Finding Mrs. Right (and all the little Rights)

Fresh out of college, Ron Ciancutti laid out a life plan for himself.

Marriage before age 30 wasn't part of it. Neither were kids. At least not until he got more settled. Then, at 28, he met the woman of his dreams - and her four young children. "Within a year," he says, "I fell hopelessly in love with all five of them."

Now, 11 years after the wedding, he can't imagine life without dance lessons, basketball games, and interrupted conversations. "If you want to make God laugh, just tell him your plans," Mr. Ciancutti says, smiling.

Friends, who had thought he was a "little nuts" to even consider such a choice, now admire his happy family life. "The trick is becoming a 'dad,' not a 'stepdad,' " he tells them.

Ciancutti, who comes from a family of hard-working Italian immigrants, began working for Cleveland Metro Parks just after college graduation, and now, 17 years later, he is a top executive there. His only time off was spent earning his MBA, which the company funded. Ciancutti applies this same work ethic to his personal life, he says, explaining: "I've never done anything halfway. I knew this new role wouldn't be an exception."

As more people divorce, Ciancutti is just one of an increasing number of men who make the leap from bachelorhood to "instant fatherhood" when they marry a woman with children.

According to the Stepfamily Foundation, 64 percent of families today are stepfamilies. Of those, about 10 percent were formed when bachelors married mothers of young children.

Learning to cope

Of course, what works for Ciancutti may not always work for others. There's no formula. However, stepfamilies do grapple with common questions such as how to manage finances, who disciplines the children, how to negotiate good relations with the biological parent, whether or not to have more children, and how to possibly eke out a little "couple time."

From the beginning, says Jeannette Lofas, founder of the Stepfamily Foundation, eyes must be wide open to the complexities of this arrangement. "This is no longer a game of checkers," she says. "It's more like chess, and you can't play chess with checkers rules or you'll lose."

This is why family counselors urge couples to talk openly and honestly about everything - before marriage. "You must have a gut-wrenching discussion as soon as things start getting serious," says Robert Billingham, professor of family studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. "Don't be naive and think everything will just work itself out."

Some experts encourage couples to draw up a prenuptial agreement, especially if one party has major financial assets. They brush off the common complaint that such an agreement can dampen the romance. "It's essential to protect children from the first marriage," says family counselor Sue Simring, co-author with her husband, Steve, of the recently published handbook "Making Marriage Work For Dummies."

Others merely suggest couples put in writing all of their expectations, and then sit down to a frank talk - with the help of a professional if necessary.

But family experts all agree on one key point: Men in this situation must face the fact that they aren't just marrying the woman they love, but her children as well.

"Attraction puts mom and dad together, but not always the kids," says . Robert Butterworth, who gained a stepson when he married a Russian woman.

When Jerry Root married a woman with two young girls, he knew it was a package deal. "I had to love everybody, not just Carrie," he recalls.

"If I didn't and I took the plunge anyway, I'd be fooling myself."

Bonding takes time

And, he realized, the children had to like him, too. Knowing this relationship wouldn't develop overnight, Root took it slowly - an approach highly recommended by family counselors.

"Kids see through everything," says Root. "I couldn't be too anxious for them to like me."

Ms. Simring, who has worked with couples and families for 25 years, can't stress the slow approach enough. She shuns the label "instant" when applied to fathers or families. "You can have instant orange juice, but not instant fatherhood," she insists. "It takes time." By the way, she adds, " 'The Brady Bunch' has done more damage to my clients. "I can't stand that show!"

Fortunately, after a little time together, Root and his then-girlfriend's children got along well.

"I worried it might turn out the way it can when four different people go to the video store, and everyone wants to rent a different movie," Root says. "But instead, things just clicked."

He now relishes the occasional opportunity to play the single-parent role when Dana and Mary's mom is away on business. They play "Beanie Baby theater," listen to funky new music, and laugh at silly jokes.

Steve Drake learned early on to allow his new stepkids time to adjust. When he married Heidi, the mother of three children whose father had passed on, the eldest child was reluctant to accept him at first. He even blurted out the words many stepparents most dread: "I don't need to listen to you because you're not my real daddy, and what, by the way, are you doing living in Mommy's house?"

Ouch. But Heidi had given her new husband a heads-up about the possibility of comments like Phillip's. She encouraged Steve not to take it personally and to be patient.

It wasn't long before Phillip warmed up to Drake, and they now delight in each other's company. Wrestling matches are a part of their daily routine.

This lesson is one Drake hasn't forgotten. A parenting class also gave him some valuable insights and taught him that the issues he was dealing with aren't all that different from those biological parents face.

Moms' attitudes make a difference

The mother's role in smoothing the transition for her new husband can be significant, say family experts.

In the case of Elizabeth Herron, whose husband, Aaron Kipnis, took on her two daughters, sharing the disciplinary role was initially difficult.

"I was a pushover, and he was strict," she says, acknowledging the "mama-bear" tendency to protect her offspring. "I had to learn to let go and allow him to work things out in his own way. I eventually found that they thrived with the structure he brought them."

She also learned that she needed to nudge her husband and daughters to spend time alone together. "I'd send them off to the movies or to a park," she says. "They had to form a relationship without me intervening."

Her husband is president of the "Fatherhood Coalition," a national network that supports the involvement of fathers in family life, and the author of several books about fatherhood. (She is his executive director.) So Mr. Kipnis already knew a few things about his new role.

Nonetheless, he wasn't always prepared for its daily demands - patience, sacrifice, courage, a fixed schedule, and daily engagement in the children's lives, are just some of those he mentions.

As one family counselor put it, "Only an extraordinary human being can enter into this situation and manage it successfully."

Men often seek out Kipnis when contemplating marriage to a woman with children. "They are afraid," he says. "I don't dissuade them. Kids are hungry for fathers, and men are often hungry for families. If entered into consciously, not naively, this can be an incredibly rewarding choice that enriches many lives."

Drake has certainly found this to be true. "Looking back on bachelorhood, it almost seems like I was living in a monastery, cloistered from all the richness of life in the real world," he says, adding: "Life is better balanced now. Even with all the chaos."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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