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Ann Barbour is a professor of early childhood education. She's leading a discussion on how parents with busy schedules can help out at their children's schools. Read and Comment »
Gloria Lintermans is the author of The Secrets to Stepfamily Success: Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family of Support and Respect. Read more »
Typical multi-home stepfamilies are like intact biological families in many ways. But, they differ structurally, developmentally and dynamically in many ways too.
Stepfamilies who aren't aware of these differences risk using biological family norms and expectations to guide their day-to-day lives. That's like trying to play baseball with soccer equipment and basketball rules--guaranteed to create confusion, conflict and stress.
Learning to live well in a new family takes time. Everyone has a lot to learn, including how to cope in a new environment. One of the first things you'll want to do is to recognize some of the myths of stepfamilies. For example:
Myth #1: "I love you, and I must love your kids."
Reality: "I love you and will patiently work at respecting your kids. They and I may never love each other. If we do, it will feel different than biological parent-child love, and that's okay.
Myth #2: "Your or my ex-mate is not part of our family!"
Reality: "As long as your biological children from your previous marriage live, their other biological parent, and their new mate(s), if any, will emotionally, financially, legally and genetically influence all of your lives. Ignoring or discounting the needs and feelings of these other adults will stress everyone for years.
Myth #3: "We're just like a regular biological family."
Reality: Not really. Your new extended family and the linking of stepfamily co-parenting homes add up to loads of relatives with many major losses to mourn, and many conflicting values and customs to resolve. You are, however, normal--a normal multi-home stepfamily.
Myth #4: "Your or my kids will never come between us."
Reality: Stepfamily adults' inability to resolve clashes over one or more step-kids, including related money issues, is the most quoted reason for a stepfamily divorce. Underneath this usually lie your own unhealed wounds.
Myth #5: "Stepparenting is pretty much like biological parenting, without the childbirth."
Reality: While stepparents' primary goals are about the same as those of biological parents, the emotional, legal and social environments of average stepparents differ in numerous ways. This usually leads to confusion, frustration, and stress, until all the stepfamily adults agree clearly on what each other's key responsibilities are.
Myth #6: "Your and/or my biological kids(s) will always live with us."
Reality: In about thirty percent of U.S. stepfamilies, one or more minor biological kids move into the home of their other biological parent at some point. The resulting emotional and financial shock waves can be extremely challenging. The key is to build realistic expectations for your new stepfamily homes, roles and relationships. If you don't, ongoing frustrations and disappointments can end up harming your marriage. Learning together what's normal in average stepfamilies--early on--can help considerably.
Here are a few more ideas on how to keep your new family on the right track:
What's your biggest challenge as a stepparent? How are you dealing with it?