people. If something comes up it is sorted straight away and if someone needs to be told to pull their head in, we have that conversation."

Being open and honest with the kids – while tempering that with age-appropriate explanations and approaches to topics – is another golden rule for the Barries.

"Of course we need to take a different approach to what we tell the younger kids compared to what we might tell the older ones, but we are very open and honest and if there are questions we answer them," Jackie says.

"We have respect for them and we expect the same back from them.

"We are all there for each other and even though we don't have planned or structured one on one time with each of the kids, they know there is always someone there for them and there is always someone to talk to or play with.

"Of course, if issues arise, then we will sit down and look at what's going on and that's when we have that time together.

"But we are always so busy that the kids just know this is how it works."

And speaking of busy, knowing when to take time out or ask for help is critical.

"There are days when Matt will get home and I will just say to him, 'Here, you need to take over. I just need 10 minutes, I have had enough'."

Matt adds: "We are lucky, too, to have great friends and family to call and we know they will help. What's important is not only will they help, but they will respect when we ask them to back us up where there might be an issue so, again, it's a consistent message that the kids are getting.

"And if there is a big issue or something going on that we are having trouble getting through to them, we will sit down and talk; we'll ask them where they think there are issues and what they don't like about what we are doing.

"It doesn't mean they get their own way, but it does mean they have a say and they know they will be heard.”

There were 91,000 blended families with resident children in 2009-10 (3% of all families with children aged 0 to 17 years). A blended family contains a resident step child but also a natural or adopted child of both parent.
Family Characteristics, Australia, 2009-10

When it comes down to it though, one of the biggest keys to success is letting the kids be kids.

"We need to allow the kids to be themselves and support them in that," Jackie says.

"The kids are given every chance to actively bond together and play together as siblings.

"As a step-parent it is never about replacing their parent. I see myself as a teacher and a guide for them. I am there, I'll never try to replace their mother, we respect each other's limits and boundaries and we are open and honest."

They make it sound so easy. But that's because the way they see it, it's common sense. 

It's consistency, it's honesty, it's setting the standard.

It's how they became The Barrie Bunch.

The Barrie family are certainly not alone in finding their way through the challenges of establishing a step family.

There were 99,000 step families with resident children in 2009-10 (4% of all families with children aged 0 to 17 years). A step family has at least one resident step child, but no child who is the natural or adopted child of both partners. 

There were 91,000 blended families with resident children in 2009-10 (3% of all families with children aged 0 to 17 years). A blended family contains a resident step child but also a natural or adopted child of both parents1. 

Chloe Shorten, former journalist, successful author, passionate cook and daughter of the former governor-general Dame Quentin Bryce, has chronicled her journey in building a step family with Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten in her book Take Heart

Mrs Shorten says she was surprised at the lack of helpful information and unexpected tripwires for those not fitting the traditional cookie-cutter model.

She was heartened by the sensible advice she unearthed and resilience of her children and the joy of watching her husband become a father three times over.

In the book she tells of her own quest to create a new normal.

“Since becoming part of a step-family, I’ve felt deeply some of the intense bias against, and stereotyping of, these family arrangements, as I’ve met and talked with mothers and fathers around the country. Old myths and fairytales about ‘wicked’ step-parents still cast a shadow over the chances of success for people entering second marriages,” she says.

“I believe there is a tendency to view families formed by second marriages and involving children as ‘less than’ families consisting of married parents raising their own biological children. This can make those families seem more vulnerable.

“We mustn't squander any more time on the myth that second families, or other non-nuclear groups, have any less claim to the word ‘family’ and all it stands for.”


1 Family Characteristics, Australia, 2009-10. 

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