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HOW TO FOX-TROT WHILE YOUR PARTNERS TANGO: Joys and Challenges of Stepfamily Life

By Mary Jean Weston, LMSW-ACP*

Imagine that you and a close friend go to a social gathering and are invited to create a dance with several other people. The others often dance together and know each other quite well. What music would you all choose? What rhythm? Would your dance resemble the mambo, a waltz, the jitterbug? Who would lead? Who would follow? How many toes would be mashed in the process?

This is the experience many people have when they enter a stepfamily. The music starts at the wedding (or before) and the individuals begin to dance - sometimes together, sometimes not. Those from each nuclear family group have traditional dance routines. They know when to spin, dip or boogie. But they are not familiar with the steps of the other group. The "right way" is their old (familiar) way. Planning and communication are often bypassed while everyone gets on with the dance. Many toes get stepped on until the whole group learns to "step together."

The joys and dilemmas of a stepfamily are readily apparent. Some event - a wedding or moving into shared housing - usually establishes the beginning of a new interpersonal unit. However, this event does not establish the emotional bonds which constitute a "family." This process usually takes several years and has both fun and difficult periods. A newly married couple, enjoying the pleasures of their early married life, must negotiate time for themselves as well as time for their children. Loyalties of parent and child predate the new marriage bond so learning to share loved ones is both necessary and trying.

In the beginning, the most important thing is to allow relationships to develop at their own speed. This includes a "getting to know you" period before the wedding and the six to twenty-four months afterward. "Instant love"does not happen. One way adults can support this reality is by allowing children to decide what they will call their stepparents. This simple choice helps to avoid a power struggle and to smooth the way for more comfortable relationships.

One challenge faced by all family members is the sudden growth of their "family tree." New names and faces are added to the list of aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws - even grandparents and pets! It is quite a shock to the memory system and many feelings can be hurt when a child (or adult) doesn't remember a favorite aunt or nephew. Getting to know a few people at a time can reduce tension (and mix ups) as the family tree grows into a "family forest."

People come to a new family with memories of "the way it used to be," and most expect the traditions to continue. Unfortunately, like the dance at the beginning of this article, each group comes with very different assumptions. In one family, birthday celebrations may have included going out for dinner while the other family always stayed home and cooked the "birthday person's" favorite meal. New traditions - sometimes combinations of the old and sometimes innovative replacements - are hallmarks of initial family integration.

Discipline is a challenge for all families, and stepfamilies face added complications. Whenever possible, discipline should be the responsibility of the biological parent while the stepparent-stepchild relationship develops. Over time, the child grows to respect the new parental figure and a team approach to discipline can be implemented. Until then, the biological parent must advise children that when he or she is away, authority for discipline is transferred to the stepparent. Another helpful strategy in managing children is to understand their needs and motives. Though all adults were once youngsters, most have forgotten how to think like a child. This is a most useful skill because it enables adults to recognize why children behave as they do. Are they needing more attention, some assistance or a hug from their "real parent"? Understanding their behavioral language often allows parents and stepparents to find alternative ways to meet a child's needs and reduces behavior problems without increasing disciplinary action.

Often families debate the proper terms to use when describing their new family. The prefix "step" conjures up images of Cinderella's wicked stepmother or Hansel and Gretel being sent out into the forest. Nevertheless, it is the term of choice for several reasons. First, the word "step" is derived from an Old English word - "steop" - which means "orphaned or bereaved." For hundreds of years, it was following the death of a spouse that adults with children usually remarried. Thus, most children in such families were, in fact, "steop-children." (You may recall that in the story of Cinderella, her own mother had died).

Another reason to use the term "step" is that alternative labels have problems of their own. The idea of a "blended" family suggests that people can be integrated and woven together much as manufacturers make blended fabrics. In time, this is the best outcome of any new family, but the beginnings rarely appear smooth or artfully designed. Worse than "blended" is the notion of a "reconstituted" family. This implies that new families, like rehydrated fruit, can recreate something which existed before. Nothing could be further from the truth! There were other families before, but the new family is not a refurbished version of the previous groups.

The most important thing to remember about establishing a successful stepfamily is that it requires time, patience and flexibility. According to Emily and John Visher, founders of the Stepfamily Association of America, the process takes several years. Some days are better, some days are worse. As an old song says . . . "Don't push it, don't force it, it'll happen naturally."

* This article is reprinted from /ega/news, published by Moore and Hunt, in Houston, Texas.

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