Monday, May 01, 2006

Stepfamilies - Some Common Misconceptions

From Po:

Since Primetime Live botched their coverage of stepfamilies, I figured we all might need a primer on some common misconceptions about stepfamilies. Here's my top 5 misconceptions, then I'll take them one at a time.
  1. Stepfamilies are not new
  2. Stepparents are just as often a solution as a problem
  3. Stepfamilies are everywhere but children living with stepsiblings is rarer than you think.
  4. "Stepparents should never discipline their stepchildren" - Explained
  5. You marry his ex-wife, too

1. Stepfamilies are not New
During Colonial America, parents died so regularly that a much higher percentage of children lived in stepfamilies than do today. Parents remarried repeatedly. In late 17th-century Virginia, fully half of all children would lose at least one parent by the age of 13. Almost half of those would lose the other parent as well and be orphaned.

A hundred years ago, a child had nearly the same odds as experiencing living with a single-parent as a child does today. (Those odds are a little over 1/3rd). Divorce was hard to get, legally, but that did not mean unhappy couples stayed together -- commonly men deserted their families. The newspapers of one hundred years ago are full of stories about the problem of men abandoning their wives and children.

What's unique about today's culture is that parents don't abandon their children like they used to. (In 1835 France, 121,000 babies were abandoned - in one year alone). This affects stepfamilies but it also affects all aspects of family living. Far fewer babies are put up for adoption, for instance. People hang on to their kids. And so when a couple divorces, it's no longer the case that mom always gets full-custody and dad slowly drifts away.

Today, joint-custody arrangements are common. If not joint-custody, then extensive visitation rights are secured. Both parents fully intend to stay part of their children's lives. And everyone involved has to share and cooperate much more than they used to. Stepfamilies are not new; what's new (relatively) is the degree of co-parenting post-divorce.

This is an important point: the complicatedness of modern stepfamilies can seem like a "problem," but it has at its heart a very positive value - that every parent stays involved with their child.


2. Stepparents are just as often a solution as a problem.
A family counselor is likely to be treating stepfamilies that are in trouble. A family lawyer is likely to be advising stepfamilies mired in legal vengeance. So if you ask a family counselor or a family lawyer their general impression, you'll likely hear that stepfamilies have a lot of problems.

But I have put calls out for stories about stepparents, and I received many incredible stories about how great a stepparent has been. In some of these stories, a stepmother or stepfather played a heroic role in being the "great parent" that neither biological parent could be. In other stories, the stepparent was just a nice third grown-up, much like an uncle or aunt, that the child could confide in. In most stories, this stepparent took some adjusting to - but once accepted, they made a very valuable contribution. Kids benefit from having caring stepparents.

So for every story of a child who doesn't want to share their mom with a new man (which is what psychologists will tell you), there is another child who is grateful their mother is not alone anymore.

Many second marriages are wonderful marriages. In Why Do I Love These People?, I tell the story of one blended family in Kansas from the point of view of the teenage daughter. She was embarassed by her parents' divorce, and she balked at being expected to love her parents' new partners. But eventually she got over it, and she realized that her parents were both much happier now. Happy parents = better parents.


3. Prevalence - Stepfamilies are everywhere, but living with stepsiblings is rarer than you think.
One-third of all of us are in stepfamilies, right now. (That includes me - I have had a wonderful stepmother for almost 30 years). One-third of all children will live with a stepparent for some part of their childhood. That doesn't count weekends and visits - when we say "live with" we mean the stepparent and the child would both be listed on the Census under the same household as their primary residence.

About half of those are doing that right now - about 1 in 6 kids is living with a stepparent.

So this is the surprising twist: out of every 100 kids, only 1 is living with a stepsibling.

Children spend weekends with stepsiblings, but it is very rare to live together in one primary residence. Is that a sign of how afraid families are to blend? Or is that just the benign consequence of children mostly living at their mom's? We don't know. Some of both, probably.


