Several Christmases ago I was flying back East and struck up a conversation with a 12 year old boy, who sat next to me on the plane. He told me that he lived alone in Arizona with his mom and had just celebrated an early Christmas with her and his grandparents, and was on his way to Pennsylvania to celebrate another Christmas with his dad. His “Pennsylvania Family” included a new stepmother, three stepsiblings, his paternal grandparents, step-grandparents, a number of uncles, aunts and cousins, step-uncles, aunts, and cousins and an Irish Setter “step-dog”.
“You know,” he said, hoping to confuse me, “my former best friend is now my brother, and I have two brothers I haven’t met.” He went on to explain how his dad had married his next door neighbor after his parents divorced, and how his mother was planning to marry a man with two children younger than he, and that his future stepsiblings lived in New York. He proudly pointed out that this would make him the oldest child in his Arizona family when his stepsiblings visited, an only child when they were back in New York, and a middle child in his Pennsylvania family.
Sounds confusing? Well, it is not atypical of the structure of a number of remarried families in which both spouses have children from previous marriages. It illustrates a disruption in family structure that has the potential of causing problems in the stepfamily if not sensitively handled. Sibling rivalry has become a familiar term. It refers to the competition between brothers and sisters and in this case stepbrothers and sisters as well. The fear that one brother or sister is receiving more physical or emotional care is often magnified in stepfamilies. Instead of being “dethroned” by a new baby, the child fears being “dethroned” by two or three stepsiblings.
Furthermore, the child often finds that a parent, who up to this time has focused his or her attention on him or her, now turns attention not only to a new mate, but to stepsiblings.
I remember a new stepfather who brought with him two “perfect” teenagers. They always said “thank you” and “please”; never chewed with their mouths open; never played the stereo too loud; kept their rooms neat and clean without reminders. Their stepmother came with three “normal” teenagers. Imagine asking one of his and one of hers to share the same room. This has the potential for either a perpetual pajama party or World War III.
There is a telling scene in the Berger and Hechling photo essay, “stepchild,” in which the once only child, David, is pictured with his new, older stepsister Alice. The dialogue David has with himself, reads: “Sometimes when the ‘steps’ come, Alice bosses me around. She thinks she knows everything. She’s not even my real sister. Before I was the only child. Now there are three of us. I don’t like sharing my things with others.”
On the positive side there is research that indicates that 62 percent of stepfamilies rated the relationships between siblings as good to excellent and only 38 percent as poor. Stepsiblings have been known to be very proud of one another’s accomplishments. Older stepchildren often become very protective of younger ones and younger ones often idolize their older stepsiblings. Learning to share with others who are not part of immediate family can give stepsiblings an advantage over their peers who are not in step.
Here are some specific do’s and don’ts for parents:
- Give children time to know one another before the marriage, if possible.
- Do not make comparisons across sibling lines. “Why can’t you be as neat as your stepbrother.”
- Teach respect and consideration for others space and belongings by modeling it yourself.
- Treat all children fairly, including noncustodial children when they visit.
- Do not referee children’s arguments or take sides unless ~here is danger of physical harm.
- Spend quality time with each child.
- Do not tolerate tattling.
- Do not compete with your mate for either the loyalty or affection from your own or your stepchildren.
The Instant Family
We are living in an age that seems to put a premium on immediacy. Instant coffee, instant credit, instant replay, and the ubiquitous fast food services are all part of of our “now culture”. It is not surprising that we would have the same expectations for a perfect instant family when a couple marries and at least one partner has children from a previous relationship.
While the parents say “I DO,” the children often say, “I DON’T.” The new spouse may say, “I take you as my “lawfully wedded spouse, but I’m not so sure about being a parent to your children”, or “I take you as my lawfully wedded spouse, and I really look forward to the challenge of serving as a stepparent to your children.” Whatever the hidden, or not-so-hidden agendas of the individuals involved, expectations play a major part in shaping the happily or not so happily ever after of the new family.
While remarriage is not a new phenomenon, the number of remarriages has increased rapidly in the last several decades. Today, step-families are more likely to be created by divorce than by a death of a spouse. It” estimated that 60% of children born today will spend part of their life in a single parent household and in one or more step relationships. Seventy million Americans are involved in some form of step relationship, whether remarried, dating, living with a partner or as an absent birth parent. It is predicted by the same, that three-quarter of all step- relationships will break up and that more people will be part of a second marriage than a first.
In my more “fascist” moments, I fantasize that stepparents should be certified or licensed as foster parents and adoptive parents are. Recognizing that is far from a possibility, I have chosen to spend part of my professional life alerting present and future step-families of the perils and challenges of “Getting and staying in step. Future articles will focus on issues that step-families face and will provide some suggestions for living a more satisfying step-life. Here are some helpful hints for avoiding the trap of buying the myth of an “instant family.”
- Whenever possible, it’s best to have future stepparents and stepchildren meet long before the marriage that legally unites them.
- Once the couple has achieved a degree of seriousness about one another, the children can be included gradually in activities. Then when the prospective members of the step-family are reasonably comfortable with one another, some time alone for the future stepparent and children is helpful. The relationship is more likely to develop successfully if the adult is seen simply as a friend, not as someone who is replacing the absent parent.
- Avoid buying into the myth that has tyrannized step-families, “instant love”. “Love me, love my children”. The belief that stepparents “should” or “must” love their stepchildren and the stepchildren “must” love them, (when they might not even like one another) contributes to a lot of resentment and guilt. All we can expect is that they treat one another kindly and respectfully as human beings. If love develops it is a bonus.
- As the adult in the new family it is important not to personalize the stepchild’s behavior. More often than not, they are either testing you, or their behavior has little to do with you. “Just for-today, I will not personalize my stepchild’s behavior”, perhaps is the best advice a stepparent could be given.
- Although most new step-families don’t like hearing this, it takes between two and four years to become a functional family unit. It’s important for remarried families to realize that the problems they face are usually developmental and not pathological and are indeed subject to resolution. Living in step can be a rewarding and challenging experience for both parents and children.