Young people, blended families and step-parenting

Blended families are slowly becoming a permanent and increasingly acceptable fixture in our familial fabrics. NJERI MAINA sought to find out why there is a rise in this kind of family unit, how to navigate the dicey waters involved and who not to yoke up with while blending

Two people meet and forge a relationship, then marry, while one or both of them brings into the marriage kids from previous relationships. It is not an uncommon phenomenon, but is increasingly on the rise and similarly, more accepted as a family type, now styled blended family. This could be in part as a result of popularisation by personalities such as Jada Pinkett-Smith in the West, and Catherine Kariuki here in Kenya, who is famously known by her social media persona The Fashionable Step-Mum.

While many grew up viewing it an unfortunate situation to find oneself in a step-family, they, together with other public personalities, have made it look glossy and admirable from far. But, in their own admission, the grinding of the cogs and wheels involved is much more complex than meets the eye.

Celebrity couple Natalie Tewa and Rnaze Mukiibi were blended family goals for many young people after appearing on social media on vacation together with the Rnaze’s child and his mum Brooke Gacheri, his ex-girlfriend. This was before Natalie and Rnaze’s public and acrimonious break-up, that involved allegations of Rnaze getting back with his baby mama while still stringing Natalie along.

On the rise

Sociologists and relationship experts attribute various factors to the rise in this family type in our society. One of them is the increased inclination to divorce and remarriage. According to a 2017 research conducted by Daystar University, there is a 10 per cent divorce rate across the country, with most marriages lasting 10 years or less. The two major causes of divorce were found to be unfaithfulness at 97 per cent, followed closely by complicated relationships with in-laws. The divorce rate figures might have increased since then, especially since millennials are not willing to stay in a bad relationship, let alone a bad marriage no matter the reason.

“Our parents never parted from their spouses even when they were patently unhappy,” Stella, a PR guru at one of the leading advertising firms in Nairobi explains. They stayed because ‘what will the neighbours say?’ They also stayed because ‘the kids are too young to understand divorce, and then the kids had grandkids that they would not dream of traumatising with a divorce’. They also persevered unfaithfulness and bad in-laws. Stories of hostile in-law relationships and persevering through unfaithfulness were the stuff that mothers bonded with their marriageable daughters over. People still bond over these ‘resilience’ and ‘I forgave your father for you’ stories at ruracios.”

According to relationship expert and therapist Maurice Matheka, familial dynamics have changed a lot in the last few decades. Girls, and boys too, are more empowered, which means people are not afraid of going it alone when things turn sour.

Though research has shown that second and third marriages are more likely to dissolve and faster than the first one, Kenyans are willing to take the risk with a few on their third and fourth marriages. While male divorcees, newly separated men and widowers find it easy to get new mates and at times even marry single girls who have never been previously married, the reality is different for women.

To kill or abandon

A few weeks ago, news headlines carried the story of a woman who killed her son so she could get married to her fiancé. While this might have come as a shock to many, a few who are in touch with culture and the politics of inheritance were not surprised. In our African society, inheritance in most communities is patriarchal in nature. This means the first-born son in the family benefits greatly when it comes to inheriting fruits of the father’s hard work.

“Most men know this and are unwilling to marry a woman with a son. They might marry one with up to two or three girls, as they even take this as legitimacy of how fertile her womb is, but will not look twice at a woman who has a son,” Kimani, a regular at Njuguna’s explains.

While the woman in the headlines chose to end her son’s life, many others decide to leave their children with their mothers in shags. Some even get the approval of their parents and interact with their children as siblings, while their parents take on a parental role to the would-be grandchild, who is now in essence an adopted child.

Some scenarios do not work out as seamlessly, with the kid dumped in the village, inadvertently ruining many a ruracio ceremony, particularly in cases where the bride-to-be does not disclose to the groom that she has a kid or even kids in shags.

While the broken ruracio might have more to do with dishonesty than the woman having a kid, it is true that women with kids generally have a harder time getting to form their blended family.

“Of course, it is tougher for women. They have always been held to a higher standard. A woman with a kid will find it harder to get a partner, while it may not be the case for a man with kids. It is just the nature of our patriarchal society,” Catherine Kariuki alias Fashionable Step-Mum tells us during an interview at a media PR event.

Though it may seem like the only choices available for the single mum are either a lifetime with the child and without a mate, or a lifetime with a mate while the kid rots away in shags, things are not as bleak.

A few millennial men we questioned at random were open to dating a lady with kids and even marrying her. Heck, they are open to dating and marrying an older lady with kids, especially if they have the qualities they have been looking for in a mate. Character first, the rest is details, they say.

“It is quite surprising the lengths some women will go, to snag and keep a man. If you have to part with your own child for a man, is it truly worth it? Relationships should be about two emotionally mature people finding and accepting each other for who they are. It is clearly a toxic, narcissist and co-dependent kind of relationship where one partner can suggest that a mother parts with her child as a condition for marriage. That is why women need to be more empowered so that when they are confronted with such a choice, they choose the right thing,” Matheka says.

Men such as Steve Harvey and Kamotho, Waiguru’s husband, have married wives with children from previous relationships. But the rigours of blended families do not stop at finding the right partner, they continue well into married life, as everyone adjusts to the new arrangement.

Dos and don’ts

Many young people explore the issue of parenting in step-families and blended families with directness and humour via memes. Some show a father chasing his unwitting step-child with a gigantic hammer in some form of a malicious game. The truth of the matter is, parenting in a blended family is a landmine, where one has to navigate much more carefully than that.

“When my daughter was younger, I used to suspect that my husband beat her more than her younger brother who was our biological child together and was naughtier by nature. I never spoke up, as I dearly wanted the blended family to work out, and often wondered if maybe I just had evil thoughts. I, however, put my foot down when he would come home with just one set of presents for our boy and none for the girl. I confiscated all the gifts and calmly took him aside and explained that it is best if we gift them both at the same time, especially since they are three years apart. I also took over the disciplining of my daughter. Though we are still together, there is still some tension,” Faith, an accountant, confides on condition of anonymity.

Kariuki has built a successful brand on helping families negotiate the blended family dynamics. One of the key tips she shares is the need to treat all the children in the union the same. The other is to give the kids time to adjust to the new set-up, and not force them into having a relationship with you. “Each child will be different and will react to your union differently, just allow them to process it. With time, they will warm up to you,” she further explains.

Matheka echoes her sentiments. “Child-parent relationship is one of the most complex of bonds. It takes time, just treat your spouse’s kid much like you would treat your own, with love, kindness and respect. Learn them, give them space, and allow them to see that you are not a threat to the love they receive from their parents. That you are there because you love them too. It will be hard and it will take time, but it will work out eventually,” he offers.

Youtubers Rama Oluoch and his fiancé Shiko Nguru, who have two children, Ella, eight and Lamu, two, and are expecting a third one, offer their over 40,000 vlog subscribers an inside look into their love story as well as the ups and downs of parenting as a young blended family.

Shiko, 34, got married aged 22 while living in the US, where she had moved for further studies after high school, and feels she was quite young and inexperienced, eventually ending up divorced, before she decided to relocate back to Kenya with her daughter. She got into a relationship with Rama and their son Lamu was born.

In many of their vlogs, they feature topics on dating a single mum, navigating a blended family unit, co-parenting and more. Ella visits her father in the US, and he also comes to spend time with her in Kenya, and they all hang out as a family. The main message the Youtubers share is that it can be a challenging dynamic, but is doable, and offer tidbits of advice much like what Kariuki and Matheka highlight.

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