4. "Stepparents should never discipline their stepchildren" - Explained
Nothing gets the internet message boards jumping faster than an expert going on television and advising "a stepparent should never discipline a stepchild." This seems like an extremely controversial statement and it ignites all sorts of outrage. But actually, what drives the debate is a fundamental miscommunication. When all sides have a chance to air their views, they find out that they actually agree, most of the time.

When a stepparent hears this phrase, "don't discipline your stepchild," they think they are being told they can't order their stepchild to stop jumping on the couch. They can't tell their stepchild to turn off the television and go to bed. They can't send a stepchild to their room if they are being rude or disobedient.

But that's not what is meant. The experts who make the blanket claim (Dr. Phil among them) make a distinction between:
  1. making rules
  2. enforcing rules
  3. doling out punishment when a child has intentionally broken a primary rule
They believe a stepmother and a birth-father should make the rules together. For the first year or two, a stepmother might not want to spontaneously make a new rule of her own without discussing it with the birth father first. They believe a stepmother has every right and responsibility to enforce the rules and routines of a household. That usually includes giving "time-outs" or sending a child to their room.

Punishment is a different class. Punishment is what is meant by "discipline." This might mean being grounded, but it can also mean spanking. (Yes, it still happens.) So when an expert says "don't discipline the stepchild," they mean "leave the spanking and other punishment to the birth parent." These experts actually agree that the stepparent has every right to spank and discipline the child, just that it's not worth it. When a stepchild is disciplined by a stepparent, they often balk with "you're not my real parent." And the psychologists advise that it's not helpful to corner a child in that way such that thoughts like those are his only defense. Don't get him thinking that way. So the expert advice is based on long-term strategy. They're not saying a stepparent doesn't have the right to discipline - only that doing so is not the best strategy.

After several years, if a stepfamily has blended and completed its transition, most experts think it's fine for the stepparent to now be involved in discipline - (let's hope those instances occur rarely).

Most people - but not all - actually agree with this cascade of conditions. But the entire cascade vanishes when an expert cuts it short and throws out the universal, "A stepparent should never discipline a stepchild." Thus, the confusion - and anger.

By the way - none of this is applicable to very young children who grow up with their stepparent. Stepparents in that situation do not get rebelled against any more than birth parents.

For what it's worth, the full cycle of blending a family usually takes 4 to 10 years, with 7 being average. So if you are still having some trouble three years into it, realize at least this: you're perfectly normal.


5. You Marry His Ex-Wife, Too
I was reviewing my notes on the many stepfamilies we interviewed for Why Do I Love These People? And I was thinking about a friend of mine, a divorced mother, who is slowly falling in love with a divorced man. Both have two children. And she's nervous about this. She wishes it were simpler. She is sure she would fall in love with this man if it was just the two of them. And if either of them did not have children already. But it is hard to fall in love when so many relationships have to be managed. Each of her children has to feel not just okay about him, but okay about his children, and vice versa for him. Then, there are the Ex's. My friend isn't sure she's ready. She's not sure her boyfriend's ready. "Am I ready," she asked me?

The number one complaint I heard from stepparents had nothing to do with his or her children. It was about the ex-spouse. An ex-spouse can ruin the experience for everyone else. Several women told me, "If I had the choice to do this over again, I wouldn't do it. I love him but it has been a drama with no end in sight."

From my own observations, the biggest variable to the success of blending a family is the behavior and agreeability of former-spouses. If you are divorced or divorcing (with children), there is probably nothing more important for you to do than to get on good terms with your ex. If you are falling in love with someone who has children from a previous marriage, your partner's ex-spouse is usually a bigger factor in the long-term success than the attitude of the children. The children can be scared and nervous, but if the ex's are supportive then the kids usually adjust. But when the ex-spouse is contentious, it pulls the kids in two.

If you're looking for a leading indicator, or some prognosticator of whether this will work, the co-parenting relationship between the former spouses is probably the best proxy-measure of readiness.

We don't live in an ideal world, though - I recognize that people fall in love when they fall in love, and it doesn't follow tidy timelines.


Coming Soon - Should Stepparents Have Step-Rights?

