Book Reviews

Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage, and Parenting in the First Decade

By James H. Bray, Ph.D. and John Kelly
Review by Patricia Schiff Estess

Okay. Finally our intuition has been confirmed by scientific study. No matter how well-meaning you are, maneuvering through the first couple of years as a stepfamily is hell for everyone -- the couple and the kids. Nearly a quarter of stepfamilies fail in this short, tumultuous, conflicted period. 

But Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage, and Parenting in the First Decade by Bray and Kelly (Broadway Books, $25), which puts forth this thesis, doesn't end with that conclusion. The book, based on nine-year study led by James H. Bray, a clinical psychologist, and associate professor of family medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, has a much more positive ending. Over the course of the project, the study examined 200 families (half of them were stepfamilies in which the children in the household are only biologically linked to the mother and the other half were nuclear families). It determined that when a marriage works in stepfamily, it often works especially well.  

Maybe the pure research would be dull reading (though I think not), but the book by Bray and John Kelly reads like a take-off on your life. It's informative, lively, and illuminates the points it makes with evocative stories from real life experiences. One thing we learn as we read through it is that while each stepfamily is unique, there are persistent stepfamily themes that run through them -- especially in their early and middle years. You might not identify with all the couples who share their seesaw existences, but you will find bits and pieces in each story that will have you shaking your head in recognition of a situation you've experience or are in the midst of now. 

Consider a few of Stepfamilies' conclusions.

The perceptions of both the insiders in the study (the moms and kids who came as a package to the marriage) and that of the outsiders (the stepfathers who may or may not have biological children living elsewhere) are so different in the early stages of the remarriage that that alone could destroy the marriage. The principal bridge across the seemingly insurmountable chasm is made up of mutually agreed upon compromises. Back and forth, back and forth -- even if that means expressing complaints and arguing. "In order for a compromise to work," Bray states, "it has to incorporate the perspectives of both parties, and it is very hard to do that if one or both parties cannot state his or her perspective clearly and forthrightly." 

For me, some of the most interesting observations didn't always show up in the useful "Points to Keep in Mind" section at the end of many of the chapters. One example is that all stepfamilies start with some unrealistic expectations. (Whew! Good to know we weren't the only Brady Bunch dreamers.) Yet if the couple can edit those expectations to fit reality, the marriage has a good chance of surviving. Another, was that stepdads who at first simply monitor their stepchildren's actions (like reporting to his wife that Susie said she'll be back from her friend's at 8 p.m. or offering to pick up Sam after his ballgame) rather than dive actively into the role of fatherhood, make the transition for themselves and the kids much easier. Another was that men and women who could not free themselves from the influence of a first marriage usually ended up destroying a second. And then, there was the warning not to be surprised if your out-of-resident stepchildren move in. About 20 percent of children do take up residence with their father in early adolescence. 

I've read enough books on stepfamilies to know that most have kernels of truth and a few have some good tips for parenting. But Stepfamilies by Bray and Kelly puts it all together in an uncommonly readable, sensible, and useful way. I would recommend it for anyone in the first five years of stepfamily life.

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