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Step by Step : Remarriages Are Creating Complex Families With Problems ‘The Brady Bunch’ Never Faced

<i> Joan Libman regularly writes on family issues for the View section</i>

It was Brandy Van Zitter’s elementary school graduation, a seemingly commonplace family celebration. Since she became part of a stepfamily, however, it took 2 1/2 years of putting hurt feelings aside and learning to cooperate before getting two biological parents, two stepparents, and a variety of aunts, uncles and cousins in the same room at the same time.

The turning point wasn’t lost on the youngster.

“It used to be lonely, having parties without one of my parents. Graduation made me feel good, because my parents could be on good terms, not like before, when they used to argue a lot,” said Brandy, 12. With sister Kelly, 10, she shuttles between the Corona home of her mother and stepfather, Louise and Roy Van Broekhuizen, and the Cerritos residence of her father and stepmother, Peter and Ceci Van Zitter.

Like growing numbers of American youngsters, Brandy and Kelly are navigating stepfamily life. Some experts believe as many as one-third of all children born in the 1980s may live with a stepparent before reaching age 18.

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But determining just how many of today’s children are stepchildren is problematic because there are no statistics on “unofficial” stepfamilies, where a child’s biological parent lives with a new partner without marriage. However, surveying married couples, demographer Paul C. Glick of Arizona State University found that 8.78 million children under age 18, or nearly 1-in-5, live in stepfamilies.

Once, social scientists believed these remarried families resembled nuclear families. However, as researchers and clinicians shed light on today’s stepfamilies, what emerges is a highly complex family forum, with members sometimes struggling for years to forge relationships and negotiate between households.

“I was surprised at how long it takes (stepfamilies) to work things out. In most stepfamilies, there are enduring differences in parent-child relationships and how children relate to stepparents,” says James H. Bray, associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who for nearly seven years has conducted a longitudinal stepfamily study.

Although many describe being part of a stepfamily as a rewarding experience, most agree it rarely resembles “The Brady Bunch.”

Consider the obstacles. In first marriages, adults have time to gradually come to know each other, resolve differences, prepare for the birth of each child, and develop family routines and philosophies.

In contrast, “in a remarriage with children, you are bringing two cultures together,” says clinical psychologist Patricia Papernow, a stepfamily specialist in Cambridge, Mass. “All of a sudden you are slammed together. Everything is up for grabs, from how you celebrate Christmas to the size of the kids’ allowances, how much television viewing is appropriate and whether it’s OK to leave wet towels on the bathroom floor.

“These seemingly small details are the threads holding our daily lives together, and it feels as though our lives are unraveling.”

Mental health professionals believe many of these difficulties are avoidable. Through increased education, therapists and researchers maintain, stepfamily relationships can improve greatly.

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Here are seven problem areas stepfamilies may wish to be aware of, which emerged from interviews with experts and stepfamilies nationwide:

One big happy family: Whether through divorce or death, therapists note, stepfamilies are born out of loss. Adults dream of blissful marital happiness, a magical “blending” of two families, with members instantly loving one another. Children, on the other hand, fantasize about reuniting biological parents or returning to the days of sharing a close relationship with a single parent.

Rather than forcing constant togetherness, experts report, many of the most successful stepfamilies preserve individuality.

“If you find a family that’s ‘blended,’ someone got creamed,” says psychologist Papernow, who thinks family members need time apart, even if the breaks are small. Couples should spend some time away from children; biological parents need one-to-one time with each child; stepparents need individual time with each stepchild; and stepsiblings need activities without parental involvement.

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Shaping up the kids: A prevalent myth, therapists agree, is that the new couple should provide a united front and act as instant parents to each other’s children. Actually, this may be the worst approach, because “it takes many children a long time to accept stepparents as active parents,” said Bray of the Baylor College of Medicine.

“My research indicates the most important thing stepparents can do, from the beginning, is function like an aunt or baby-sitter. Discipline should be left to the biological parent,” said Bray.

