How to make blended families work. Fifteen years ago Beverly Halliwell was 32 years old and childless as she prepared to walk down the aisle with Bill Ross, a man who came to the altar not only with his love but also his three school-age children. “I thought I knew a lot. I thought I knew what I was doing,” she says today. She pauses for effect. “I had no idea. “You will always be seen as the bad guy. You represent the end of everything the children had ever held dear,” the 48-year-old Jefferson County mother explains from a perch of wisdom that comes as she finally emerges a decade and a half later with a good relationship with her stepchildren. She also has a 10-year-old son with her husband. Theirs has been a family story that took a good deal more work to find its happy ending than a 30-minute episode of The Brady Bunch. “If I hadn’t had the attitude that I was marrying the kids as well as their dad, I would’ve been out of there,”
she confesses. According to the latest estimates, the families in this country who are living in some sort of stepparent arrangement now outnumber those in traditional ones. It is hard to pin down firm numbers because the U.S. Census does not count stepfamilies or single parents living with a partner who is not a child’s parent. But many fix the number of children in these families at nearly 15 million — and growing.
Consider that around half of all first marriages in this country break up. Most people will marry again, and those with kids tend to marry even more quickly. But putting families back together in a new form is never easy. In fact, statistics show that 60 percent of second marriages will also dissolve, and two out of three will end if stepchildren are involved. One of the biggest pitfalls in newly merged families is that the grown-ups and children are not feeling the same things at the same time. The parent and his or her new spouse are in the throes of romance. They are happy again and want to get on with their new lives. The kids simply aren’t there, explains Claudia Carroll, a Denver clinical psychologist who works with blended families. Almost universally, she says, it takes much longer for families to work out the dynamics than anyone expects — usually years. “People have to be realistic in what they hope for,” she explains.
Carroll cautions that the newly divorced should not introduce their children to any love interest for at least six months — and even then only if it seems that the relationship is serious. The same goes for any children of the new partner. A parade of new people is very troubling for children who are still consciously or subconsciously grieving. Sometimes she asks children to draw a picture of a heart to represent their parents’ love and then draw a picture of themselves and place it in that heart to show where they fit in the new family. She remembers one child who drew a tiny picture shoved off in a far corner of the heart. “It was very heartbreaking,” she says. Even older children struggle with feelings of loneliness and replacement. This can be especially true for the children who are the opposite gender of the divorced parent who is remarried or is dating. Boys may feel they must protect their mother, and girls feel competitive for their father’s affection. Ross still vividly recalls a family trip to Boston with her new husband and his children a few months after the wedding. Her husband had gone on to a restaurant with some relatives. She was outside with her 12-year-old stepdaughter when the girl bolted and disappeared into a crowd. Frantic, Ross combed the strange city and finally found her sitting alone on a park bench.
No matter how much Ross pleaded, the girl angrily refused to budge. Ross dissolved into helpless tears. She eventually asked an elderly couple who had been watching the drama unfold to stay with the girl while she called her husband to intervene. “What have I gotten myself into?” she thought. Part of the problem is that there are so few markers off which parents and stepparents can chart their course in the strained-smile, drop-off-and-pick-up world. “The way the parents handled the divorce is going to set the stage for what comes next,” says Carroll. Of course. But while this is a good theory, even the most evolved of divorced parents are often dealing with their own disappointments and old hurts that can spill over in words and deeds. It is a theme well mined in pop culture. In one telling moment of the 1998 movie, Stepmom, the son of Susan Sarandon’s character says he will hate his new stepmother if she wants him to. Carroll says one of the most important things birth parents can do — even if they have to bite their tongue until it bleeds — is to give their child permission to like or even love the new stepparent. Otherwise, the child will feel disloyal to the birth parent.
This is also where the remarried parent must step up to the plate. Even if a child is hurting, a parent can and should set rules about civility and respect toward the new person in the family. This goes for discipline, too. It should never be the job of the new stepparent to discipline a child. That is a sure recipe for conflict. It helps if the parent also is the one who interacts with the ex, leaving the stepparent out of the middle. Another good idea is for the remarried parent to make “dates” with their child. It is terribly important for children to understand that while everything around them may be changing, the one thing that is constant is how their parents feel about them. Carroll urges both families to try to keep their homes, their rules and their routines as similar as possible. This is crucial in today’s trend toward custody arrangements, where parents split sleepovers into complicated schedules. She remembers one little boy who confessed, “I’m just dizzy.” Still, as difficult as it can be, blended families can and do work, says Carroll. In an off-the-cuff analysis, she figures about 10 to 15 percent of families will become truly blended; another 50 percent will find a happy co-existence, and the rest will probably fail.
Ross advises others who are about to enter the tricky world of stepfamilies to try to keep their eye on the big picture, no matter how rough the day-to-day may get. She says the best advice she received was from her mother, who said, “Just love them because someday they will look back, and they will know that you did.” She also says unless you accept that your role is to help mend a broken family, you should be prepared to walk away. Her breakthrough moment came after her stepchildren were away at college and she got her first Mother’s Day card from them. She was OK after all.
Written by COURTNEY DRAKE-MCDONOUGH