One child, four parents

Cooperating isn't always easy for divorced parents, especially when new spouses are involved. But many extended stepfamilies are getting together - for the good of their children.

Kelly Scott sits in the bleachers of a school gym in Portland, Ore., cheering for one of her sons during an eighth-grade basketball tournament. She is flanked by Ron Massey, father of her two sons, and Steve Scott, her new husband. Beside Mr. Massey is his new partner.

When they're not cheering for the players, they're joking and chatting with one another.

This get-together isn't unusual for the Scotts and Masseys. All four adults sit together at her sons' school plays and choir performances. And earlier in the year, Mrs. Scott, her husband, and her ex-husband joined forces at a parent-teacher conference about the younger Scott boy.

But for many divorced parents, forging a civil partnership with the ex-spouse and his or her new partner isn't easy. In fact, it can be a daunting task, but it is one that increasing numbers of stepparents are trying.

And these stepparents are finding that if they make a concerted effort and follow some basic guidelines, the arrangement may become more manageable.

"I know there's nothing better for my kids than seeing us all sit together on the bleachers," Mrs. Scott says. "My son says, 'I love it when you sit together. I love it when we are one big family.' "

But becoming one big family takes time, and patience.

"At first I'd tell myself, 'How can I sit with him after all that we've been through?' " says Scott. "But I kept trying and trying."

Many divorced parents would echo that first comment, but have trouble with the second. Attending athletic events, school meetings, and band concerts with an ex-spouse and his or her new partner can be a daunting task, says Anne Bernstein, a family psychologist in Berkeley, Calif.

"This is an incredible source of tension in stepfamilies," she says. Divorced parents wonder: "If one parent attends the school function, can he bring his new partner? If the kid is on a team, can both parents and their new partners attend any game? Or should they only attend games when the child is sleeping at their house?"

However, some people, such as Scott, defuse the tension by establishing working relationships with ex-spouses and the ex-spouse's husband, wife, or partner. They collaborate daily at school functions, piano recitals, and games.

When Dr. Bernstein's three stepsons were in elementary and high school, she was one of those collaborators. She attended parent-teacher conferences and performances along with her husband and his ex-wife, she says.

"It requires a great degree of civility but not great friendship," she says. "It mostly has to do with adults trying to put their personal issues aside to work together in their children's best interest. Not everyone seems to be able to do that."

If parents can't put aside their personal interests, the child feels caught between the warring factions, says Jean McBride, a marriage and family therapist who is president of the Center for Divorce & Remarriage in Fort Collins, Colo.

One of her clients is a stepfamily with a 9-year-old boy whose father won't attend his son's wrestling matches, in part because he's jealous that the boy's stepfather introduced the boy to the sport.

"The dad refuses to go to the matches because he feels like the stepfather is usurping his place," says Ms. McBride.

Such a conspicuous absence can be painful to a child, she says. So can parents' and stepparents' failure to get along at school and extracurricular functions.

In that case, the child is often on edge, worrying about what will happen if Mom sees Dad, or sees Dad with his new wife, McBride says. The child will often feel responsible for making sure his or her parents get along.

"But when all sets of parents work together, the children can take a breath and be kids. They can be who they are," she says.

Getting priorities straight

More and more often, parents in stepfamilies are seeing the advantages of working together and allowing their kids to 'be kids,' says Margorie Engel, president of the Stepfamily Association of America, in Lincoln, Neb.

"People are taking courses before they get divorced," she says. "Once they understand that certain behaviors tear the kids up inside, they think twice and change their behavior."

Kim Colletti, a stepmother in Glen Ellyn, Ill., says that trying to view the world through the eyes of her two stepchildren motivates her to attend their school and sporting events, even when she's upset about stepfamily issues.

"The hardest thing for me is there's another person making decisions about the kids, which means we don't have a lot of control. But you have to think about the kids," she says. "Think about how hard it is for the kids to be shuffled back and forth between houses. You need to make life as comfortable as possible for these kids."

In order to do that, divorced parents may need to endure some discomfort, says Scott. They may need to reach out to their ex-spouses and ask them to become partners.

"Don't wait for this to happen naturally," she says. "You have to put yourself out there and swallow your pride and anger."

If one parent or stepparent is unwilling to cooperate, the parent from the other household should ask how she can help increase his willingness to cooperate, says Bernstein. If that doesn't work, the other parent should ask him to take part in mediation or family therapy, she says. "Sometimes people are never willing to do this, and sometimes people you think would be least likely to cooperate go that extra mile," she says.

If an ex-spouse won't respond to such requests, the other parent should focus on being as positive as possible in front of the children.

"Don't say anything bad about your ex-spouse," says Bernstein. "Tell the kids that you and your ex see things differently and that it's important for the children to have a good relationship with both parents."

That's the approach Shauna Haley and her husband, Del, of Portland, Ore., have taken.

"We try not to focus on the negative," Mrs. Haley says. "We tell Del's daughter ... that we miss sharing that other part of her life with her - her life with her mother, but we don't blame anyone for that. We never say anything bad about her mother, but we do say that we disagree with her mother sometimes."

