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Chapter 1

What Is a Stepfamily?

A stepfamily is defined in many ways the definition used here is: a family in which one of the adults has a child or children from a previous relationship. The adults may be married or living together. Names which apply to these families include:

• Blended: These families are generally created by divorce and remarriage. In blened families often biologically unrelated children live in the same household.

• Binuclear: In these families, both adults are the biological or adoptive parents of the children. There are three types of married nuclear families. In the traditional, married nuclear family, the man works outside the home while the women works inside the home caring for the children. This traditional family is now a minority form in the United States.

• Lesbian or Gay Families: Children are sometimes reared by a lesbian or gay single parent or two gay or lesbian adults filling parenting roles. Adults may bring children from a heterosecual relationship to these families; other children may have been adopted or conceived by medical procedures, such as alternative (artificial) insemination.

• Community Families: A comunity family is a group of people who live and work together and share the responsibilities of raising the children. One well-known community family that is popular is Isreal is the kibbutz (meaning gathering in Hebrew). In some community groups, only some adults function in the parent role, while in others all members of the group participate equally in child rearing.

As you can see, these are may different family strutures in America. Because society tends to promote the traditional family as the norm through literature, schools, and television, children who live in nontraditional families may feel that theirs is not a real family and may be embarrassed by their different family structure.

It is important for you to decide how to describe your new family. One term may be comfortable for some of the members and not the others. It is important to let children know that currently in the United States nontraditional families are more common than traditional families. It is also important to help children understand that what the family provides for its members is more important than the way it is structured.

Believing Myths of Stepfamily Living

Stepfamily myths strongly influence the way members of stepfamilies adjust and react to one another.

The following myths about stepfamilies can be stumbling stones on the trail leading to a strong stepfamily:

Myth 1: Adjustment to step-family life must occur quickly.

People are anxious to go on with their lives after a divorce or the loss of a partner. They may think that forming a stepfamily will make life more complete and instantly happier. They are going to be disappointed.

Stepfamilies can be very complicated with so many people involved. You have to get to know each other and to work at the changes stepfamily living brings. It takes a long time and is hard work.

Myth 2: Stepparents are wicked, especially stepmothers.

Fairy tales, such as Cinderella and Snow White, make us think of a cruel stepmother who is mean to an unwanted stepchild. You think of yourself as a nice person, wanting to do a good job with your new family, but the world seems to have another idea.

The notion of a wicked stepparent can affect you in a very personal way. It can make you very self-conscious about step parenting. It can be a real stumbling stone to creating positive relationships between you and your stepchildren, especially if you are a stepmother. With time, patience and understanding, positive adjustments can happen.

Myth 3: Only a first-married family can be a real family.

We live with the image of a first-married family as being the only type of family that can be considered a true family. But different kinds of families, like single parent families and stepfamilies, have existed for generations and are very common in most communities.

Many have been very successful in raising families. Most important is the support and care a family of any kind can offer to each one of its members.

Understanding the Realities of Stepfamily Living

A stepfamily can build on its strengths by looking at reality, rather than believing the myths. Here are some typical day-to-day realities that most stepfamilies experience.

Reality 1: A stepfamily is born of loss.

A divorce, death or separation comes before the stepfamily. The feelings that come with loss must be taken into consideration.

A parent who has died may be elevated to sainthood, and the partner wants an exact replacement. Or, an adult may be looking for the exact opposite of a former partner.

Children grieve the loss of their first family, no matter how imperfect it may have been.

It is not unusual for stepfamilies to discover these feelings create tensions if no one is willing to recognize and to talk about them.

Reality 2: Stepfamilies are not like first time married families.

It is very difficult to create a stepfamily in the image of a biological family.

Why?

• Children may share two households.
• A biological parent is absent.
• A stepparent has no legal authority over a stepchild.
• An adult child may never live in the same house with the stepparent.
• Each family coming into a stepfamily has a different history.

When stepfamilies try to make their family look like that first family, they may experience disappointment and a sense of personal failure. Stepfamilies can learn to build on their new family’s strengths, rather than try to act like a biological family.

Reality 3: There is no such thing as instant love.

It is not fair to expect all members of a stepfamily to love each other immediately. We learn to care deeply for others over time and through many experiences with each other.

Stepchildren are expected to love their new stepparents instantly, and the new stepparents are expected to love new stepchildren like their own.

This expectation is common whether the stepfamily includes children at home or adult children on their own. Stepbrothers and sisters also are expected to like each other.

