Living in a blended family

Living in a blended family – stepfamilies

Jane L. Mickelson

When my father chose to remarry in 1952, he told my brother and me that we were going to have a “new” mommy. Excited about the upcoming even, I bragged to my fellow first graders and described in detail the blue party dress and patent leather shoes I was planning to wear to the wedding. But their responses were less than enthusiastic. “Cinderella,” they muttered ominously. “Snow White, Hansel and Gretel. They all got stepmothers too.”

This dubious attitude was not restricted to schoolchildren. Most of our neighbors and friends saw my brother and me as living in a “broken home,” in the custody of a divorced father. Stepmother or not, a difference of this sort was not a socially desirable trait in a small southern New England community.

Although no one sat us down and spelled out the rules, the instructions were clear: we were never to refer to our “real” mother for fear of upsetting our father or insulting our stepmother, and–for the same reasons–we were never to use the term “stepmother.” We were to pick up the dangling threads of our shattered young lives and continue on as though nothing had happened, as though our mother had not disappeared with no explanation. In short, we were to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary had happened and that we were a perfectly normal nuclear family, just like all the others in the neighborhood. This great deception was to color much of my childhood and trail behind me well into adulthood.

The Dynamics of Blending

Only in the past decade have sociologists and psychologists begun to seriously study what makes stepfamilies different from “intact” families. As a result, members of blended families are now encouraged to appreciate their special characteristics rather than attempt to hide them. In fact, now that one in three children in the United States are living in stepfamilies, sociologists are predicting that this once-invisible minority will rise to dominance by the turn of the century. It is therefore in the interest of us all to understand the dynamics involved in creating and supporting a blended family unit.

One of the most difficult tasks confronting new stepfamilies is resisting the urge to pretend they are something other than what they are. Many new couples, longing for stability and security, romanticize the sense of kinship to come. Models of nuclear family relations fill their thoughts and dreams. Stereotypes, preconceptions, and dreams of the perfect family, however, can lead directly to disappointment and failure. The challenge for these couples is to openly acknowledge the ways in which they are different from the unbroken family, and to attempt to blend themselves and their children into a new family. Only then can family members take full advantage of their unique ability to establish an exciting new type of kinship.

The most obvious difference in a stepfamily is that one (or both) of the adults in the household is not related biologically to the children. Whereas in an “intact” family, parent-child relations unfold naturally over years of living together, a stepfamily is often thrown together with little time to develop such closeness. The family quickly learns that love and respect do not automatically spring into being merely because a living area is shared. A child’s loyalty to a parent separated by death or divorce can form a barrier between child and stepparent, and jealousy and confusion over who-loves-who-the-most may cause angry disputes.

To confuse matters further, children who have lived with a single parent for an extended period of time are often closely bonded with that parent–in ways that can challenge the new marriage and the development of new family ties. Any threat to this special attachment will be enormously distressing to both child and parent. Consequently, everyone has a role to play in easing the agony.

The natural parent’s job is to acknowledge the primacy of the adult relationship, thereby relieving the parent’s own pain, ensuring the survival of the new family, and presenting the child with a healthy model of marriage. The natural parent will also want to spend lots of special time alone with the child to help overcome the youngster’s shock of being plunged into an entirely new lifestyle. Of course, little healing can occur without the cooperation and understanding of the new spouse, who must remember that when children remain secure in their parent’s love, they feel less threatened by the presence of a new family member and more interested in contributing to a happier and easier life for all.

Sibling relations pose another difference. In an “intact” family, the addition of a sibling is most often a gradual process, beginning with a child’s awareness of pregnancy. Months of excitement, anticipation, and preparation heighten the child’s expectations so that the baby arrives as a welcome presence in the home. The new family member can reliably be found in the arms of mom or dad, and any new accounterments are usually confined to one section of one room. In a stepfamily, however, siblings arrive together in a variety of sizes, complete with all the possessions, personality traits, and territorial needs as the other children in the home. Conflicts over room sharing, chores, and the use of household facilities–issues often ameliorated by the sense of relatedness shared by natural sibling–can be heated and bitter.

