Book Reviews

Becoming a Stepfamily

by Patricia L. Papernow
Review by Margorie Engel

Patricia Papernow has written an excellent book on the stages of stepfamily development. The theoretical framework of the book is a combination of Gestalt and family systems theories. Papernow proceeds by giving a complete discussion of the stepfamily cycle, those stages of development experienced by stepfamilies. The great complexity of stepfamily living is brilliantly elucidated by describing the multitude of relevant variables. Not only might each stage of development be a stumbling block in and of itself, but issues of the couple's development, biological parenting concerns, and family-of-origin issues can derail the stepfamily's progress toward a new conception of unity.

The benefits of understanding what one is living through are made clear from the beginning of the book. Papernow strongly endorses the notion that if family members are informed of the relative predictability of stepfamily issues, when such a problem does surface, the effect is less traumatic. With this central premise established, she sets forth to introduce the reader to a number of families whom she either interviewed for the book or saw in her clinical practice. The concerns and problems of these families are easy to recognize and are beautifully woven into the content of the book.

Papernow's discussion of stepfamily issues and developmental sequences is so clearly achieved that the references to Gestalt theory do not assist the reader in understanding her clinical rationale. In fact, it is when she is simply describing how families flow through a stage or need help in getting past a difficulty that she is most in her element. I have no doubt that he work is theoretically based, but her practical understanding is so expertly conveyed here that the reader is not searching for a foundation to support the claims and interventions suggested.

After the stages are described, Papernow goes on to discuss the pace at which families may progress through these stages. She describes the stages as a "map" of stepfamily life. Although the territory may be clear, some stepfamilies travel at a different speed, and some simply get stuck. The second half of the book takes great efforts to understand why some stepfamilies seem to move quickly, whereas others seem unable to budge. Frequently, Papernow cites the lack of "awareness" as a critical factor in stepfamilies that are having difficulty moving through the stages. "Awareness, as used in the book, is defined as the ability to understand and discuss the powerful feelings faced by the members of a stepfamily-in essence, to have empathy. Papernow suggests that virtually all configurations of stepfamilies need to return to the work of becoming "aware" in order to establish a solid foundation.

I recommend Papernow's book as a useful text for understanding the stepfamily experience. Both members of stepfamilies and professionals working with this population can greatly benefit form Papernow's clear description of the stages of development, tasks to complete, and problems that are likely to slow the progress. Although, I suspect, this book will be purchased by many clinicians and clergy, I believe recommending it to members of stepfamilies is most useful with graduate students who might be exposed to stepfamilies in their clinical practices.

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