11 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Loved the post. A relative had an amicable divorce from her first husband. They had one child before the divorce. She married again. Her husband had been married many times before but no kids. After she married her second husband, they had one child together. I am so amazed at how well everyone gets along. When her second child was born, her former husband gave the new baby a baseball cap with the emblem of the baseball team and he offered to babysit. And he has actually babysat both children while their mother and the new husband have to go out of town for work. The first husband married again several years later. Believe it or not, these two women get along well.

And my relative's second husband is so wonderful with the child from the first marriage even if the child is not biologically his. And his parents love both children. Even if the first child is not biologically related to the second husband, his family always include the first child.

I often hear about new step families ignoring the children from former marriages when reading Dear Ann columns. So I thought it was nice to share a good story like this with you all.

There is a chance I could marry a divorced father with kids and I hope that I will be as good as my relative's husband. I know it is not easy. Several things in my favor are that I love kids and kids love me. If I was to marry a divorced dad, then I would hope that it was one of these amicable divorces. I think it makes life easier.

6:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The post is great. I was a new step-mother two years ago. This year my step-daughter decided she hated me and did'nt want to see me or her father again, after a relentless undermining of our relationship by her mother who called me many names and told many lies about me to purposefully allienate my step-daughter from me. Last october my step-daughter ran to greet me (she is 11) at contact change-over which her mother did not like, it has only gotton worse since then. My partner and I have been reeling from this and he has just made the decision not to attend counselling due to the financial and logisitc cost, even though it was court ordered. I have not known how to deal with it all and have cried many times. If it was not for his ex, everything would be fine. My children adore my new partner, as he is a loving, caring man and father. They have no issues with him, despite my daughter being a 13 year old when my partner moved in with us (we expected she may not accept him but she did with no problem at all). We can only hope that one day his biological daughter will come back looking for answers and we can tell her how much we wanted for her to be included and how much we have missed not having her with us.

10:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is my second marriage. I never would have married a man who had children that were so financially dependent upon him and wanting me to do the same. This has led to some heated arguments and I have given no money. Instead I have told the 40 year old girls to go to work. These women are married and have children. The grandmother has added I should give money as their dead mother did. If I have to buy a child I think I can find nicer girls than this.

11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When i met my husband,i had a son from first relationship,we lived 01 year together before get married,we didin't plan,but i got pregnant,i was expecting a boy.We had two handsome boys,my dream of have a family,my first son was adopted by my husband, everybody under the same last name, was a beautiful dream,but happines are special moments and thank God we lived very well this experience.Sounds like things are over... second charpter.......My husband was divorce when i met him with a son,both ex-wife and son,living in a different country.his ex wife didin't want to take care of the boy anymore,well the ex had been diagnosis with schizophrenia,now is very ease to guess what i become ........ YES a STEP_MOM....The boy had no place to go on his mom's country, i meant nobody wanted to get involved.from grandparents,to aunts,uncles.In order to get him here my husband and me,we had to go thru a psychological interview and assessment,the first day was my husband ,me and our two boys,the folowing next two days just me,i was asked questios since the day i born, i though was so ridiculous been there, a i have two boys and need to be analized to see if i was capable to have a thrid one(step-child), but i love may husband i wanted to do it for him. The day came the came to live with us.know that you wont put my comment because i just read beautiful stories with no problems,its hard to believe,that those step-parents live so well.In my case change my family,the way we were living,the boy started to act strange, from urinated inside the listerine,and let the family use,without say anything, to discrimination aganist my color and first son , once we were sitting together having dinner,and he said to my son... do not touch my skin i don't to get your germs.I told my husband i couldn't take anymore the boy was destroing my marriage ,and try to corrupt my family values. MY MISTAKE.... when i was been with the psichologist,i didin't ask her... what is the boy's background? how is he been raising? Is he going to be a problem in my relationship with my husband? NO I DID NOT ASKED, this is the worst experience ever to me.My husband says everything the boy is doing is to test us,the boy alread told me that he wants to live with his father only, is like have an enemy inside my family,is no health,i am paying a price for something that i didin't asked for.

8:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have an interesting step family problem. My new husband and his ex-wife have a very amicable relationship and get along well. His family loves her and treat her as if she is still his wife. She is at every family dinner and takes his mom shopping every Saturday. She is consulted on all matters related to his mom and is still considered one of "the children". I am having difficulty dealing with this situation. His family does not accept me or my children and have said that if I have a problem with the situation that it is my issue. They have said that they can invite or not invite whomever they want to their homes.
Additionaly, my husbands ex-spouse recently had a birthday party for my step daughter at her home (my husbands old home)and invited us to attend. We did. At the party his ex asked him to set up items etc.just like they were still married. I stood in the living room feeling very uncomfortable and not knowing what to do next. When I expressed anger to my husband over this issue he said "if you don't want to be here then you should leave." I was extremly hurt by this.
I want my husband to have a good relationship with his ex. This is better for their daughter. However, I don't like the fact that my husband has a key to another woman's home (oh yes he still has a key) and that he is exspected to preform household duties. I also do not think that daily phone calls to or from his ex are necessary. When I express concern over this my husband indicates that he was married to his ex for a long time and that they are friends and that I am just jealous. Maybe I am but I know what jealous feels like and this feels like betrayal. HELP!!

8:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To anoymous about the betrayal you are not alone my soon to be husband was this way in the beginning. His ex would call him daily, over the most retarded stuff. For instance called to tell him their daughter had a bug bite on her leg near her rear so don't put anything on it, this may not have bothered me but it took her 45 min to do so. When I would say something he would say that is my daughter and I am going to do whatever I can for her. This hurt because that wasn't all about his daughter it was about the ex why else would she talk for 45 min.
Oh and his family still goes on and on about missing his ex and at this point she has tried to put him in jail and myself and cost us over 40k in atty fees. My family would have disowned my ex. So I just wanted you to know you are not alone.

11:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I am in the same boat. My husband's ex is such a great liar and manipulator that the whole family really thinks she just wants to be a good mom. When we didn't live in the same city as them, she could care less what happened to them. I, as the step-mom, raised the kids and participated in school activities, planned parties, etc. As soon as we moved where the family was, which she moved too. She started contacting old school friends of the two and trying to arrange "old friends only" get togethers that did not involve spouses, showing up in the middle of family functions and making a big production of herself, and she has even had the kids watch their old wedding video! I have been informed by many people that she has wished us divorced, said that I am ruining her children's happiness because they can't be together. And yet, no matter what she does that is obvious that she is starting problems, I am asked to "put aside my issues" so that she can attend family events. As much as I love my husband, and we have a new baby, I am so tired of the drama. I wish she would find a wonderful, rich, handsome man taht could give her all the attention of the world so she would leave us and her kids alone. I feel terrible that she only wants the kids attention when the other family is present or they are at our home. Good luck with your situation. I hope we can hang in there.

8:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, so many issues with ex-spouses! For the husband that said "If you don't like it you can leave" - that's terrible... If he is willing to choose his ex over his current partner then why did he get divorced???
Anyway, maybe you'd like to visit my stepfamily forum http://www.stepfamily.stepfamilyforum.com

1:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My story: When my husband and I married I had one daughter, he had one daughter, two sons and a malignant narcissist ex-wife. All of his kids lived with us fulltime, no child support, for one year. That is when we found out that "real" mom's parents were giving the SD money in a secret bank account (over 6K in 5 months) and that SD was e-mailing both our families and any friends we had with tales of how she was Cinderella.

My husband confronted her, and she moved in with Mom. That is when things really got bad in the slander dept.and we finally broke off relationship with her. My husband had dealt with her Mother enough to warn her that if she didn't stop, he would end the relationship with her. The lies and attempted manipulation were just too much. Malignant narcissists try to use other people to put pressure on the ones they are trying to control, SD employed the same tactics. In addition, she accused my daughter of being a thief (SD really did steal from us) and later on, helped to coerce her youngest brother into putting Nair into my daughter's shampoo. Fortunately, she smelled it and didn't put it into her hair but the results of that could have been very, very damaging.

