No Simple Simcha: The Logistics, Love and Learning of a Blended Family


If you actually pay attention at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, you just might learn something new. Maybe you’ll pick up a meaningful nugget of knowledge from the parsha that you’ve missed in the past. Perhaps you’ll discover how you might get involved in the mitzvah project being discussed on the bima. Or possibly you’ll get some insights (and eyesights) as to exactly how much shorter this year’s hemlines are than last year’s.

At my nephew Daniel’s bar mitzvah two weeks ago, my "aha" moment came when I realized that I had finally learned how to navigate the complex logistics of enjoying a simcha with a very blended family. I was "consciously competent" at last, but that certainly wasn’t true at first. And for anyone learning a new skill, behavior, or way of being, it pays to understand the four levels of the learning process.

Picture it: My brother Scott and his wife Debra were surrounded on one side by Debra’s lovely intact family. On the other side was our gang – lovely, too, but more like puzzle pieces from a few different sets. In addition to my husband, kids, and two sets of aunts and uncles, Scott was represented by our father and our younger brother, my mother (his stepmother), our stepfather, his mother (my nothing), his other stepfather (ditto). In absentia were our mutual stepmother and our sister, who, at 16 is a year younger than her niece, Scott’s daughter, who is 17, as well as our two stepsisters, a stepbrother, and their broods.

Yeah, it’s complicated.

Over the years, however, I learned that I took an active part in complicating things further by being unaware and uninformed about how to deal with an un-unified family unit.

Level 1 Unconscious Incompetence: You Don’t Know That You Don’t Know

When our tribe first started gathering for simchahs with my niece Shira’s bat mitzvah five years ago, I was unconsciously incompetent about dealing with this family dynamic in public. I didn’t realize that there were certain personal and interpersonal competencies needed to manage the situation, such as diplomacy, privacy and setting clear expectations. In fact, I probably didn’t know what would have been useful or relevant to think about that could have made the weekend easier for myself and for everyone else. It wasn’t until my suggestion that we all have t-shirts made identifying which marriage we were from was met with stony silence from everyone (finally — something they all could agree on!) that I began moving into the next level of learning…

Level 2 Conscious Incompetence: You Know That You Don’t Know

At my nephew Mark’s bar mitzvah three years later, I was well aware of the fact that I needed to do more boundary-setting, priority management, and inclusion to get through the weekend. I over-informed my mom by letting her know every time I was planning to see my dad, until she told me that she wasn’t monitoring my comings and goings. I invited everyone from all marriages to the pool to watch my kids swim, and my attempt at making sure nobody felt left out made everyone on the lounge chairs tense. With both implicit (observed) and explicit (spoken) feedback, I knew that I had two years to get my act together for Daniel’s special day, where I could show off my…

Level 3 Conscious Competence: You Know that You Know

We had the hotel room next to my mother, stepfather and brother, so I knew that I had to make a special effort to share time with my father. When the kids woke up in the morning, we let them ride the glass hotel elevators (alone!) to visit my dad’s room. I gave my brother’s mother a lift to the synagogue when her husband got ill so that she wouldn’t be alone. I had breakfast with my mother and her family, and had my father drive me and my daughter Sophie back to the hotel when she insisted on closing the party down. I sat my son Jacob next to my dad during the Shabbat service so he could gently remind his grandfather what page we were on and what to do next. I knew that I was being diplomatic, flexible, sensitive, and caring, but what amazed me the most was watching Jacob and Sophie exercise their…

Level 4 Unconscious Competence: You Don’t Even Know that You Know – It Just Flows!

My kids were born into this complicated family framework, and like native language speakers, they don’t even think about what they are doing or saying. They’ve known no other way of relating. They have more grandparents than many others, and they manage to take the extra spoiling in stride. Jacob and Sophie have an ease as they squeeze out of one embrace and make a bee-line for the next one. They don’t think in terms of "step-", "half-" and "full-", they think in love and hugs and kisses.

We have four years until the next simcha which will be the Bnai Mitzvah for my twins. As expected, family from different marriages, allegiances and practices will converge to celebrate with us. And I know that with work, time and dedication, I can learn from my children to become as unconsciously competent as they are today. Besides, isn’t that what family is all about?

Deborah Grayson Riegel is a certified coach, speaker and trainer who helps individuals, teams and organizations achieve personal and professional success through her high-energy workshops, presentations and one-on-one coaching. Visit her online at or

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