In this stage, Papernow advises, Mom or Dad should sit down with the kids and explain, “You know my rules, and when I am not here, it is up to your stepdad/mom to see that you follow my rules.”

If a child balks at a stepparent and claims, “You aren’t my (biological) dad, I don’t have to listen to you,” the stepparent should reply, “You are absolutely right, I am not your parent. But I am the adult in the house and you do have to follow house rules.”

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In a few years, Bray said, once the relationship is developed, the stepparent can become more involved in active parenting and discipline.

Stepmothers: Cinderella aside, most stepmothers want to be good moms. However, “it is difficult for men to understand that women don’t naturally take to this role,” said Los Angeles marriage and family therapist Carol Samuels, who with husband Gary Hinte is co-president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Stepfamily Assn. of America.

In our culture, experts note, stepmothers are expected to play a major role in raising someone else’s children, a difficult task.

“Your (biological) children can be misbehaving in the identical fashion, but it’s far more annoying when your stepkids do it,” says Judy McMahon of Anaheim, mother of Scott, 17, and Melanie, 14, and stepmother to husband Larry’s children, Bridget, 10, and Brianne, 7.

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Commonly, men expect new wives to assume all the work of caring for children. For many women, research indicates, this is a major source of marital dissatisfaction, leading to divorce.

“The stepmother feels he married her to (make her) a slave,” Samuels says.

Since no one can be forced to love another, experts point out, stepmothers shouldn’t be pressured to show affection for children. In addition, “if neither child nor the stepmother wants to be close, that is OK,” as long as children and adults are able to be civil and cooperative, Papernow says.

The marriage: Faced with financial difficulties of expanding a family, warfare between two sets of children, and scheduling of school conferences, soccer games, and Brownie meetings, most newlyweds report constant stress.

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“When we got married, we said we would never let the sun set on our anger,” said Ginger Davis of Silver Springs, Md., who has been part of a stepfamily involving five children for 13 years. “We gave that up after about two months of staying up all night talking things out.

“Our relationship took major bumps and setbacks each time one of the kids came to live with us,” Samuels said of her two stepchildren, now grown. “My stepson is a very good kid, but when he moved in, the demands he put on his father’s time started killing our relationship. There was always some pressing topic. I remember waking up at 6 a.m., listening to them having a long conversation about computers, in our bedroom.”

Although the tendency is to devote all time and attention to children, Bray’s study indicates one of the most important things couples can do is take time to form a close marital bond.

“Without a solid marital relationship, it is much harder to agree about kids,” he says.

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Couples need time alone, “even if all they have time for is sharing a pizza in front of ‘L.A. Law,’ ” Papernow says.

When their children were younger, Samuels and husband Gary Hinte needed more time off for a real vacation. “It took two or three days to stop arguing about the kids and just loosen up,” she recalls.

Household routines: When clinical psychologist Emily Visher and psychiatrist husband John married 30 years ago, each had four children. Based on personal experience, as well as that of countless stepfamily clients, the Vishers developed strategies for at-home survival for themselves and their eight children ranging in age from 5 through 16.

Remarriage, Emily Visher notes, begins with two distinct housekeeping styles. One family may be used to doing dishes together, while the other takes turns. In one household, kids were allowed to drop backpacks on the living room floor; in the other, spilling popcorn on the rust-colored carpet was regarded as a major sin.

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“In the beginning, the fewer things you change, the better,” says Visher. “Choose a few rules that are most important to you, such as the children must knock before entering your bedroom, and the dishwasher must be emptied each day, and let the rest go.” Visher and her husband co-founded the Stepfamily Assn. of America.

If children are beyond toddlerhood, the family should meet, draw up a list of tasks and request volunteers. The chart, posted on the refrigerator, can change weekly or monthly.

Cooperative behavior should be rewarded, Visher says. The child completing the most chores is entitled to a treat, such as going to a movie, playing a game with a parent or having a friend spend the night.

Celebrations: Comparing formal rituals, Visher says, is an excellent way for families to become acquainted.

