Stepfamilies: The New Pioneers
By Barbara Perlmutter and Laureen Miki
Jamie woke up to the reality of stepfamily
life on the morning of her honeymoon. “There I was, walking behind
my husband and my 10-year old stepdaughter on our way to breakfast.
The honeymoon was over before it started!” Another stepparent,
Stephanie, recalled, “For me it was a first marriage. Even though
I knew he had kids, I wasn’t prepared for how they would affect
the romance in our relationship.”
There are many such surprises when people
form a stepfamily. Most embark on the monumental task of combining
families with great hope and enthusiasm, but with unrealistic
expectations and little idea of what they're heading into. "I
thought it would be fun," said Laura, "You know, the zoo, the
aquarium…I had no idea."
Many assume their new family will follow
the traditional model that most of us were raised with: two adults
fall in love, set up house, learn to live with each other and
later decide to have children. In this tradition, both adults
become parents simultaneously and their children confer on both
the authority and status of parent. When a conventional family
is created, there is a bonding between members that, for better
or worse, is rarely questioned.
All these components are different in
remarried families. Those who expect stepfamilies to develop in
a similar manner are likely to experience frustration at best
and divorce at worst. Currently, the divorce rate among stepfamilies
is even higher than for first-time marriages. This is because
many well-intentioned remarrying couples fail to recognize or
acknowledge that stepfamily relationships are unique and require
a different approach. Unlike biological families, they are created
out of loss - death, divorce, or abandonment. What's more, losses
continue to occur after the remarriage. Job, home, friends, family,
schools and lifestyles may undergo major changes. Husband and
wife are challenged on emotional and financial fronts. Biological
parents are unprepared for being caught trying to please the new
spouse, the kids and their former mate. The stepparent often feels
excluded and isolated. Many stepparents are startled to find that
they lack the usual adult authority in the home. Another significant
factor is the strain of supporting two homes financially. One
stepmother complained, "I'm working full time and part of my paycheck
goes to my husband's ex-wife who is living in a much nicer house
than we could ever afford. It's very frustrating."
Another basic difference is that stepfamilies
often involve parenting between or more adults who live in separate
homes and frequently hold differing values. This can create conflict
and tension for the adults as well as the children. In addition,
there is no legal relationship between stepparent and stepchild
and little community, government or societal support for this
growing type of family. This can lead to a variety of additional
stresses and challenges for all family members.
Children in stepfamilies may experience
feeling conflicting loyalties between their step and biological
parents. Additionally, birth order may change with the introduction
of stepsiblings - the "baby" of the family may now find that there
is someone else in his place. And to add insult to injury, children
may be asked to confer parental status on an adult whom they have
only recently met. Most children have not gained the maturity
to come to terms with losing their original family and yet are
asked to adapt to profound changes, which they did not want and
which are out of their control.
And if all this isn't enough stress, new
stepfamily members often find themselves competing with each one
another for resources: attention, money, space and private time.
In short, within a few days or months of its inception, the new
stepfamily is frequently hit with a barrage of intense feelings
for which no one was prepared. As one highly accomplished stepmother
lamented, "There is nothing I have ever done in my life that could
have prepared me for how hard starting my stepfamily was."
How can you create family in an atmosphere
of resistance, loss, intensity and divided loyalties? How can
new family build when it's members do not share the same history?
How can a family form amidst competition, chaos and change?
Family is not simply a group of people
living together. Family is a feeling. It cannot be created instantly.
Quality relationships take time to build. Authentic commitment
and trust only grow through shared experience. Healing from a
major loss such as divorce or death is a process. It will take
time. The advice of "mature" stepfamilies and experts alike is
to go slowly. "Love is enough" expectations tend to limit the
creative thinking that allows progress. Set your sights on a realistic
roadmap, one that may have ups and downs, especially in the early
years. Experts say that fully settling into stepfamily life can
take five to seven years. Each family must find its own way, discovering
what works for them and what is satisfying for each person.
- Start fresh. The emotional intensity
involved in stepfamily life can be surprising. It is essential
to first complete your emotional divorce.
- Temper optimism with reality. Let go
of your fantasy of re-creating a nuclear family. At the outset,
strive for flexibility not cohesion. Remember, the transition
is challenging for everyone. In the long run, patience and understanding
will pay off.
- Shift slowly. Keep some of each family's
traditions and rituals and add some new ones. Change is never
easy but is facilitated by an atmosphere of trust and acceptance.
Developing shared values takes time and effort.
- Pay attention to your marriage. The
satisfaction of the couple relationship is what determines stepfamily
stability. Make it a priority to spend time together. Develop
a shared vision of marriage and family life that involves defining
(and, over time redefining) your roles as parent and stepparent.
- Find support. Educate yourself. Talk
to others in stepfamilies, join a support group, take a class,
and seek counseling, if necessary.
The going often seems tougher for stepfamilies
because they are forging a new frontier rather than following
an established trail. Maintaining an open-mind will maximize your
chances for success. Make your goal to find what works for each
family member. Remember, you are pioneers and new territory means
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