Stepparenting: A Collection of SAAs best articles and research findings
ParenTalk: Preserving Identities in Stepfamilies
By Kalman M. Heller, Ph.D.
Stepfamilies Quarterly, Summer 1995
One of the primary issues that makes life in a stepfamily so challenging is that each person belongs to more than one family constellation: there are biological connections and those created through remarriage. A nine year old girl who lives with her divorced mother and visits her remarried father whose new wife has two children from her previous marriage is constantly shifting roles. Even when home with her mother, its not the intact family she knew through her early years and her relationship with her mother may be altered into part confidante, part daughter. Plus if her mother is in a relationship, that adds to the complexity.
When she visits her father, she has a biological parent relationship mixed with the stepmother relationship as well as relating to the two of them as "parents." Then there is the shift from being an only child in one home to having stepsiblings in the other--and if one of the stepsibs is older, she has to adjust to a different sibling position. Of course we need to throw in a new set of stepgrandparents and the remainder of that extended family. Now if her mother remarries and if either or both of the parents have children of their own, the complexities multiply geometrically.
It is easy for any member of such a complex family structure to feel lost, left out, displaced, hurt, angry. Most stepfamilies need assistance to navigate such complex waters in order to achieve stability and healthy relationships. In working with these families, I stress the importance of four recommendations to help preserve each persons core identity which they need in order to cope with the fluidity and the transitions that are a routine part of life in a stepfamily.
First, everybody, meaning both children AND adults, needs a space of their own, regardless of how much time each spends in a home. Certainly each child needs their own bed, dresser, and shelves, with certain clothes, toys, and other possessions that remain there and are respected by everyone else. This is done in most families. But what is often missed is the same need for the adults, especially when frequently one spouse has moved into the home of the other spouse and has difficulty (often unstated) feeling like it is really their home as well. So each spouse should have, to whatever degree space allows, anything from a nook to a room where they can set up some special things that tie their present life to their past and help to maintain a sense of continuity about who they are.
Second, the biologically-related family members need to spend some time alone during visitations. All the relationships are not equal and attempts to make them so denies reality and creates hurts and jealousies. Children know the reality and will accept honest and logical behavior. So when our nine-year-old visits her father, they should go off and do some things alone. This doesnt preclude the integration of this girl into the family as a whole or the support for developing strong ties with her stepfamily, but that will take time and is best when not hurried. In the meantime, experiencing the entire familys support for her and her father to have their special time reduces her fears of "losing" him to everybody else and reaffirms her primary identity as his natural daughter.
Third, it is very important to share with everyone the narratives that define the history of each branch of the family. Time should be spent telling stories and looking at old picture albums and creating drawings of family trees so everyone can know not only who they are but who each other is.
Fourth, the remarried couple is the key relationship if a stepfamily is to be a successful place to live and flourish. It forms the stable core in the midst of all these fluid boundaries and identities that Ive been referring to and must be a priority. Yet, it is much more challenging to do this because there are so many special issues and needs within the family that the marriage is often pushed to the background. Remember that most remarriages involve pre-existing families and, therefore, the couple does not get a period of time to just be a couple. They are instantly challenged to adjust to being parents before they have solidified their own relationship. So they must find ways to keep making time to work on that process for years into their marriage.
To help with these issues, I recommend joining the Stepfamily Association of America (800-735-0329).
© Kalman M. Heller, 1995. Doctor Heller is a clinical psychologist in Needham, Massachusetts, specializing in child and family services. His ParenTalk column appears monthly in seven community newspapers in the greater Boston area.
Stepparenting: A Collection of SAAs best articles and research findings
By Patricia Wood
Stepfamilies Quarterly, Summer 1994
I curled up in the chair closest to the fireplace watching my dad trying to get the fire started. With Mary out of town, I knew it was now or never. "Dad, remember when you said if I ever wanted to go live with mom, I could?" I bite my nails in anticipation of his reply. He continued to poke the logs until the flames engulfed them. Pain shot through one of my fingers. My skin bled where the nail used to be. "Well, I decided I want to stay with Mom for a while," I said sucking the injured finger tip.
A few moments passed before he faced me. "Honey, are you sure you want this? Its only been three months since Mary and I got married." My palms were sweaty. I thought the temperature in the room went up about 50 degrees. "Dad, please dont give me a hard time about this." He rubbed his hands over his face. "Im just a little confused about your sudden change of attitude. I was under the impression you didnt like spending much time with your mother."
The room was quiet except for the sound of wood popping in the background. I sat still in the chair, playing with my fingers, not saying a word. "Okay, okay, but I need to talk to your mother first," he said.
Later that night Dad came to my room. "I spoke with your mother and she said her free time is limited. However, she agreed to let you stay with her for two months. At that time you can decide who you want to live with." "Great! When can I go?" By the look on his face, my sudden excitement acted like a knife twisting in his heart. "Shell pick you up Sunday afternoon," he said flatly then left. For a moment I wondered if I made the right choice. Doubts started to fill my mind until I pushed them aside. During the week I tried to contain my feelings about staying with Mom. Itll be so neat to go shopping with her. Every night before bed, well drink a cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows floating on the top and share secrets.