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“You should never reject what people have done before (remarriage),” she says. Her stepchildren continue to spend Christmas Eve and morning at their mother’s and Christmas night with their father, opening gifts after dinner.

“At the same time, it is important for the stepfamily to add new customs, such as cutting their own tree or baking cookies together, because it is the building of traditions that makes people feel part of a group,” Visher added.

Making arrangements with the other household may be difficult. However, Visher admonishes, “the adults, (keeping children’s wishes in mind), need to do the negotiating, never forcing children to choose.”

Helping the children: In forming stepfamilies, “children often have a great number of losses parents don’t consider, such as a house, school, friends and familiarity,” Papernow says.

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Imagine the feelings of Bridget McMahon of Anaheim, who for three years enjoyed a close relationship with her single father and functioned as “the lady of the house.” When her father remarried two years ago, Dad’s three-bedroom home had to accommodate a boy.

Bridget, then 8, gave up her room to share the largest bedroom with sister Brianne, 5, and stepsister Melanie, 12.

“From Bridget’s perspective, not only did everything change, but she and I were supposed to kiss each other goodnight every night,” says stepmother Judy McMahon.

Children in stepfamilies also face loyalty binds, feeling “if I care about my stepmom, I am betraying my mother,” Papernow says, noting that children need help with this conflict.

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“While it is fair to ask a child to be civil to stepparents, it is not fair to expect children to love them,” Papernow adds.

Upon becoming a stepmother three years ago, Ceci Van Zitter took Brandy and Kelly aside and explained, “I know your love for your mom is very, very special and it should be, and I don’t want to take away any of your love for her.”

“I understood,” Van Zitter said, “because my own father remarried, and no matter how good my stepmother was to me, I could never feel the same way I felt for my mom.”

Papernow, whose former husband is dating, tells her 6-year-old daughter: “I know Daddy has a new girlfriend. I hope you will get to know her and perhaps you will develop a separate relationship. But you don’t have to worry, I will always be your mommy.”

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Children’s feelings of divided loyalty also can be eased by Papernow’s edict: “You may not bad-mouth your ex-spouse to your child, ever.

The latter is more easily said than done, since divorced couples commonly harbor feelings of anger and jealousy and find it wrenching to share children. For help, Brandy and Kelly’s father and stepmother turned to a support group offered through the Stepfamily Assn. of America. Their mother and stepfather attended meetings for remarried families organized through their church.

In some ways the two households are dissimilar. At Mom’s, where financial resources are more limited, the girls spend a great deal of time at home with parents and are expected to attend church every week. Life at Dad’s includes movies, horseback riding and vacations, with a more relaxed attitude about worship.

In both households, the family configurations change. Their stepfather’s children live out of state. Roy Van Broekhuizen’s daughter, Angela, 7, visits regularly, and son, David, 18, will join the Corona household for the summer. When stepmother Ceci Van Zitter gives birth in February, Brandy and Kelly will have a new sibling, another family adjustment.

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At this point, things are going quite well between the two families.

“It still isn’t easy,” said the girls’ mother, Louise Van Broekhuizen. “However, we came to the point where we realized we all love our kids and we all want to see them loved and well adjusted. We just can’t be fighting out our differences.”

Depending on the stepfamily, Papernow believes it takes four to seven years to solidify relationships and for both families to be able to “do business together.”

But eventually many families do enjoy success and enduring relationships. The Vishers report joyous reunions with eight children and 10 grandchildren. Upon the birth of a baby recently, one of the Visher’s children called a stepsibling, seeking advice on how to care for the infant.

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The highs and lows of stepparenting are reflected by Ginger Davis, who, upon remarriage, combined her two children with her husband’s three, with ages ranging from 2 to 18 years.

“I’ve worked hard at this and it has been very rewarding. However, if--heaven forbid--my husband dropped dead tomorrow, I wouldn’t so much as have a cup of coffee with a man unless I knew his children were grown.”

WHOM TO CONTACT For information, support groups and a self-help program for stepfamilies, contact: Carol Samuels of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Stepfamily Assn. of America. (213) 935-7529.


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