Welcome to the Stepfamily

It’s difficult to grasp the intricacies of a stepfamily, sometimes even for those who are part of one. After all, its composition involves any of the following: mom, dad, stepmom, stepdad, his kids, her kids, our kids (which means sister, brother, stepsister, stepbrother, half sister and half brother). Add all the other components, including extended step relatives as well as ex-in-laws who, remember, are still grandparents, aunts, and uncles, not to mention the ex-spouses and perhaps their new families, and one begins to see the complexities involved. The stepfamily, however, is a steadily emerging breed to be reckoned with.

We should, of course, promote pre-marriage education and partners' lifelong commitment to each other. But unfortunately, some marriages don't work; others dissolve when a husband or wife dies.

Just what is it like to be part of a step family, a family that exists instantly when a man and a woman say “I do”?

Because of the nature of the “package deal,” the husband and wife don't get to adjust to each other and then gradually expand from a couple to a family. From day 1 they start with an intact family. The only choice is to learn on the job, so to speak.

Even for a man and woman who love each other it is a risky adventure. And their children? They may not have wanted these two to marry each other (or ever marry again, for that matter). They may not like either the new parent or the new children who move in.

Some couples admittedly start out in a more favorable climate than others. One man, when proposing to his wife-to-be, invited her children along and asked them for their permission to marry their mom. Luckily, he got it.

Another woman was told by her therapist, “Your daughter may never like her stepfather, But that's OK.” It may be “OK” in clinical terms, but it sure can put a damper on the step parenting relationship.

"Who Am I?"

Understandably, “Who am I?” could well be the refrain rippling through stepfamilies, particularly those newly formed.

Mom may now have a different last name than her children's, making them feel like outsiders. And the stepparent often has no idea as to the boundaries of his or her role. “You can't tell me what to do - you're not my dad (or mom)” is the phrase all stepparents dread.

Everybody faces multiple adjustments. Neatnik kids may end up sharing a bedroom with a stepsibling who never heard the words “Clean your room.” Shy, quiet types might find themselves competing for attention with extroverted stepsiblings who effortlessly capture the limelight.

The mother who was home all day with the kids may be the direct opposite of the step mom who thrives on 10-hour days at the office. The dad who played ball with his kids nearly every night may be compared to a stepdad whose most athletic pursuit is walking outside to retrieve the newspaper. With a stepfamily, you can't just take new players and attempt to reconstruct a family like the originals. While step families try to blend and become one family unit, the fact remains that stepfamilies aren't the same as their biological family counterparts.

Be Realistic

Stepfamilies have a distinct nature. As one stepmom put it: “You can't make stepfamilies into a 'natural' family, and it's best not to try. The step parent who believes the myth of The Sound of Music stepfamily, where children follow the new parent around like the Pied Piper, is in for a big shock. It's more realistic to let children discover for themselves what role they want to play in this new setup. Do they want to be cooperative or rebellious, withdrawing or participating? They need to discover for themselves which way works. We can encourage and guide them, but we can't make them pretend.”

An “ours” child often helps draw the stepfamily together, giving each family member a child that everyone is related to equally. But even that may not work without repercussions.

“Having a child of our own made us feel more like a cohesive family, but years later we realize it made my daughter feel more of an outsider,” comments one stepmother. “She felt, and still feels; that the child of our own is more special to us and that she doesn't quite belong.”

Expect Conflicting Emotions

Children aren't the only ones with conflicting emotions. Parents deal with their share, too.

“Don't raise your expectations too high for your fee lings toward your stepchildren,” warns one stepdad. “Concentrate on your behavior and actions. One of the things that create a guilty feeling in stepparents is that you don't feel the same natural outflow of love and wonder that you feel with your own children. What you feel, you feel. You just have to be kind and care intellectually. Eventually the feelings will develop.”

And while the kids undergo every imaginable version of sibling rivalry, they are not the only ones who experience jealousy.

“Sometimes I feel jealous of my wife's relationship with the kids,” admits a stepfather. “I want to be an equal parent, and I cannot always be. Sometimes that's very difficult.”

Explains a stepmother, “in all honesty, I think my husband has some unresolved conflict about my relationship with his children. Sometimes when the kids and I are doing something together, he will intervene to get his kids realigned with him. I feel I should be trying to get closer to his kids, but I don't know what to do about my husband's reactions.”

Eventually, stepparents come to realize that each of them has a unique relationship with each child. Neither parent can really intercede or redirect those relationships.

“I spent a lot of time trying to get my husband to understand my daughter and my daughter to understand my husband,” recalls a stepmother. “In the meantime they were not talking together all about their feelings. They relied on me to be the middleman. Tell your daughter…' 'Mommy, will you ask…?'

“I tried for a long time to patch up hurt feelings and mediate quarrels. It didn't work. I just got burned out, and the others didn't grow in their responsibility to handle their own relationships.”

Stick Together

Successful stepparents seem to have one thing in common: They recognize the necessity of working together in unity as a couple even though they don't agree on everything. Writes Stepparenting coauthor Jeanette Lofas, “Couple strength is primary.”

When the going gets tough and the kids try to divide and conquer (and yes, your adorable cherubs will try), stick together.

One stepmother relates how on hikes her stepdaughter used to edge her out in order to walk next to her father. Soon the stepmom would find herself trailing along behind them.

As a solution she suggests that her husband could have shown his daughter that the marriage relationship is primary by waiting for his wife to catch up, then slipping an arm through hers and walking on together.

Counseling gets high ratings from successful stepparents, too. They recommend that about-to-be-blended families definitely seek professional counseling whether they think there are problems or not - and include the children.

“If they think there are no problems, someone in the family is hiding his or her feelings,” one stepmom says. “The counseling session acts as a forum for everybody to just express his or her feelings, which is very difficult in some families.”

A Christian Perspective

As Christians, many of the stepparents I interview try to determine what Jesus would do with their problems.

Explains a stepdad, “I try to think of things in the context of our Christian teaching instead of in the context of secular justice - who's right and who's wrong.”

One couple has seen their values shift since they became Christians. One stepmother told me, “Each of us used to think, What am I getting out of this? Now we are willing to look at how our decisions and actions affect others, mainly, in this case, our children. With this higher goal in mind I can more easily let go of slights and injustices today.”

So why would anyone willingly merge into a stepfamily? For those who enter a second marriage (and among those who divorce, 75 percent remarry), the struggle can be worth it.

For the rare occasion, when your stepchild “slips” and calls you “Mom”. For the Father's Day when the card says “Love,” and her kids' names are signed on it too.

For the thrill when your spouse's children confide in you just the way your own do. For the times when you see siblings and stepsiblings play together and enjoy every minute of it. For the days when you learn to laugh before you cry.

For the satisfaction of cherishing a life together with a spouse you truly love. For the hope of providing the children - his, hers, and ours - with a meaningful sense of family, even if it's a family formed from a little bit here and a little bit there.

For those moments when everything clicks, when you look around the dinner table and proudly realize, “This is it. This is my family.”


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