Bridging the stepparent divide

Stepmoms are crucial 'family carpenters,' says a new study examining

When Robert Chellis and Sandy Adams married 18 years ago, they each brought two children to the union. Three of the children readily accepted their new stepparents.

But Mr. Chellis's 12-year-old son, struggling to accept his parents' divorce, found the presence of a stepmother difficult. "It's a hard role to fill, as another woman who should have some authority," Ms. Adams says.

An undercurrent of tension remained, and for years she let her husband handle situations with his son.

Then nine years ago, Adams held her ground on an issue involving rules in the home. Her principled steadfastness impressed her stepson, and his reserve began to melt. After that "enormous breakthrough," she says, "he would even call me and ask for advice."

Blending families after a remarriage can be challenging. More than 5 million American families have stepchildren who are teenagers or younger. But a new look at the long-term implications of remarriage finds that as stepchildren reach their 20s and 30s, closer family relationships develop. These renewed ties, research shows, often result from the efforts of stepmothers, who urge husbands to call their estranged children, extend invitations to visit, and mediate disputes.

"We call these stepmothers 'family carpenters,' because of their attempts to rebuild relationships with their husband's children," says Barbara Vinick, a research sociologist at the Veteran's Administration in Boston.

Lack of fatherly attention

Virtually all divorced mothers remained "very close" to their biological children after remarrying, according to the research, funded by the American Association of Retired Persons Andrus Foundation. More than 70 percent of widowed men who remarried had also kept close relationships with adult children.

By contrast, 44 percent of divorced men who remarried said they had not maintained a close or satisfying relationship with their biological children from a previous marriage.

"What impressed me was the number of men who accepted self-blame for their lack of fatherly attention to their kids after they were divorced," says Dr. Vinick.

After Arthur Belli of Naples, Fla., was divorced from his first wife, their son went to live with his mother and her new husband. For years, Mr. Belli and his son had no contact. By mutual agreement the boy's stepfather took the role of father.

Then, soon after Arthur married his current wife, Beverly, his son called. "I really encouraged Arthur to form a relationship with his son," Mrs. Belli says, explaining that initially there was tension between father and son. "I got along better with Brian than Arthur did."

But over time, the couple forged a much closer relationship with Brian, and they now maintain regular contact. "He's a wonderful young man," she says.

"My philosophy is that the stepparent is critical in enhancing relationships," explains Mrs. Belli. "It can be male or female, though it's usually the stepmother. If she encourages relationships, it doesn't force the husband to choose who he's going to make happy - his children or his new wife. And he shouldn't have to. It's a different relationship, a different love, and one is not competitive with the other."

Another family carpenter, Kimberly Beck of Bedford, N.H., faced serious opposition from her husband's three daughters when she married Charles Beck 13 years ago. Mrs. Beck, who is 29 years younger than her husband, is the same age as his youngest daughter.

"Initially, being involved in that kind of situation was stressful," Mrs. Beck says. "The problem for me was, I approached it like they should just understand. I thought, 'If I'm really, really super nice, it'll all go away.' " When it didn't, she began reflecting on what she was bringing to the situation. "I learned to have compassion for them, because everything they had known was gone."

She then asked them what they thought of her. That dispelled much of her fear. "I realized they actually cared about me as a person, especially the younger one. She apologized to me, as I apologized to her."

Mrs. Beck calls it "an amazing opportunity to clear the air. We didn't rehash details. It just gave us freedom." Now she describes their relationship as "awesome - very open, very honest. We talk at length."

Speaking of his wife's efforts, Mr. Beck says, "She did an excellent job. I would have let it go. Sometimes there really is a tug of war going on. Who is it you want to keep happier? It's the one you're living with. Otherwise your life is miserable."

Couples in the study had been married at least 10 years and an average of 20. Three-quarters had teenagers when they remarried. "There were many strains from these intergenerational relationships," Vinick says. "But when the marital couple presented a united front and helped each other, there was the most success."

That kind of mutual support helped Chellis and Adams. Relaxing in their sunroom as their eight-week-old Maine coon kitten explores new territory, they recall their earlier challenges with his son. "Those years were very hard for me, because there were times when I would have liked to say a million and a half things," Adams says. Today the family enjoys a close relationship. "I do love these kids the way I love my own," she says.

A smooth transition

Even so, Chellis notes that their situation was easier than that of some families. "It would have been really something if we'd had all four kids in the house at the same time," he says. He adds, "Children seem to appreciate their stepparents more over time as they find they're consistent and dependable. Sandy and I didn't lose our tempers. We were consistently fond of them and each other."

When Jackie and Everett Graham of Nashua, N.H., married 14 years ago, he was a widower with three children. She was a divorced mother of four. Their children were older, and the transition went smoothly.

"The main thing is to listen," Mrs. Graham advises. "Listen and don't prejudge. Treat them as a friend and as a person. You need to know what's behind what you see. It's like opening the covers of a book. Just let them be themselves. Let them be that person that you want to get to know."

Yet even the best efforts can require patience. Priscilla Quigley of Saugus, Mass., is still trying to renew contact with one of her husband's sons, who has not been in touch with them since 1991. On a Christmas card each year, she says, "I write a note: 'Dear Jimmy, Dad and I are thinking of you. Drop by sometime....' "

Vinick urges children from previous marriages to get in touch with divorced parents again. She also sees a need to make men more aware that their children need them in their lives and miss them.

Summing up her findings, Vinick says, "The lesson is that even though things might be difficult today - and with teenage kids there were some difficulties, no doubt about it - if families hang together, when kids get older, relationships do improve."

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