"DEVINE" GUIDANCE SURE IS EASIER WITH OTHER PEOPLE'S CHILDREN
By Helen Devine, Ph.D.*
It sure sounded easy in the beginning. Two Marriage and Family therapists would marry and jointly parent five healthy children, combining two single parent households into a large home. We could combine our financial and emotional resources as well as our energy, enthusiasm and optimism. It sounded easy.
The kids were allocated spaces, a few chores, vehicles, video games, etc. All five of them were bright, made friends, played sports, took lessons and made us proud. We took videos, joined a compromise church and insisted on attendance. It sounded easy.
"Easy" began eight wonderful years ago, punctuated by some awful and scary moments toward the middle, as well as many growth promoting and life enhancing moments in the second half. When we married we were concerned that it would take a while to adjust to a combined family including teens and toddlers. We played it smart and gave our adjustment six weeks before we embarked on our Cancun honeymoon. Surely everyone would be settled by then. It sounded easy.
Jerry and I had been cotherapists in groups. We felt comfortable with each other's communication styles, values, beliefs and were impressed with each other's therapy skills. We formed a mutual admiration society and relied on each other emotionally. In the early eighties, we worked with a large percentage of remarried families of Viet Nam veterans. Compared to their multiple marriages and complicated family forms, ours sounded easy.
Before we married, I joined The Stepfamily Association of America and attended a national conference in Washington, D.C. There I had an opportunity to meet impressive professionals such as the Vishers and the Burts who also were living in stepfamilies. Within a few months after marriage, I was asked to serve on the SAA Board and met stepfamily authors in person. We read all the books. I even had my picture taken with Dr. Benjamin Spock who claimed he did not have a clue about parenting his stepdaughter. My stepdaughter sounded easy.
Jerry and I attended the SAA Conference in Colorado and presented a workshop. At the next conference in California we heard ourselves offering to host the next conference in Texas. We became increasingly involved in SAA, both serving on the board, and I became Vice President in 1990. Our family appeared in Newsweek magazine and on the Today Show (all seven of us in New York) looking like a poster family for SAA. For the first time we were struggling. It was not easy.
The four older children knew from day one that they were challenged to move over, make room for more parents and siblings and every extended family. We did everything together, including go to my mother's family reunion which required an eight hour van trip. We visited Jerry's family in Ohio and Illinois and even had his sister live with us for two years until her health required her to return to Ohio. We were having fun and it still was not easy.
Looking back I am often amazed at the level of cooperation we achieved in spite of unmet needs and compromised feelings. Jerry and I forced ‘FAMILY" at the expense of the individuals involved. We did not encourage the children to deal with their losses such as ordinal position in the family. His youngest acquired three little brothers and my oldest acquired two much older siblings. Instead we dyed Easter eggs, carved pumpkins and creatively combined holiday rituals, which actually meant unacknowledged losses for all seven of us. Some days we went through the motions, feeling numb or angry. Each of us thought it was all our own fault at times or more frequently pointed our finger at the "other family." That was easy.
While Jerry and I were covertly jockeying for position and defending our territories, the children bonded closely before we bonded with them individually. We were both denying our own power struggles, blaming each other's children for our difficulties. More often than not we focused on each other's oldest son. From our single parent days we were still defending, feeling guilty and feeling the children's feelings. Finally, with his oldest in college and my oldest living with his father for a year, we were forced to focus on our own issues and our limitations as parents and as spouses. That was the hard part.
It still makes me mad that it took us so long! Six weeks of predicted adjustment took us about six years! We continue to learn and grow, but I have no doubt that for each of us, if somebody says "family," it now includes all of us and we all like it that way. We have a common history, photo albums vacations, funny memories, unique food preferences, a lot of fun and family pride. Now it is easy! My stepdaughter is doing her Ph.D. internship in Rhode Island at Brown University in Clinical Child Psychology. She used to think our work was easy.
She, in turn, is mentoring my oldest son who will graduate from high school next year with more honors than he can carry. He thinks his big sister is the best, even though he is now a foot taller than she is. Everyone thinks that the youngest has had it the easiest because he doesn't remember any losses or pain. My middle son who started this journey as a 6 year old is now a 6 foot tall, high school sophomore - with a guitar. Finally, my stepson graduated from Texas A & M University and married another lovely Aggie. This year they added shared joy to the family in the form of our first granddaughter. We are enjoying her shamelessly and effortlessly. See, we knew it would be easy!
* Helen Devine, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with a private practice outside of Houston. She and her husband, Jerry (also a therapist) joined their families, and have made the best of fun and frantic times. Both have contributed in many ways to SAA and she does again in this article of hope. This was published in the SAA quarterly STEPFAMILIES, Fall 1994.