Stepparenting: 'talking it out' helps new families

If you want to succeed as a stepparent, keep talking. Discuss family problems before remarriage -- and after. Try to keep the lines of communication open to spouse, former spouse, natural children, stepchildren, and all grandparents. Talk to friends who are also stepparenting and learn how they are "coping ang groping" as they merge two different lifestyles, sets of rules, and methods of discipline.

This advice comes from Claire Berman, who has written a book called "Making It as a Stepparent" (New York: Doubleday & Co. $8.95) and who is also director of public education for the North American Center on Adoption, a division of the Child Welfare League of America. Mrs. Berman, who is not a stepparent, admits that communicating feelings, doubts, and questions, and allowing others to express theirs, is no easy matter. It is an art that requires constant cultivation.

The author points out that the frequency of marriage breakups today means that there are more than 8 million divorced persons in the US and more than 6 million children who are now living in some sort of step-family situation. Her concern for the family and its changing role impelled her to interview 200 step families, sift through existing literature on stepparenting, and to write a book that would not only state the problems, including guilt, jealousy, divided loyalties, grief, criticism, etc., but offer encouragement and hope for their resolution.

"If we are concerned about where the society is going," Mrs. Berman said in an interview, "we must see what kind of supports we can give these new step families and how we can help them adjust as they fuse and fit themselves into new situations."

She feels that the most important fact to face is that stepparenting is different from primary parenting and that people who are remarrying should never expect the relationships to be the same. They can be satisfying, loving, and caring, but they will be different. An evolution of these new relationships is the major challenge that must be met by all who are involved in the step-family experience, she says.

Mrs. Berman also observes that stepparenting is more self-conscious and more analytical than natural parenting. She found that stepparents "do a good deal of thinking about who said what or did what to whom, and what everyone involved meant by everything he or she did or said. These are times when it helps to keep talking."

Mrs. Berman also discovered that step families live in a veritable goldfish bowl, where every move is judged, scrutinized, and criticized by everyone, particularly friends and family members. Stepmotherhood, she says, remains the more challenging role because society still regards the woman as the nurturing parent and judges the adjustment of the entire family on how well or how poorly the substitute female parent seems to be faring.

May stepmothers conveyed to her that they felt their efforts were greatly undervalued. One told her, "Nobody says thank you when you are a stepmother. Both spouse and children take all that cooking, cleaning, Scrabble playing, and brownie baking for granted."

Mrs. Berman says she set out to destroy both the myth of the wicked stepmother and the myth of instant love, which says, "If you love me, of course, you will love my children." This expectation, she says, can place an impossible burden on the new stepparent.

One stepmother told her, "I was so busy trying to love his daughters and win their love, by acting as supermom to them, that I never found out if I liked them." Mrs. Berman's advice is, "If you don't walk in feeling that you must love , you may find that you like. So allow a child to warm up slowly, and gie them the right, too, not to love immediately."

She quotes one stepmother who said to her husband's children, "You may not love me, but we both care about your father, so we have one person in common who matters a lot to each of us. Let us then try to resolve our own relationship. I know you feel that you don't need another parent, but I'd surely like to be an interested 'other person' in your life."

Asked what are the chief problems of stepparenting, Mrs. Berman put money first, explaining, "Money is a major issue in any reconstituted family because there is never enough to go around." A woman considering marriage to a man who is a father must ask him, she advises, such unromantic questions as, what income is there? How is it to be spent? What are your obligations regarding alimony, child support, prior mortgages, and costs of the children's educations? Will it be necessary for both of us to work in the new marriage?

An about-to-be stepfather should similarly determine which expenses will be covered by the father of his stepchildren and which he will be expected to assume.

She lists discipline, and who administers it, as the second major issue. Again she advises, "Talk it out, both before and during marriage. Decide who disciplines whose children or if both natural parent and new stepparent can take equal responsibility for discipline of all children. Then tell children what the ground rules are."

Space, the author has found, is a big problem when families combine and existing homes grow crowded. "Move the new family to a new home if it is economically possible," Mrs. Berman urges, "since it allows a fresh beginning and a place not clouded by memories nor a prior sense of possession of certain rooms."

She says that other problems that confront new step families are whether to have a new baby, the periodic visitation of children who are living in other families, and the right and best way to treat all grandparents. "I tell all new stepparents that the love and interest and concern of all grandparents for their grandchildren is natural and to be expected. So make allies of them and value and appreciate what they contribute."

Mrs. Berman tells couples involved in remarriages that the best solution to any and all problems that may confront the new family is a firm commitment to their own marriage and the willingness to meet problems together and to support one another as a unit. She finds that the ability to compromise is another requirement for a happy blending of families. She reminds couples that a middle way can always be found that will uphold the dignity of everyone.

She says, finally, that stepparents should allow each member of the family to be an individual and should not judge too harshly.

Is it all worthwhile? The author thinks so, particularly when members of new families keep talking, discussing, communicating, and donht let grievances build up.

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