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As I was driving my kids to school today, we were talking about all of the exciting things going on for our family in the month of September, and how much we are looking forward to spending the coming weekend with my husband’s three sons. After a summer of seeing them for a week at a time, it seems so long now between visits, since we’ve resumed our every-other-weekend schedule.

As we talked this morning, I glanced in my rearview mirror at my son’s face, and I could tell he was thinking. He is my pensive child, and his eyes give him away when something is brewing in his sensitive little heart. I asked him what he was thinking about, and he said “I love the boys and I love our big family. I just…I just kind of ache for some time with our little family.”

My son is old enough that he remembers the time period between when his father and I separated and when my husband and I started dating and got married. That time as a “little family” was so hard in many ways, but it was also so sweet and holds some of the most precious moments I have ever had with my children.

My daughter is young enough that she doesn’t really remember much about life P.B. (Pre-Boys). Don’t get me wrong—she still requires frequent “girl date” time, when we escape the den of testosterone and boy smells, and let our “boys be boys” with their video games and ninja battles while we go get a pedicure. She doesn’t remember, however, what it was like when it was the “little family” that my son holds so close to his heart.

After his confession, my son met my eyes in the rearview mirror and whispered “Please don’t tell Brian.” I felt a little pinch at his obvious struggle to ask me for some time alone, mixed with fear that he would hurt his stepdad’s feelings if he asked for it.

My children love my husband. He stepped gracefully and lovingly into their lives and they adore him. My daughter liberally bestows her hugs and kisses and sweet affection on him, while my son more shyly doles out his hugs, but communicates his love in written form, through notes and texts (hmmm…wonder where he gets that?). One of the qualities I love most about my husband is his empathy. He came from a blended family too, and he understands what our kids go through in a way that I simply can’t.

So how do I successfully convey to my kids and my step kids that it’s not only okay, but it’s good to crave that time with their individual parents in their “little family”? We work so hard to ensure that each of our children feels like an integral part of our blended family–an appendage that is crucial for the successful function of the family as a whole body. It’s so important though, to take a pause from that and whisper back to them “It’s okay to need time. I get it.”

My youngest stepson wears his precious little heart on his sleeve. You never have to guess what he is thinking. Stick around, and he’ll tell you! While he has vague memories of life before our current state, it isn’t as clear to him as the “little family” is to my son. What is very evident with him, however, is his need for quality time with my husband. When he has a “date” with his dad, he returns from it visibly refreshed, and talks about it for days. The older boys are the same way, although a bit more reserved in their response. Alone time is such a simple gift to give them, but one that I often neglect to give.

I tend to be the Official Family Planner. I make the holiday plans and the vacation plans and the weekend plans and try to keep things interesting and fun. Sometimes I hit the mark and sometimes I miss. Parenting older boys is a brand new world for me. I’m starting to figure out what suitable entertainment is for a teenage boy, but I’m still such a rookie that I can only ask for their patience while I stumble through the trial and error of it. What I am learning through the process is that it’s equally important to schedule time to be separate as it is to be together. We are one family. A big, crazy, loud, imperfect family. At the nucleus of our family though, you’ll find two little sub-families that are still alive and well.

I reassured my sweet boy in the car this morning that my heart aches too for alone time with my “little family”, just as it does for time with my big family, my husband and my friends. Quality time is important for any child, blended family or not, but nurturing the individual branches of your blended family tree (if you have one) is vitally important to its continued growth.

While certain days might feel like they are at LEAST 48 hours long, our time with our children is so short. Here’s to making memories worth aching for.