Studies have shown that cohabitation difficulties are significantly defused by housing the stepfamily on neural turf–in living quarters to which no one has a prior claim. Of course, moving to a new home can be too costly, in which case the stepparents will need to prepare for lots of discussion. Mere physical proximity of young people cannot lead to the same sense of relatedness shared by natural siblings. Arguments do arise, and problem solving is essential.

Some households designate a few hours each week to family meetings so that grievances can be aired, discussed, and settled. Even if a problem is not immediately resolved, the parties involved know that they are being listened to and that the family cares about their concerns. Sometimes, being heard is enough. Other times, it is helpful to consult an outside advisor such as a minister or a family thereapist.

Burying a problem, in the hope that it will go away on its own, is never a wise course of action. Nor is it realistic to blame every difficulty on stepfamily dynamics; intact families have problems too. The best approach is to acknowledge the problems, deal with them openly, and recognize that times will arise when the family must resign itself to living with a certain amount of tension in the air, especially around a particular issue or two.

Planning activities that engage the whole family is equally important. Shared activities lead to a common storehouse of memorie. At the same time, fostering customs and habits unique to the new family unit helps ease the emptiness created by the loss of a parent. Remember, empathy and caring do not appear on command; these emotions require time and nurturing on the part of each new family member. Discussions are vital, and sharing ideas about the “old” ways of doing things can be critically important. The point is to encourage each person to forge a strong identity by finding his or her special niche in the new family structure.

Easing the Transition

One way to help smooth out the rough spots is to anticipate, and prepare to address, the child’s greatest perplexities. Here are some of the baffling questions that arise.

* What do I call them? What does a child call stepgrandparents, or stepaunts and uncles? What about all those cousins? Are they really cousins, or not? Because social mores do not prescribe names for those linked by remarriage, it is up to the natural parent and stepparent to clear up the confusion. Some couples explain that although these newly acquired relatives are not related by blood, they do form part of the extended family created by the new marriage. In general, naming dilemmas are best solved by finding terminology that is comfortable for child and relative alike.

* What about all those forms? The school environment, a rich source of confusion, is often the child’s first exposure to bureaucratic paperwork. However, the task of defining step relationships, for either administrative or guidance purposes, should not be left to the child. Many youngsters are painfully self-conscious about being different from their peers, and having to reveal something as personal as their family structure–to which they may still be adjusting–can be overwhelming and embarrassing. It is up to the parents, especially the natural parent, to notify school officials about the home situation. The natural parent will also want to inform the principal of the noncustodial parent’s rights to the child and to any school records. The best plan is to discuss these matters before the school year begins (or just before the marriage takes place).

Filling out family information forms in school is one childhood memory that still rattles around my anxiety closet. They were a constant source of anguish. I was expected not to use the term “step,” and yet I was too terrified to fill in my natural mother’s name for fear of hurting or angering my father and stepmother. So I would lie, and write my stepmother’s name on the “mother” line. Now, each time I sit down to complete another form, up comes that hateful feeling of having lied to the school authorities.

Fortunately, many schools now use forms that allow for a full listing of names, addresses, and emergency information–natural parents, stepparents, and guardians included. A number of schools also send duplicate mailings of report cards, school calendars, and conference requests to all interested parties. If your child’s school does not offer these services, why not ask for them–on behalf of all the stepfamilies in your community. Or better yet, form a stepfamily network, and let your needs be heard as a group. This approach will probably carry more weight and will certainly help raise the consciousness of school authorities.

* Who is my keeper? The trauma experienced by the child entering a stepfamily may not be immediately visible. Many children are struggling with loss–not only the loss of a parent, but the loss of a family unit or, in the case of a bitter divorce, an entire family branch including grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Some children are also separated from their siblings. Family patterns, customs, and ways of doing things–all the comforting habits that contribute to a youngster’s sense of security–may be altered or eliminated entirely. These losses, combined with a change in home, neighborhood, school system, and friends, can have a serious impact on a child.

Sensitivity during the transitional stage is essential. The natural parent will want to devote lots of one-on-one time to the child, to provide ongoing reassurance that the love shared before is still there. The natural parent is also the best disciplinary guide; the wise stepparent will hold off on behavioral measures until a good friendship and a deep sense of trust have been established. Even the basics of primary care are best handled by the natural parent–at least until the family is able to find its way through the complexities of living together.