It can be devastating to expect instant results. Success involves a slow process over many years. Some researchers say it takes four to eight years or more.

A reasonable goal might be to move slowly across a range of feelings for a new family member, going from strong dislike to a neutral feeling, then to one of approval, and finally to feelings of love.

Reality 4: Negotiation and conflict are normal.

Partners forming stepfamilies expect joy, peace and happiness that may have been lost in earlier relationships. That is not usually the case with new stepfamilies. There are many differences, many personalities and many difficult situations.

Disagreements and conflict can occur often. Learning to handle conflict in a positive way enables the stepfamily to move toward the happiness that the parents are seeking. Don’t forget a sense of humor is very helpful.

Reality 5: Stepfamily members have different histories.

A man and his children may form a family with a woman who has no children. The father and his children will have memories, habits, and private jokes that do not include the new stepmother.

If both partners bring children to the family, there will be several different sets of histories and relationships. These histories and relationships cannot be ignored.

Someone can feel like an “outsider” from time to time. Each case is unique and may require a different approach.

There can be differences in traditions and values. Everything from views about meals and homework to birthday celebrations is likely to be questioned.

These traditions and values are not right or wrong, just different. Stepfamilies must work at being both understanding and flexible in dealing with all of these differences, and still form a style of their own.

Reality 6: Children may live in two or more households.

Children must learn to deal with two approaches to discipline, allowances, meals, schedules and much more. One household may have more money to spend than the other.

Decisions about space, visitation schedules, and who buys what must be faced immediately. These situations require sensitivity and adjustments for all members of the family.

The changes eventually become routine parts of life in a stepfamily.

Reality 7: There is an absent biological parent.

The absent parent always has influence on the stepfamily, whether the parent has died, lives a long distance away, or lives just around the corner.

The relationship, or lack of relationship, between the child and the absent parent will have an impact on the stepfamily. It can involve visitation schedules, economic situations, or the absent parent’s view of the new stepfamily.

Sometimes a lingering sense of loss will create concern as the child gives up the fantasy of the biological parents getting back together.

Recognizing Your Concerns

Before a family with stepchildren is formed, all of its members are likely to have questions and fears. These uncertainties might not be shared with others. But they can determine how relationships develop.

Here are some questions that may be in the minds of different family members.

The Younger Child's Questions

• Will we move to a new house?
• Will I have to share my room?
• What should I call my new stepparent?
• Will my parent still love me?
• Will my other parent still love me if I love my new stepparent?
• Will my stepparent be nicer to his or her own children than to me?
• Am I safe with my stepparent?
• Will my stepparent leave us too?
• If my stepparent and my mother have a baby, will they still love me?
• If I’m mean to my stepmother, will she leave so my real mother can come back?

The Teenager's Questions

• How shall I act toward my new stepparent?
• Will I lose the attention of my parent?
• Will my curfew and other rules be changed?
• Will I be forced to be with my new family rather than my friends?
• Why do my new stepparent and parent have to act like newlyweds?
• How can I have privacy?
• What if I get a hidden crush on my new stepparent?

The Adult Child's Questions

• How do I relate to my new stepparent, especially if the new stepparent is almost my age?
• Will I be expected to have contact with my stepsisters and stepbrothers and their families?
• Will my parent continue to be a good grandparent to my children?
• Where and how will we celebrate special occasions?
• Will I lose my inheritance?

The Parent's Questions

• What kind of father will he be to my children?
• How can I help her feel less jealous toward my ex-wife?
• Will he understand the time I need to give to my children?
• Will he feel awkward living with my teenage daughters?
• Will my ex-wife make life miserable for us?
• Will her children and my children get along?
• Will she be willing to adopt my religion?
• Will he be willing to share housework and child care?
• Will my children and grandchildren ever accept her?

The Stepparent's Questions

• Do the children like me?
• Will they accept me?
• What kind of discipline are they used to?
• How much time will they spend with their birth parent?
• How will I introduce my stepchildren to other people?
• Will my partner have to send a lot of money to his ex-partner?
• Should I take a job or stay home to get to know my stepchildren?
• Will her children have to spend every vacation with us?
• Will the children get upset if I redecorate the house?
• Is it OK to tell her that her child gets on my nerves?
• How should I treat my new step-grandchildren?

If stepparents, birth parents, and children, regardless of age, discuss these concerns, anticipate problems, and plan for changes before the stepfamily is formed, it may be easier to adjust afterwards. However, you may already be in a stepfamily and are looking for ways to step ahead.

 

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