Q: My partner and I have been dating for some time and are committed to each other in the long term. We are about to introduce our respective children to one another. There are four of them aged between six and 11. What books could we read to set us up for success with our blended families?
Anonymous male, 38, mixed ethnic heritage, London
A: Professor Brett Kahr, author and senior fellow at London’s Tavistock Institute of Medical Psychology, writes:
“Blended” families often prove quite vexing – just think of the biblical Jacob who fathered 12 sons by four different women. No wonder 11 of those boys attacked the favourite, Joseph.
While we lack a definitive handbook on navigating the complexities of modern domesticity, I warmly recommend Families and How to Survive Them, written by the psychiatrist Robin Skynner – the father of British family therapy – in collaboration with John Cleese. This delightful classic humanises the universal struggles on the home front.
Thereafter, please read Engaging Couples: New Directions in Therapeutic Work with Families, edited by Andrew Balfour, Christopher Clulow and Kate Thompson – leading couple mental health specialists at Tavistock Relationships. Clulow’s chapter on parenting deserves particular attention.
The psychologist Patricia Papernow has produced a lucid tract on Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t, which offers sensible insights.
Curious parents may also wish to dip into Sigmund Freud’s essay on family romances (Penguin Freud Library, Volume 7), which reminds us that no matter how brilliant a mother or father one might be, each child will, nevertheless, harbour deep-seated fantasies of belonging to an even more exalted family – a sobering reminder to us all.
Literary works provide us with an abundance of useful material, whether classic fairytales such as Cinderella, or novels such as Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Mary Renault’s The Bull from the Sea, or Joanna Trollope’s Other People’s Children – each a beautifully crafted engagement with the vicissitudes of stepfamilies.
It might also be helpful to revisit Romeo and Juliet, possibly the best portrait of the potential dangers of merging disparate familial constellations. This tale of the Montagues and the Capulets may well be the guidebook on how not to blend two troubled families.