Jul 05, 2017 08:30AM ● Published by Ben Scott
by Ben Scott
On the surface, Maggie and Joerg Seifert’s family looks a lot like the Brady Bunch. When the Darien couple married in September 2011 their “blended family” was officially formed. Like the Bradys, Maggie and her three children (Chris, 26, Sean, 25 and Jordan, 18) came together with Joerg and his three children (Hanna, 18, Grace, 16 and Hope, 13) to form a single family unit. But comparisons between the famous T.V. family and the Seiferts only go so deep, their story messier and more heartfelt than any half-hour fiction.
“Our relationship’s a little different,” Joerg says. “Maggie and I met a long time ago when I was in the service and Maggie’s husband was in the service.”
“Nearly two decades later, Maggie, a widow, and Joerg, a divorcee, reconnected through the magic of social media.
“I was doing a reunion for a military unit. Maggie’s friend called her and told her to check out the reunion page and that’s how we got back together,” Joerg says.
At the time, Maggie was living in New Jersey and the couple began a long distance relationship that blossomed quickly.
“We got engaged in the spring, Maggie moved out here in June and we got married in September,” says Joerg. “We went from myself and three people in this house to seven people” (For a time, Maggie’s son Sean stayed with his grandmother in Maryland to attend college). “Plus, I already had two dogs and we added two dogs. So, it certainly became very chaotic really quickly.”
Today, after six years together, Maggie and Joerg’s two families have jelled, the kids are older and the Seiferts all lead happy, productive lives. Maggie is a nurse at West Suburban Women’s Health in Willowbrook and Joerg works for himself as an attorney at Joerg Seifert Law Offices. Jordan and Hanna are in college, Grace is in High School, Hope is in Middle School, Chris is in the Air Force and Sean is working to become a police officer. But, for the Seiferts, navigating the intricacies of their blended family dynamic wasn’t always easy.
In an article on the website lovetoknow.com, Rachel Hanson notes that “While conflict happens in all types of families, blended families have many unique issues that many people are unaware of until they start dealing with them. Knowing what to expect in a blended family can help family members address issues before they spiral out of control, or avoid these problems altogether.”
“For the first year, the kids got along OK, but then the newness wore off and the fights and the arguments started because everybody was used to having their own space,” Maggie says.
Regarding territorial issues, Hanson cautions that children may feel threatened when step siblings take over parts of their home.
“The children moving into the home will not be happy either because they feel like the place is not 'theirs' and they are not welcome.” (lovetoknow.com)
With seven people living in a four bedroom home, the Seifert’s briefly considered upgrading and moving out of Darien. But the family loved the community, and Joerg’s unique emotional connection to the house made it difficult to leave.
“I grew up in this house,” Joerg explains. “I bought it from my parents after I got married for the first time in 2001 and then I kept it when I got divorced. Certainly for my family, my kids, this is home.”
So, the Seifert’s did what all families do—they made their situation work for them.
“We decided to put a couple of bedrooms and a bathroom in the basement and we created a great room,” Joerg says.
Eventually, everyone settled in and the relationships between step siblings improved.
“Now the girls are all the best of friends,” Maggie says. “You wouldn’t know that they were stepsisters. They really hang out and support each other.”
Joerg and Maggie say it’s fun to watch the ways in which each of their kids bring their own personalities to the table and interact with one another.
“Last summer we went on vacation and Jordan didn’t go,” Joerg says. “And I don’t want to say it was less fun but it was different fun because Jordan’s more of a risk taker. The kids didn’t want to take the boat out by themselves. If Jordan would have been there the boat definitely would have gone out without us and they all would have had a good time. But everybody’s different and I think that’s a good thing.”
However, like many parents in blended families, Maggie and Joerg initially faced issues when it came to resolving disparate disciplinary styles.
“Maggie didn’t want to be the enforcer. And I don’t mind being the enforcer,” Joerg says. “But we quickly learned that wasn’t going to work, that her kids didn’t want to listen to me. So, the process of parenting was a little bit of trial and error.”
According to Diane Wagenhals, Director of the Parenting Resource and Education Network, “It is not possible to be perceived by your children as totally fair, and parents who try to keep everything equal often feel incompetent and negligent. An interesting principle of healthy parenting is that your job is not to treat each child the same but rather to assess and meet each child’s unique needs.” (centerforparentingeducation.org)
“I do think all the kids get treated differently,” Joerg says. “I think at some level they have to get treated differently because they're all different people. There’s no panacea.”
For Joerg’s children, discipline was a little more confusing as the kids split their time between two households.
“Maggie’s children only have rules here,” Joerg says. “Whereas my children have rules here and then have rules at their mother’s house. Again, it’s a very difficult thing to figure out.”
In her article “Navigating the Challenges of Blended Families,” Holly Robinson tackles this problem of discipline between ex-partners and separate households: “In a perfect world, the rules and values in each of your child's homes would be identical. In the real world, the most practical way of handling inevitable household differences is to choose what's most important to you and compromise when necessary.” (parents.com)
Once again, the Seiferts learned to adapt, developing disciplinary strategies that were right for their family.
“At first there was a lot of stern talking to,” Maggie says. “Now people laugh at us because if the kids cop a bit of an attitude we’ll get the squirt bottle and we’ll squirt them. And that diffuses the tension. The kids realize they’ve crossed a boundary and they just kind of straighten up.”
Indeed, according to educator Julie Johnson, laughter can be a great way for blended families to build closeness and reduce hostility.
“Look for places where your children laugh and keep that laughter going,” Johnson writes. “Be the goofy one who chases them through the house but can’t quite catch them, let them be the victorious one, while you’re the big, bumbling loser. Play and laughter can reduce tension and unify stepfamilies in a wonderful way.” (handinparenting.com)
“You have to be quirky, you have to enjoy life,” Joerg adds. “One of the things I do, which drives everybody crazy, but it’s kind of funny—when people turn around I take whatever’s in front of them and move it somewhere else. So, they turn around and their plate of food or their glass of water’s gone. Of course, I take it to the extreme where now it’s just annoying. But you have to have a little bit of fun on a daily basis.”
At the end of the day, the Seifert’s have always found ways to have fun and bond as a family. Maggie says the family takes part in local community events like DarienFest, the Pancake breakfast and the various parades held throughout the year. And the Seiferts say they’re also blessed by the tight-knit connection between all the families in their neighborhood.
“We have the best neighbors ever,” says Maggie. “The dogs play between all the four houses. When the kids were younger they would play in each other’s yards and we’re always getting together every weekend having fire pits and just talking and hanging out and having a good time. It sounds cheesy, but Darien really is a nice place to live.”
At times, Maggie and Joerg refer to their life as “controlled chaos,” but the couple wouldn’t change a thing.
“It was very challenging for a long time,” Maggie says. “But now I couldn’t imagine my family any other way. We have such great kids and they all get along. We truly became a family, which is such a cool thing.”