I spent my childhood glued to the TV set, enchanted by my fictional friends Marcia, Jan, Cindy, Greg, Peter and Bobby. But more so than the step-siblings who made up TV's most popular blended family, it was their parents who captivated my imagination and I would have happily traded in my intact nuclear family to live with the bedazzling widowers Carol and Mike, who somehow found each other, married and became The Brady Bunch.
Back then in the early 1970s, we were recent immigrants from South America -- four disoriented kids and two bewildered parents trying to navigate through a foreign culture and language. Crammed in a Queens apartment below the #7 subway line, like the Brady girls, my two sisters and I shared a bedroom. Unlike them, we all wore hand-me-downs. Our family of six had one bathroom. The kitchen sink served as the dishwasher, and every Saturday we hauled the family's dirty clothes five blocks to the nearest Laundromat. Our parents lived in a state of fatigue as they struggled to make ends meet. It didn't help that as a couple, they were combative. Individually, their tempers would flare at what I thought were the slightest misdemeanors. My dad chain-smoked feverishly to reduce his stress. My mother coped by regularly threatening to send our teeth flying across the room.
Mrs. Brady never raised her voice. Despite a houseful of rambunctious kids, none of them ever worked on her last nerve.
"Mike ...!" she'd sing out angelically whenever a blended-family issue came up. And there Mr. Brady would be, at his home office drawing table, patiently ready to problem-solve, not an ashtray in sight. The Bradys discussed their problems rationally and calmly on their orange sofa, never giving each other the silent treatment for weeks at a time. Together, they'd smartly figure out what to do. And whatever it was, it always provided the added value of a life lesson for whichever kid was involved in that week's crisis.
Fast-forwarding some 35 years, I never dreamed I'd have the chance to be Mrs. Brady. Divorced for a decade while raising three very lovely girls of my own, combining my family with someone else's was never on my agenda until I met a man I couldn't resist. So after four years, my guy and I moved in together, schlepping our teenaged children along for the ride.
It's fortuitous that Glen has Mike Brady's composed and gentle disposition. He rarely gets rattled, even with all five kids in the house at once. Shortly after moving in, though, I realized I could never live up to Carol's reputation: By virtue of being perky and having hair of gold, right off the bat Mrs. Brady won the affections of stepsons Greg, Peter and Bobby. I'm a brunette and constantly trying not to fly off the handle. "Can I talk to you for a minute?" I snarl at Glen when one of the kids upsets me.
See, as parents, we are on opposite poles -- he's permissive, lenient and fun, while I raised my kids by being an overprotective tyrant. While the Bradys swiftly resolved differences within their allotted weekly half hour, we rarely come up with quick-fixes, our problems sometimes festering endlessly and resurfacing at the most inopportune moments.
Still, we have learned some lessons since blending: When some family conflict surfaces, we try to address it and often without hollering at each other. When we're bias about our own offspring, pointing fingers at one another's kids, we attempt to control ourselves. We don't parent one another's children. We do rely on each other for support and also advice, and sometimes even put it into effect. It's very Brady of us. And we take this merging of families seriously because we refuse to allow our children to screw up our joyful partnership.
But we didn't discover all of this on our own. When things have gotten really hazardous, we've fallen back on someone way smarter than we are about these sorts of situations: our family therapist, who's on speed dial. We'll trample over everyone and drop everything on our schedules for a coveted appointment. Our therapist is so effective I once asked her if she could move in with us. She thought I was joking. But over these shaky first years, she's helped us navigate through this murky territory, putting our issues into perspective, giving us renewed hope that this can work, and offering priceless guidance. No one has taken up tobacco; no one has threatened dental dislocations. We realize that we're fortunate to have found this professional cheerleader and to have her on stand-by for emergencies.
In retrospect, we're far better off than those haughty, know-it-all Bradys ever were. After all, they only had Alice.
Follow Claudia Gryvatz Copquin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AskClaudia