Making a blended family work: how losing their spouses brought this US couple and their 11 children together

Spencer and Erica Shemwell, stars of a new TLC series, say communication is key when creating a new family unit

They used to be called stepfamilies. But these days, with families being formed in so many different ways, a better word was needed to represent and encapsulate the coming together of parents and children to create new, loving units.

So, the term “blended families” was born.

For US couple Spencer and Erica Shemwell, the stars of new TLC show The Blended Bunch, their experience has been a particularly unique journey because, between them, the pair are parents to 11 children, ranging in age from 3 to 12.

"The biggest challenge was learning to accommodate so many children and learning to navigate how we, as a 'new' family, wanted to do things," Erica, 33, tells The National. "We had to figure out what worked from both of our families and blend those ideas together to make things work well, such as routines, family meals and discipline."

Mother-of-seven Erica lost her husband, Tony, to cancer in 2016, and Spencer’s wife, Aimee, died in a car crash in 2017.

Turning to online support groups for those who have lost their partners proved a lifeline for the pair, who fell in love and married 13 months later.

“I loved how Erica was always looking for opportunities to help others out,” says Spencer, 32. “When we were talking daily, she would always ask about what my kids and I needed at the time and would brainstorm ways to help, even though she lived on the other side of the country.”

“I immediately was drawn to Spencer after talking with him a few times because he is very compassionate,” adds Erica. “He didn’t just want to know how you were doing every day, but really took the time and energy to understand what I, and others around him, especially his kids, were going through. He has such a pure heart and intends to be there for everyone.”

‘Trust, communication and compassion’

“Because we initially were friends, we immediately introduced our children to each other over video chat,” says Erica. “We all met in person five months after meeting online. It worked great for us because the kids got to know each other and us adults on a friend basis well before we started dating.”

The pair married in January 2019 and home became a five-bedroom house in Lehi, Utah.

"Trust is the first key. Not just in each other, but in the potential success of the new marriage," says The Family Hub founder Hanan Ezzeldin of the tools required to make a second marriage work.

“The second one is communication. Everything should be out in the open without barriers – happy moments and marital challenges alike. The third is compassion. Not everyone can move on from past issues easily, not everyone will have an easy transition and it’s crucial that people are understanding enough to pave the way for their partners to feel totally comfortable and content in the new relationship.”

Putting the children first

In the kitchen preparing food for kids

Erica has seven children: Landon, 12, Emma, 10, Lily, 9, Sophie, 8, Tanner, 6, Amelia, 5, and Caleb, 3. Spencer is father to four children: Brayden, 12, Harper, 8, Avery, 6, and Bexley, 4.

The Shemwells admit that bringing together 11 children has been a challenging process, but that establishing clear routines and ensuring the same rules for all children was a priority.

“With a lot of trial and error and, above all, open communication between us and the kids, we found a way that worked for everyone,” says Erica.

“Building care and affection takes time and is a gradual process,” says Sneha John, clinical psychologist at Dubai’s Camali Clinic. “Children in blended families need to be involved in simple decision-making. Creating an honest and transparent environment helps family members communicate without judgment and develop emotional connectedness.”

When it comes to communication, children should be encouraged to talk to both parents, each of whom work to ensure each child receives individual attention amid the noise and chaos of everyday life in such a large family.

“It’s always been set from the beginning that the kids can come to us without judgment with any problem they are facing, whether individually or as part of our family unit,” says Spencer. “That has given us great insight to what everyone needs and helps us focus on what’s most important for each child and as a whole.”

Remembering lost parents and partners

When Erica and Spencer’s partners died, they lost their spouses while 11 children lost a parent. The couple made it a priority from the start that forming a new family wouldn’t mean severing ties with the old family unit, nor forgetting the parent and partner they lost.

“Pictures are hung up around our home of their parents who have passed away,” says Erica. “The children also each have special blankets and other items in their rooms to remind them of their parent.

"But, more importantly, we talk about Tony and Aimee in our everyday talk. We often tell stories and reminisce and point out to the kids how much they are part of their parent and that they always have a bit of their parent with them.”

“It is important to be clear with a child about the role of a new partner,” advises Dr John. “Explain that they are not a replacement for the deceased parent, but someone who you care about a great deal and who you would like to be part of all your lives.”

“Stepparents can compliment things the other parent did or taught the children,” adds Ezzeldin. “Bring them up in a positive light. Keep memorabilia of the other parent in the house – especially for the children – and keep up traditions the deceased parent used to do with the children.”

Citing camping, visits to the park and family film nights as some of the new traditions the Shemwells have created as a blended family, the couple have also continued to celebrate the milestones of their deceased partners.

“We celebrate their birthdays with cake and their favourite foods and activities,” says Spencer. “On the anniversary of their passing, we remember them by visiting the gravesite or releasing lanterns into the sky with messages written to them.”

Lessons learnt from their first marriages

Erica and Spencer with Emma Means, Sophie Means, Landon Means and Caleb Means in parking lot at cancer center.

For Erica and Spencer, taking time for just the two of them has been a big factor in making their marriage a success amid a busy home life.

"We make it a very big priority to have a weekly date night," says Spencer. "We often go running or hiking together and even run errands. We also get up early in the mornings to do our own individual tasks, so we are able to focus on the kids during the day; and once the kids are in bed, we spend that time together each evening."

Embarking on a second marriage, even without 11 children in the mix, is not without its challenges, and experts cite communication as the key to success the second time around.

“It’s important to talk about the negatives as well as the positives of the previous marriages,” advises Ezzeldin. “Keep the conversation going because you are entering something new and it’s important for the success of the new relationship that any pitfalls are discussed so they can be avoided or adjusted.”

“Both of us have brought so much experience and understanding from our previous marriages and what we’ve learnt from our late spouses,” reflects Erica. “The most important thing we have brought into this relationship is that we don’t take each other for granted.

"Once you’ve lost someone, you treasure more dearly the relationships close to you and we treat each other in a way that we know we are loved daily.”

The Blended Bunch airs on Sundays on TLC, 10pm UAE time