family} step family
The idea of divorce and remarriage is pretty imbedded in our culture. When meeting a new couple, one is more likely to find they are “remarried” rather than “original.” Back in the early 1990’s when I was falling in love with my second husband, the idea of blending our two teenaged “only” children into a ‘stepfamily’ was not especially scandalous, but it was daunting. At times, it bordered on being totally dysfunctional. So I sought answers, and in Portland, Oregon there was a weekly stepfamily support group, plus a helpline and a lot of family therapists who specialized in the new cultural shift called “blended families.” Today we barely lift an eyebrow when someone mentions they are remarrying and will now have stepchildren. We assume, wrongly, that because this phenomenon of remarriage has been around for 30 years or so that it has all been figured out; but, I can assure you, that the same problems that confronted my husband and me twenty years ago, are just as problematic for couples today. Only today, nobody really talks about it because it’s all been said before, right? It’s old news. I looked back at newsletters I had written on behalf of the Stepfamily Association of Portland and realized that the good advice I had been given then was still just as relevant today. So, I offer it once again. Take what you will and hopefully find in it strength. “To marry a second time represents the triumph of hope over experience” said Dr. Samuel Johnson. Good luck to all, and maybe, because of this column, someone in Northwest Montana will start a stepfamily support group. MEK
Coping with the summer visitation blues By Marti Ebbert Kurth
Ah summer…visions of sunshine with happy children and adults basking in the long warm days of northwestern Montana. Lazy contented hours by one of our many lakes, streams or ponds. Relaxation! Unfortunately, for stepfamilies summer can quickly turn into an emotional rollercoaster when non-custodial parents get their kids for an extended vacation. It’s hard to place blame on any one family member because everyone adds to the tension. Kids become cranky because they’re often competing with either a new stepmother or stepfather for attention. They struggle in confusion and anger as they try to adapt to a short term living situation in new surroundings. They are adrift without the security of familiar friends and hangouts. Stepmothers can hardly be faulted. They barely know or understand these children invading their home, demanding attention–or competing for it–and giving them very little respect. And who can blame dad? After all, these few weeks may be his only opportunity to reacquaint and rebuild bonds with his kids! So what if he’s lax on the discipline and spoils them a bit? Just because you’ve all been thrown together out of circumstance is no reason to suffer through weeks of misery and resentment. Family therapists say that if you approach the summer visitation with a plan of action it has a better chance of turning into a positive experience for everyone.
Make step-kids feel welcome but not guests
Make your visiting children feel welcome by offering them space to keep their clothes and treasures --but don’t treat them like guests. It’s important that they feel like members of the household whose contribu-
tions are listened to and appreciated. If other children live in the house full time, discuss with them the summer living situation. “It’s important to avoid nasty surprises for kids. If they will be sharing a room with another child let them know about it in advance. Don’t just dump kids together and expect it to work,” cautions Portland, Oregon family therapist, Doris Jewett.
Agree on household tasks and expectations
It often happens that a new stepmother feels like a slave when her husband’s kids visit for a month or so in the summer. Because dad wants the kids to have a good time, he tends to give them more freedom. It’s important that couples agree, ahead of time, on what is okay to ask the kids to do when they arrive for their visit. Household tasks are a big bone of contention in most stepfamilies. Fathers can set an example if they spend time actually sharing some of the daily chores with their visiting kids. Wash the dishes or sweep the floors together, and make the effort to show that you all participate in keeping the household tidy and running smoothly. When the visiting stepchildren get settled, sit down as a family and go over the house rules. Establishing refrigerator rules is a good idea. Letting kids know what is okay to eat and what is off limits could derail some future arguments. Encourage visiting children to choose the food for some meals. It will make them feel more at home to eat what they like and are familiar with. One family found that rotating the cooking of dinner among all the family members spread the chore equally and provided some interesting meals to talk about!
Offer stepchildren time with absent parent
Establishing a scheduled time when the absent parent can telephone their child is also a good idea. If visiting children are homesick it will provide a regular time they can count on to talk with their mom or dad. It also alleviates the custodial parents fear that they are losing touch with their child or that the non-custodial parent is wooing them away. Most of all try to relax and don’t feel guilty if you can’t always please your visiting stepchildren. When things get tough, take a time out, and encourage the children to do the same.
Family therapists stress that a strong marriage is the key to creating a successful blended family. Set Aside Time to Talk Communication –both listening and talking is a skill that has to be learned and practiced. Remarrying couples need to be sensitive to each other and be able to talk about difficult issues.
Be Positive in your Communication Tell your partner about kindnesses they have done for you and/or your children. Have Fun Together as a Couple Have romantic time when you don’t talk about kid problems. Schedule a regular date night each week and nurture the reasons you fell in love in the first place. Develop a Sense of Humor—use it Surprises and humor are wonder icebreakers during an argument. Learn to lighten up and laugh at yourself. Take problems less seriously and personally and help your partner do the same.
406 Woman April May 2011