Janey thought she liked her mother’s boyfriend Dan the first minute she say him. how could she have been so wrong? How could she have guessed that the generous, loving man who first began dating her mother would turn into a wicked stepfather the minute he and her mother were married?
Janey thought that they would instantly become the closest of families, but her hopes were shattered with the first argument: Dan insisted she finish her homework or he wouldn’t take her skating. She could have saved herself a lot of disappointment if her expectations had been more realistic.
It’s not hard to understand why parents and children pin unrealistic hopes on a new marriage. They may be coming off years of unhappiness from a divorce or death and they long for a happy change. Almost 80 percent of people who divorce will take another chance and remarry, usually within three years. There are more than 6 million children living in stepfamilies, and that’s not counting children who have a stepparent they don’t live–for instance, if they live their mother but their father is remarried.
Experience: The Best Teacher?
Most people in stepfamilies have lots of experience in running a family. So why should it be unrealistic for them to think they can create an instant happy family? Why should they listen to experts who say that it will take them four years to settle into a comfortable well-run family?
Because, for one thing, we’re just learning how stepfamilies work. Up to now we’ve had only two examples to follow. One is the Hansel and Gretel model. The other is the Brady Bunch. In the absence of good models, remarried couples have run the new family by the same rules as the old family. But the two are different species.
The old family began with just a husband and wife. They had time to get used to each other before they had children, and they shared the growing-up stages of the children.
The old family slowly established a set of habits and traditions. They collected belongings and fit them–slowly–into the available space in their home. Parents and children–slowly–made friends and developed interests.
That’s very different from what happens when a stepfamily is born. Two sets of already established traditions are thrust together. One family celebrates birthdays by throwing a big bash. The other marks the day with a quiet family dinner. One family opens holiday presents on Christmas Eve. The other always waits until Christmas morning. Got the idea?
Discipline may have been handled very differently in two families. Kids who are used to strict parenting may be uncomfortable with the freedom of a more relaxed stepparent. And those accustomed to a loose rein will reject a heavy-handed approach. One of the biggest conflicts in stepfamilies is over who does the discipining. Sometimes a new stepparent tries to hard–and too soon–to take over. Children may resist because they don’t like the new style of discipline; or, they may feel disloyal to their own parent if they accept the stepparent’s rules.
Many times stepchildren have several sets of rules to juggle-one in their own home and a different one in the home of the parent they visit on weekends. If that parent has remarried, too, there’s another stepparent to figure out . . . and stepsiblings to get to know. And maybe some stepgrandparents and step aunts and uncles and cousins.
Theirs, Mine, and Ours
In a stepfamily, people who may not know each other very well suddenly become mother or father or sister or brother. A house that accomodated two children and all their belongings may hold four–and all their belongings. And everyone may not start on equal terms. If a stepmother and her children move into the house of a stepfather and his children, the newcomers may not feel very much at home. It will take a long time for “their” kitchen to become “ours” and “her” school to become “mine.”
Families on Stage
Families grow up in stages, just as children do. An original family is usually a young family with young children. Fine. They all need the togetherness that it takes to build a family. But a stepfamily may be a young family with older children. An adolescent who’s supposed to be developing independence outside the family is suddenly asked to concentrate on relationships within the new family.
Some experts say the hardest ages for children to enter stepfamilies are between 9 and 15. They may have had nore responsibilities and privileges in their single-parent home than they will have in the two-parent stepfamily. And they’re at the age of puberty, when changes inside themselves are enough to handle without outside changes, too.
Daughters may have a harder time than sons. The happier the new couple is, the more left out the daughter feels. Maybe that’s because girls focus more on the home and the parent relationship than boys do. Also, because boys may often have a lot of conflict with their single mothers, the presence of a stepfather can relieve the tension.
Young people who are just developing their own ideas of love may find it hard to cope with their parents’ romance, too. They are very aware of the honeymoon nature of the new marriage, and they may resent it or find it uncomfortable. And, in some families, they may find themselves attracted to a stepbrother or stepsister. What are the ground rules?
With all these issues, stepfamilies can have some rough going. In fact, the divorce rate for second marriages is higher than for first marriages. But stepfamilies can make it work. Esther Wald, family therapist and author of The Remarried Family, says that stepfamilies often come with a stronger commitment to the new marriage than they had for the first one. Some join groups of other stepfamilies to talk about common issues. Some join the Stepfamily Association of America, which publishes a bulletin full of helpful advice and success stories. (Its address is Stepfamily Association of America, Inc., 602 E. Joppa Road, Baltimore, MD 21204.)
Here are few of the lessons that stepfamilies and experts agree help the family work:
* Don’t pretend the old family didn’t exist. It may be gone, but it’s not forgotten. And, like any other loss, it has to be grieved. When a child cries at his parent’s wedding, he may be mourning the end of an unrealistic hope that his original parents will reunite. He may be starting an adjustment to a new life.
* The original family and the stepfamily need to work together. Your family can make it easier if they don’t try to make you feel guilty. You’re not being disloyal to your parent if you begin to like your stepparent. And you can help by not encouraging them to compete for your love by buying you things and giving you extra privileges.
* A stepparent is a stepparent is a stepparent. He or she is not going to replace your parent. You can have special relationship with both of them.
* Take it slow. It might be best if your parent takes charge of discipline at first. You and your stepparent can try to find some interests in common. Spend some time together getting to know each other as people. The parenting stuff can come later.
A remarried family can walk together in a new and happy direction. It just needs to be one step at a time.