Book Reviews

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Stepparenting

by Ericka Lutz
Review by Patricia Schiff Estess

If you can ignore the flippancy and the dismal attempts at humor that punctuate the The Complete Idiot's Guide to Stepparenting (Alpha Books) $16.95, then you might find sound advice, interesting ideas and helpful hints on how to move the stepfamily from chaos into a new and satisfying family group.

But it's not always easy, Lutz (and one must assume her editors) resorted to the very images that they said they didn't want to perpetuate, like wicked witches, to highlight what doesn't work in stepparenting. And she uses such breezy phrases as "hissy fit" and "legal schmeagle" to describe the overwhelming emotional responses of former spouses and the costly and trying legal problems that some stepfamilies have to face. "Honey," I wanted to scream as I was reading the book, "give me a break. We've all been there and no matter what sort of a great sense of humor you have, you can't make light of these issues."

My irritation with some words and phrases, however, shouldn't take away from the soundness of the advice...nor the importance of the issues she raises.

This is an empathetic book. Stepparents will read it shaking their heads in agreement. "Yes, that's me. That's how I feel." And because of it, the book provides stepparents a place where it's safe to air somewhat less than noble thoughts, such as being jealous when your spouse talks to his ex, feeling like the odd-person out when your spouse and stepchildren are sharing an "in" joke, or feeling hurt, angry or resentful of the little brats who compare you to their "real mother/father"- and always unfavorably. Lutz has good counsel as to how to handle those feelings - everything from how to raise and explain them to your spouse, to which to swallow and accept as perfectly natural, to what you can do to reframe and deal with those feelings.

Some of the best information in the book, however, is in the chapters that deal with subjects not usually covered in stepparenting books: stepteens, cross-cultural stepfamilies, and gay stepparenting.

For stepparents who have never had to raise a teen, the chapter "Stepteens: The Brutal Years" tells it like it is. Adolescents are an odd lot. They are cruel, charming, interesting, moody, warm, lethargic and rebellious. And they can turn from one to another in a matter of seconds. They'd be that mixed up no matter with whom they lived or what parent figure they were around. But because the stepparent is new to the family, you become the scapegoat. You're an easy target. You'll never escape the role, but the book does provide good advice on how to make household living easier during these years.

Cultural differences stemming from differences in countries of origin, socioeconomic classes, race, religion, or family history can cause problems in any marriage. The chapter on "Cross-Cultural Stepfamilies" examines the traits that are necessary to hone to gain an understanding and appreciation of the cultural differences of your spouse's children (and your spouse!). It also provides a number of suggestions for ways to teach your stepfamily about your culture.

Gay and lesbian stepparenting is a huge subject, and Lutz admits she's merely going to give it a "quick scenic tour" (more of those cutesy expressions!), but the "tour" highlights important information. Custody and visitation rights are touched on (the court system is not on your side) as are the legal issues and ramifications. (If you want to get a deeper emotional and psychological view of lesbian stepfamilies, I suggest Lesbian Step Families: An Ethnography of Love by Janet W. Wright, published by Harrington Park Press. It explores five two-women stepfamilies and how they accomplish parenting tasks, cope with homophobia, and define and interpret their experiences.)

While The Complete Idiot's Guide is directed toward the stepparent, Lutz is sympathetic to others in the extended family. She explains the dilemma the bioparent (the child's biological parent; the stepmom or stepdad's spouse) faces - being in the middle of a new spouse and your kids. So in the chapter "Family Talk," you find a bevy of problem-solving techniques that can be used for getting the bioparent out of the squeeze ... or for any other difficult stepfamily situation. And she lets you in on an oft-forgotten bit of good advice if you want an ally. (Elicit the help of grandparents.) All in all, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Stepparenting is a useful handbook and friend to new stepparents.

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