Many new stepmothers, vulnerable to society’s expectations of them in their new role, jump right into the nurturing tasks, and even modify them. Some of these women, through no intent of their own, end up usurping the father’s role in the lives of his children. From their point of view, the new stepmother has not only “taken over,” but has no chance of doing a better job than dad. So, stepmothers, hold off as much as possible on major alterations in the daily routines. Remember, the family’s needs are a lot more important than any fixed standards placed on you to perform as a mother.

* Why do I feel so guilty? Children in a new stepfamily are sensitive to negative comments about their familiar way of life and about the parent with whom they are no longer living. To put down a former spouse in front of the child, regardless of the provocation, is to create an insuperably painful conflict for the child. Blowing off steam is best reserved for moments when the child is not around.

If you must address negative matters (such as substance abuse, suspected child abuse, or other serious issues), strive to speak calmly, objectively, and maturely. When excessive emotional pressure prohibits a calm discussion, consider engaging the help of a counselor or family therapist. And remember, no child is ever responsible for the behavior of an adult. Forcing children into a debate between adults, or manipulating children in an effort to secure information about a former spouse, can leave long-lasting scars on the sons and daughters of battling ex-spouses.

* How can I convince my friends that I am not Cinderella? At my oldest stepdaughter’s sixth birthday party, just a few weeks after I had married her father, her friend turned to her and asked, in a particularly piercing whisper, “Laura, is she your stepmother?” When Laura nodded, still a little scared of the word (if not the actuality of our new family structure), her friend said, “She’s nice,” and then resumed her interest in the cake and ice cream. My heart swelled.

Planning fun activities with your stepchildren and their friends will place you within the context of their lives. Then, too, their friends’ acceptance of you as a real person, rather than some phantom image, will be reassuring to your stepchildren. The affairs need not be elaborate. Simply including a friend in a family picnic, a shopping excursion, a Saturday night movie, or a trip to get ice cream cones is a pleasant way to see another side of your new stepchild. And buffered by the familiar presence of a friend, your stepchild will have a perfect opportunity to get used to you.

Like so many aspects of life, stepfamily living improves with time. The shared experiences and the daily adjustments made in sharing a household combine to form a family’s self-definition. The stronger that definition is, the healthier the stepfamily will be. And the easier it will be for all family members to take pride in knowing that they have weathered a crisis and emerged with determination to make a new life for themselves.

Literature

Berman, Claire. Making It As a Stepparent: New Roles–New Rules. New York, Harper & Row, 1986. An excellent resource based on interviews with families and professionals.

Burns, Cherie. Stepmotherhood: How to Survive without Feeling Frustrated, Left Out, or Wicked. New York: Times Books, 1985. A supportive, sane volume filled with solid advice for women raising stepchildren.

Capaldi, Frederick, and Barbara McRae. Stepfamilies: A Cooperative Responsibility. New York: Franklin Watts, 1979. An informative, easy-to-read guide with special advice for the single parent considering remarriage.

Keshet, Jamie Kelem. Love and Power in the Stepfamily. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987. An interesting and thoughtful approach to the realities of blended living.

Visher, Emily, and John Visher. How to Win As a Stepfamily. New York: Dembner Books, 1982. Advice and suggestions from the groundbreaking pioneers in stepfamily therapy.

Visher, Emily, and John Visher. Old Loyalties, New Ties: Therapeutic Strategies with Stepfamilies. New York: Brunner Mazel, 1988. Written for family therapists specializing in stepfamily counseling, yet excellent reading for the nontherapist as well.

Films

Stepkids, an October 1991 release by New Line Cinema, is a humorous portrayal of family life amid multiple stepsisters and stepbrothers. The film draws upon the personal experiences of executive producers Melissa Goddard and Peter Morgan, and was conceived when Goddard attended her brother’s graduation: the principal asked the parents of Michael Goddard to please rise, whereupon seven people stood up proudly!

Jane L. Mickelson (46) lives in Northern California. Jane, her husband Don Smith (48), her stepdaughters Laura N. Smith (21) and Amy V. Smith (18), and their son Jared Smith-Mickelson (14) have all blended with joyous complexity, deep warmth, and love.

COPYRIGHT 1991 Mothering Magazine

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group