This is the fourth article in a series about stepfamilies and the holidays.
Q: What are some important questions to consider before becoming a stepfamily?
A: In an article on the PsychCentral website titled "The Key to Celebrating Holidays With Multiple Family Loyalties," author Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker reminds readers most of the time children of divorce did not want the divorce. They sometimes worry they are to blame. They have loyalties to both parents. Children frequently wish to get their original families back to whatever they feel is "normal."
A quotation from Erma Bombeck states, "You hear a lot of dialogue on the death of the American family. Families aren't dying. They're merging into big conglomerates." Christmas and other holidays are times when children feel the most loss of their biological families or experience the myth of how things might have been. Stepfamily partners have to remember the remarried adults are coming from a whole different place than the children, who, most of the time, struggle especially during holidays with pining after their biological families.
The key to creating success in stepfamilies is flexibility in the adults. They need to respect and understand how their children feel and work toward meeting the needs of the children. In an article by Jennifer Wolf in 2014 About.com, she proposes 10 issues to examine before becoming a stepfamily. Wolf is an expert on single parenting. She recommends these considerations before remarriage or cohabitation.
First is the problem of how to make adult relationships a priority when living with the children. Partnerships require time and nurture to survive. Couples should plan to continue dating or spending weekends away. A second significant task is how to help the children adjust. They will have mixed feelings about moving in with new family members. Stepfamilies mean sharing the love and affection of biological parents. Potential partners need to discuss how to help the children adjust. Examples include scheduling one-on-one time with each child, both biological and stepchildren. Emphasis needs to be on minimizing jealousy.
The third issue is how to handle finances. There will be more combined income, most likely. But adults need to figure how to share their money. Will checking accounts or debit cards be combined or separate? How will decisions about how to spend money be decided? What about decisions about money for ex-spouses and biological children? Will all financial decisions be discussed and shared?
Budgets need to be established and followed by both parties.
The next question for stepfamilies is where to live. This issue will be one of the first questions from the kids, and is especially significant when the adults live in two different places far apart. When someone has to move, couples need to carefully discuss pros and cons regarding the decision. The recommendation is to reach an agreement so neither one will resent the other.
But such a goal is difficult to achieve. Children might have different opinions about where they want to live or with whom they want to live. Other considerations are quality of schools and available neighborhoods suitable for children. Whoever moves might have to cover additional transportation costs. Moving might affect children's relationships with both parents, one because of grieving the loss of the parent who no longer lives close and one because of resenting the parent who decides to move away. Last, some children do not adapt to change as well as others, and that resistance can be a problem.
Partners need to think about how they want to develop stepsibling relationships. Suggestions would include regular family outings, movie nights and game nights. Adults need to realize forcing stepsibling relationships is not recommended. They take considerable time to solidify. Children need to have time to get to know each other. Some stepsiblings do not develop close or affectionate relationships. But they can learn to respect one another.
Another important issue to settle is discipline, as well as planning how to intervene with stepchildren. Forming a set of rules for the family ahead of time is best. Impending partners should not fight about discipline strategies in the presence of the children.
Another really touchy problem is relationships with ex-spouses. Neither stepparent should meddle in the steppartner's former spouse relationship. Both new partners need to stay focused on their stepfamily relationships.
Another need for stepfamilies is a good support system -- family, friends, neighbors, other stepfamilies. What's more, there needs to be time made for extended family members with children. These relationships are particularly important for holidays, birthdays, special occasions, school programs and sporting events. Parents have to make conscious efforts to remember to include all extended family members from both sides, especially or even more with stepfamilies who have multiple ex-families.
* Next week's article will discuss how to deal with difficult relatives in stepfamilies.
Judy Caprez is associate professor of social work at Fort Hays State
University. Send your questions in care of the department of
sociology and social work.