By Robyn Geller
Growing up I remember racing home from school to watch one of my favorite shows, The Brady Bunch. I’m not sure why the story of the lovely lady and the man named Brady so appealed to me. Maybe it was the girls with their beautiful blonde hair. Maybe it was Peter, the very cute middle brother. Or maybe it was the fact that they seemed to have a perfect life, right down to Alice the Housekeeper. Back in the 70’s, at least on television, and at least from my perspective, bringing two families together seemed easy and fun. But here we are in 2014, and the reality can sometimes be a bit different.
Stepfamilies often mean big families – more people to love, more happy occasions to celebrate and more help when you have a problem. But stepparenting, as is the case with pretty much all parenting, can be a slippery slope. Some people refer to step families as blended families, but that term doesn’t sit well with everyone. “The word blended simply doesn’t fit,” according to Beth Hecht, LCSW-C. “I don’t like when people call them blended families because they’re not blended — they’re more lumpy. The term combined families might be a better description. You can’t expect that when you bring two families together as one, that things will always go smoothly, there are most certainly going to be challenges.”
Who will be responsible for discipline? Where will the kids spend the holidays? How will we divvy up vacations? Who will pay for summer camp? The one constant about stepparenting is that nothing stays the same. More and more people are finding themselves in the role, but many aren’t sure what’s expected of them.
That’s what my friend Deborah found when she married her ‘Prince Charming’. He came with three kids, all in their teens. “I didn’t know what the difficulties would be. I had never dated anyone with children. But it was hard immediately, from the get-go.”
Experts say that children sometimes see the new spouse as competition, vying for attention from the birth parent. “I had no clue how to approach the kids or what to say that would be the right thing,” explains Deborah. But she and her husband figured it out. And her stepdaughter, Carolyn, says her parents did the right thing by not pushing certain situations. “They didn’t force us to be in their wedding and that was the right decision for us,” says Carolyn. “Then once we had made our decision, they didn’t make us feel badly about it.”
Fast forward a few years to when Deborah’s stepchildren grew up and had children of their own, everything changed – for the better. Deborah says she knew she had to be involved with the kids or she’d be feeling like more of an outsider. “I said I want to watch the baby once a week, and things just developed from there. I got involved with the children and love them, and they love me for loving their kids.” Carolyn agrees that for their family, the grandchildren have changed the whole dynamic. “Once I had the kids, she just sort of became their Nana. She couldn’t be more in love with them, more available to them, more about them. She wants to be part of their lives and is completely integrated into our family.”
Deborah’s story ended well, but that’s not the case with every stepparent situation. “So much has to do with circumstances, the path by which the stepparent enters the situation,” according to Karen Nettler, MSW. “Was it by death, divorce? Does the child feel as though one person is to blame for what’s happening?” She says parents must examine the situation through the child’s eyes. “It’s a breaking of their fantasy of living in one big happy family. So looking at it from a child’s perspective can help parents navigate the tricky waters.”
Some tips for navigating those tricky waters from stepparents and stepchildren:
- Always try to recognize the situation from the child’s point of view. Keep in mind that children can be protective of their other parent and worry about the feelings of that other parent.
- Don’t take it personally. Buckle up for some bumpy roads ahead and don’t get too frustrated when you encounter them.
- Communicate. Parents should talk to their kids and let them know how much they love them, and that the person coming into the family isn’t going to change that.
- Get involved. The more you force yourself to join in, the more you will be seen as being a part of the family. Being interested, asking questions and just caring can go a long way.
It went a long way for my friend Deborah. After being married for more than two decades, things are going great. “It’s turned out to be such a blessing in my life,” she says. “My husband’s children are my family. I now have all these people who care about me. I’m very lucky.”
By Robyn Geller, JCS Public Relations Coordinator
The JCS parenting discussion series presents A “Step” In the Right Direction: Successful Step-Parenting on Wednesday April 30 at 7:00pm. Led by Beth Land Hecht, LSCW-C, this program will help stepparents and their spouses explore the relationships, roles and boundaries in blended families. Pre-registration is required. For more information and to register visit www.jcsbaltimore.org/parenting-series.
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