The night before I left, the atmosphere around the house was quiet. "Dad, it doesnt mean I dont love you, I just need some time with Mom right now." "Yeah, I know," he gave me a bear hug. "Besides, well still see each other every other weekend," I said. Somehow his fake smile didnt cover up the sadness that filled the room.
Sunday afternoon Mom picked me up. Everything went great the first week. We went shopping, to the movies, talked forever, and ate out all the time. Then she started to work late. Karen, the girl next door, stayed with me until Mom came home.
The weeks went by and Mom worked longer hours. Friday night became her late night so Karen and I watched movies and slurped root beer floats. Tonight was no different. "Not how you thought it would be, is it?" Karen looked at me over the opened ice cream carton. "Not really, I thought I would get to see her more. Shes always tired and grouchy and never wants to do anything." I stabbed each blob of ice cream Karen put in my glass with my spoon. "I feel trapped at both places. I thought it would be different with Mom, but its worse."
Karen poured the root beer over the ice cream. We watched it foam up and overflow. I dove for the straw, put one inside the glass and started sucking. It was too late, the brown frothy goo was all over the table top. "What I cant figure out is why you want to live with your mom?" Karen asked. "I dont know. I thought wed do a lot more stuff together." The additional root beer being poured into my glass quickly came to the top. "You can do stuff with your step-mom and shes home most of the time." "But its different with Mary," I said digging out another scoop of ice cream. "What do you mean?" Karen looked puzzled.
"Shes trying to be my mom. I feel funny because I really like her but Im afraid to get close to her. I feel like Im deceiving my mom by liking her." "What gave you that idea?" Karen asked pouring more root beer in her glass. "We have fun together and you know how much I love to go shopping. Well, Mom wanted me only to go clothes shopping with her. Thats like our one special thing to do together. Not only that, I can talk more easily to Mom. I mean thats the way its supposed to be." "Who said?" "Me," I glanced at her then concentrated on my ice cream. I tried to mix the ice cream up with my straw but it kept bending. Then I continued, "I figure mom will always love me cause shes the one that had me. It doesnt matter what I do or say, even when shes mad, she still loves me. Mary doesnt have to love me." "Think about it, your mom doesnt have time for you. If she did, we wouldnt be having this conversation." Karen leaned on the counter watching me.
"I dont want to hurt Mom. It would crush her if she thought I went shopping with Mary or talked to her about special things going on in my life." I said playing with my straw. "You also cant put your life on hold waiting for your mom to go shopping with you. And why cant you share special times with both of them?" "You just dont understand." I sucked the float up through the straw and watched the brown foam sink lower and lower. Mom always was pretty busy. Even when my parents were married, she didnt spend much time with me. "Marys more like a mom than my own mom," I mumbled under my breath. I pushed my glass away and went into the living room, curled up on the couch, and started to cry. Karen came in and put her arm around me. She held me until I fell asleep.
The next morning I made a decision. One that I had always wanted but was afraid to admit. I waited impatiently for my dad to answer the phone. My heart raced. "Hello?" "Hi Dad. I was wondering, can I come home?" The long silence on the other end worried me. Would he say no? "You have another two weeks before you make a decision," he said slowly. "I know, but I want to come home, now." "What about Mary?" "I miss her. I miss both of you," I said urgently. Please dont make me wait two more weeks. "What does your mom say about this?" Dad asked. "She doesnt know yet, I wanted to know if I can come home before I ask her." "Talk to your mom then have her call me," Dad said. We talked a few more minutes then hung up.
That afternoon Dad came to pick me up. I looked at Mom impatiently waiting to go back to work, then ran out the door and jumped in my dads arms. On the way home he asked, "What changed your mind?" "Mom was never home." "Im not home much either." "I know but when you are, you treat me like I exist. I thought Id be able to do lots of stuff with Mom, but its the same old thing, we have fun for a couple days, then I get ignored." I looked out the window.
"You know your mom loves you very much," Dad said. "Yeah, shes supposed to." My dad gave me a funny look like he didnt understand. I wrung my hands in my lap. "I guess I wanted Mom to be more like Mary," I said. Dad seemed surprised. "Mary likes you a lot you know. Weve both missed you," he said. "Ive missed you guys too. I guess I had to find out for myself that it was okay to get close to Mary." "Did you talk to your mother about that?" "We talked some right before you picked me up. Mom said our special time can be anything we do. I dont think she liked the idea, but thats okay."
The further we got from Moms house, the more I felt the cinder blocks falling off my shoulders. "Ill tell you what, lets get a pizza to celebrate and you can make us root beer floats for dessert," Dad said. "Yeah!" Dad held my hand as he drove down the street. "Hey Dad, does Mary like hot chocolate with marshmallows on top?"
Patricia Wood has experience as both a stepdaughter and stepmother. She has written from a girls perspective with a womans wisdom. Ms. Wood makes her home in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
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