Then they (BM, SD and Gparents) went to work on the two boys. Oldest SS said, no way. Youngest SS went along with it and decided to live with Mom after three years. We ended up in court, paying her CS which rankled considerably with me, and him doing the e-mail campaign like his sister, this is with all the outright slander they were spreading in town about us. At Christmas, he sent his Father an e-mail telling him he never wanted to see him again, he wanted to be with the people that "really" loved him. We gave him what he wanted. Of course, what he really wanted was to make us chase after him so that he could manipulate us with threats and so forth.

BTW, these were teens, not little kids so they were making conscious choices to act as they did. SD received $, a new car from the gparents, 10K for her college tuition. SS was not so fortunate, he was promised $ if he sided with Mom but its never materialized. He's 19 now and is Mommy's little boy! He can't even drive a car.

Oldest SS was treated to a long series of manipulations and guilt because he would not turn against his father. As a consequence, he has now distanced himself from BM's family and his other siblings. He says they are crazy. I agree.

BM is responsible for much of what happened, though not all. She freaked out when her live-in dumped her because she found out that we were going to get married. Malignant narcissist's cannot accept that the people whose lives they used to control (or think they did) are no longer available to them. She did everything she could to cause us problems, phoned our home and my husband's job so much that he was fired, when we blocked her number, began sending long e-mails, ran us down to the kids and anyone else that would listen. As far as I know she still does. All because of her pathological envy of me.

A good note: My husband adopted my daughter and we are extremely happy in our marriage. Oldest SS is a great kid, calls me Mom, too (but BM doesn't know that) and says that when he marries he wants to have a marriage like ours. So its not all bad, but if I had it to do over again??? At the very least, they wouldn't have lived fulltime with us with no child support. That was just foolish of us.

2:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The ex wife problem and kids hits home with me. I wish I was like you, I really do. Unfortunately I feel betrayed, there is no trust left, no intimacy at all for 5 years now, married 7, the ex has control of my husband and will not allow him to be happy, he has NEVER done a thing to stop this nightmare from continueing to destroy such a beautiful marriage we had. It's been a fight, I fought alone, my husband threw me under the bus, he has no problem getting in "my" face, when it comes to her he will choose to do as she says regardless of the fights recently started, tears are in my eyes even now, sitting here at the airport. I want to see how far i can go and get checked into a hospital, as far away as I can get. My husband knew this was killing us, saw my pain over and over, i begged him b/c it really does need to come from him,,please get this away from us it's destroying us and he allowed it. Oh yes,,,but he loves me, he's so sorry, and feels guilty. He is a coward. I have zero respect for him. To THINK for A SECOND 7 years ago I would feel this way about him,,,I never in a million years think I would feel like I hate him. He didnt care enough, and didnt respect our happiness, future, goals, we were soulmates, i really really loved him. I can't cope anymore, not with his ex,,more with just knowing how cheap he really thought of our marriage and relationship. I can't take it anymore, I can't forgive, I'm full of hate, I look horrible, I have no motivation for life, this has completely devestated me. I stayed in denial, I didn't want to know the truth, I didn't want to hurt this bad. I honestly don't know what to do, I am so lost and pathetic! Missed my flight yesterday, and spent the night sitting inside the airport freezing b/c I can't even look at his face. He is nothing but a decieving, lying, selfish man who has a serious 'people pleasing' problem, which is really really bad, you never know the truth! there is NO TRUST. At the same time he is the best thing that has ever happened to me and I love him,,, ahhhhhh!!crying!!!,,,I don't want to leave him, if I cared enough for myself I would, I'm scared, I completely lost myself. I need serious help.
Well, as I said, you are amazing if you were able to get through this and still be happy. I believe there is a strong reason he feels so committed to her and not to me. I'm his wife. I knew it, felt it, saw the red flags,,i did. accidently calling her his wife after being divorced 4 years? That's just weird. Gotta go,,thanks for who ever took the time to read this pathetic, crybaby, quit complaining and leave the guy letter.

6:31 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Very insightful post! Great to hear your opinion.

12:26 AM  

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