A push in the right direction

Parents and stepparents aren't always willing to work together until they're forced in that direction, says Bernstein.

Sometimes a crisis with a child will prompt cooperation; sometimes parents will feel motivated to get along better if a child requests them to do so, she says.

For Scott, motivation arrived in the form of a new husband, Steve, whose parents were divorced when he was very young. "His parents always sat together [at his activities] and never bad-mouthed each other," she says. "He made it clear he wasn't going to put up with [my ex-husband and me] playing games or being angry."

Once parents commit to forging civil relationships with members of the "other" household, they need to learn some techniques for enduring or suppressing some of their feelings of anger or resentment, says McBride.

If divorced parents and new spouses attend parent-teacher meetings together, she suggests that parents place a photo of the child in front of them. It will help remind parents that they're there for the sake of the children.

Parents should try to understand that their ex-spouses and children's new stepparents are only human, says Engel. "You should be able to eyeball your ex and see the person does not have horns and two heads. If former spouses are viewed as human, it tends to defuse a lot of stuff."

If, during school functions or extracurricular activities, parents or stepparents are tempted to challenge one another, they should try to behave as if they are in a business meeting, says McBride. "You have to bite your tongue. If you can't be nice, be neutral. Anybody can get through anything for an hour."

After parents embrace the idea of working hand-in-hand with former spouses and children's stepparents, they should define the relationships and the responsibilities of the members of the two households. "You have to be very clear about boundaries," says Bernstein.

"If one person sees the other as intrusive, she will set up barricades to interaction to protect the integrity of the new household," she says.

Who does what

Scott says that her husband respects her ex-husband's role as father. "If the kids come to him with a problem, he asks, 'Did you talk to your dad about this?' If Steve is going to help coach the kids' basketball, he makes sure Ron knows about it."

In the Colletti and Scott families, the mother takes charge of homework and schoolwork, but the stepparents and father back her up when needed.

During the week, the children stay at their mother's house. "But they stay with us when their mom travels," says Ms. Colletti. "Then we take care of homework. And I step in if their mom is away [at the time of] a school conference."

Lara Norman-Kehe of Bakersfield, Calif., is in the opposite situation. Her son, Alex, lives with her, her husband, Andy Kehe, and the couple's 3-year-old daughter. Alex visits his father on Saturday and Sundays, and their time together is largely play time, says his mother.

She and her husband are the ones who have to make sure homework gets done and daily chores are completed. That can cause a bit of friction when Alex switches from one house to another.

"There are times when we all have hurt feelings," she says, "and we all get frustrated with each other, that's just the nature of this [situation]. We have a household and a family. His dad doesn't have a house or other kids at home."

To reduce tension, Ms. Norman-Kehe speaks to Alex's dad, Joe Washington, on the phone weekly and keeps him apprised of what is going on.

For example, when Alex was grounded last week, Norman-Kehe told Mr. Washington what she and her husband had decided to do and why. Alex's father maintained the same discipline when Alex visited that weekend. And Washington spoke to Alex about his behavior on the phone.

"He's good about backing me up," says Norman-Kehe, and when phone calls are not enough, she and Washington have a face-to-face chat. That helps maintain consistency between the two households.

Put it on paper

Good organization is another key factor in ensuring that children don't suffer from the fact that they live in two houses, says Bernstein.

"You don't want a situation in which one household had the child all weekend, and he comes back Sunday night and has a school report due Monday morning."

"Parents need to train themselves to have a checklist of the homework, books, science projects, gym shorts, and musical instruments that need to go from house to house," says Dr. Engel.

Each child should have a list in his or her backpack, and both sets of parents should check off items when children move back and forth from place to place, she suggests. "This way, parents can avoid getting irritated with one another because items are forgotten."

In the Massey-Scott families, schedules are very important. "I e-mail or call my ex-husband to tell him exactly what is going on. With us, there's no variation in schedule. I do a calendar for everyone every month," Scott says. "We set strict schedules and ensure there are no surprises."

With so much activity between the two houses, communication is critical, agrees McBride. "Parents have to be better communicators than they may have been when they were married."

E-mail and voice mail are valuable tools for communicating with members of the "other" household, parents say.

"E-mail takes the 'feelings' out of communication," says Colletti. "You can simply put the facts down, and you don't have to talk to the person."

Regardless of how parents and stepparents contact one another to discuss their children, they're taking the right step if they're working together - and communicating in a courteous manner.

"The research is clear," says McBride. "Parental conflict is a killer for kids. But when parents and stepparents are able to spend time together, talk together, and work together, they create a safety net under their children."

More help for stepparents

Internet resources for stepparents include:

Stepfamily Association of America, www.saafamilies.org

The Stepfamily Network, www.stepfamily.net

Articles from Your Stepfamily magazine, www.yourstepfamily.com/ editorial/web_exclusives/web_exclusives.html

Recommended books for stepparents, www.stepfamilyseattle.com/reading.html and www.steptogether.com/books.shtml

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