Blending families, blending lives
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Blending families, blending lives

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A story about blended families and tips for how to make it work.

A story about blended families and tips for how to make it work.

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    Blending families, blending lives Blending families, blending lives Document Transcript

    • Saint Raphael Healthcare System 7/26/04 10:08 PM Blending families, blending lives By Karen Pasacreta Two decades ago, when Perdita Kirkness Norwood was in her early 40s, something wonderful happened. She fell madly in love with a widower named Otty. It was the perfect time in Norwood’s life. She had achieved most of her career goals and was ready to get married and settle into family life. There was only one problem. Actually, four problems — Otty’s children. His teen-age twins, and their older siblings, weren’t at all happy about the idea of having a stepmother. “They were not young kids. But they were still grieving for their mother, who had died from cancer two years earlier. Me entering their world was a shock, and I had no idea it was going to be so difficult,” says Norwood, a Branford resident. “Otty and I were smiling, happy and in love and really thought we were going to become one big happy family.” The reality, however, was not even remotely close. And most of their time as newlyweds was spent trying to deal with the frustration, alienation, jealously and anger they all were feeling. It’s a common scenario, says Jennifer Fuoco, L.C.S.W., the Hospital of Saint Raphael’s director of Child Inpatient Psychiatry. So elated to be in love, many divorced or widowed parents don’t see how difficult re-marriage can be for a child. “Re-marriage brings the harsh reality that their biological parents will never be together again,” Fuoco says. “A very common myth is that children can adapt quickly. But it doesn’t always work that way. And a lot of yelling, crying, door slamming, name calling and worse can be the result.” To cope, Norwood sought out other stepmothers to try to learn from their experiences. She called Connecticut Infoline (dial 2-1-1) to find a support group, but learned that none existed. Determined and somewhat desperate, she decided to start her own. She posted a flier in her town library, and 16 women showed up to the first meeting. “Like me, they were the wicked stepmothers,” Norwood recalls, “and everyone was thrilled to be together because finally we could vent to people who knew what we were going through. Twenty years ago, blended families weren’t as talked about, or as accepted, as they are now. The term ‘blended families’ didn’t even exist.” As the support group grew, so did Norwoods realization that what many stepmothers needed was a sort of “Stepmothers 101 Handbook” —and that she wanted to write it. So she teamed up with writer and fellow stepmother Teri Wingender, interviewed 150 women about how they overcame blended family challenges, and in 1998 saw “Thehttp://www.srhs.org/betterhealth3.asp?StoryID=371 Page 1 of 3
    • Saint Raphael Healthcare System 7/26/04 10:08 PM Enlightened Stepmother, Revolutionizing the Role” published by Harper Collins. The book today is in its third printing. “People become part of a blended family and really don’t know what to do,” says Norwood. Yet blended families are nothing new, says Jon Bloch, Ph.D., a sociology professor at Southern Connecticut State University. Indeed, says the Stepfamily Association of America, one out of three Americans is now a stepparent, stepchild, stepsibling or some other member of a stepfamily — or blended family, as the unit is now commonly called. “The word ‘blended’ creates a more harmonious depiction,” says Bloch, “though the definition still remains the same.” Blended and step commonly refer to families composed of children and parents who are not all related by blood and generally have come together through re-marriage. Although the SAA asserts the term “blended” is somewhat misleading because children, especially, are not ingredients who can be “blended” into a new mix of family members. Most also remain connected to their other parent. Pat Werner Bender of Woodbridge has other reasons for not liking the term: “It makes me think of a milkshake where you put all the ingredients together, but come up with something very different from what you started with.” Instead, Bender wants to maintain the integrity of what everyone has brought to the family. In her case, that’s two daughters from her previous marriage and three children from her husband’s. They’ve been a family for six years now, which Bender says has meant committing to being a significant adult in her other children’s lives, as well as being her spouse’s partner. Carole Shaff of Branford did the same thing 22 years ago, when she and her husband Jerry combined families for a total of nine children. And she, too, has a problem with the term “blended.” “Someone once told me that if you call it a blended family, it probably means someone got creamed. Even though people have difficulty with the negative connotation of the word ‘stepfamily,’ it’s what we are,” says Shaff, adding that she believes time and communication are the most important things in the early life of any family, especially those involving a new couple. “In a blended family, the bonds with your children can predate the couple’s bond,” she explains. “Oftentimes, the new couple’s bond is very fragile. So every step needs to be taken slowly.” Stepparents also need to have realistic expectations, Fuoco adds. A common mistake many stepparents make is that they come gangbusters into the new home, ready to make immediate changes. “A woman can’t just say to her new husband, ‘You’ve been feeding your son hot dogs every night for the last five years? Well, we are going to change that!’ and expect instant results,” Fuoco says. Instead, she advocates that all parents — biological and step — be thoughtful during the “blending process.” “Talk openly with your children about what would make transitions run more smoothly. Have family meetings. Let your child know they can come to you with any thoughts or concerns. It’s a vital process.” It’s also important to remember that children are rarely ready to welcome a stepparent into their home because they’re still grieving the parent they lost to death or divorce. While for some children the adjustment period can take several weeks, for others it can take several months, years or longer, says Cindy Hould, L.M.S.T., clinical coordinator of Saint Raphael’s Adolescent Day Hospital.http://www.srhs.org/betterhealth3.asp?StoryID=371 Page 2 of 3
    • Saint Raphael Healthcare System 7/26/04 10:08 PM “Stepparenting has that name for a reason,” says Hould. “Stepparents have to take tons of steps to integrate into the family. It doesn’t happen overnight. To help create a happy, healthy blended family: Don’t try to “fix” the existing family. Says former Fairfield resident Marjorie Engel, president of the Stepfamily Association of America: “Many stepparents want to come in and fix the hurt from divorce, or fix some perceived deficit in the biological parent. That’s not your role. You are a helpmate to your spouse and an adult support system for the children.” Develop a strong marital bond. Work on the marriage as hard as you do on parenting. The key is communication,” says Hould. “Adults need to be on the same page.” Randy and Barbara Wheeler of Milford believe the success of their blended family has much to do with openness – and sticking together. The two, who met on the Internet in the early days of chat rooms, have been happily married since 1999. Each came into the marriage with children from a previous marriage: Joey, Barbara’s son, was 5, and Randy’s children, Tiffany and Travis, were 21 and 18. “We always get everything out in the open,” says Randy, “especially when it comes to the kids. We also see ourselves as a team, so we don’t let the kids play us against each other.” Figure some way to integrate the child’s other biological parent into your stepfamily. There will always be phone calls, money problems and issues such as camp and orthodontia. But keep an open line of communication between families to tackle day- to-day problems, find effective ways to work together and stay child-focused, Hould says. Much can be said for maintaining a unified front and learning how to effectively work together, Fuoco adds. The stress surrounding divorce or re-marriage can be directly linked to a child’s disposition. “Some kids are going to manage their issues through behavioral problems, acting out through anger and, possibly, depression,” she explains. “They could have difficulties with school, staying on task, and staying focused. I think the biggest issue we run into is that the child wants to be sure that the stepparent is not going to take the place of the biological parent. Step and biological parents working together can help alleviate that fear.” Get help learning how to manage change. Search out books, support groups or therapy. The Wheelers also recommend not forcing the relationship. Let things happen naturally. “Don’t work too hard to try and be friends with the stepkids,” says Randy. “On the other end of the spectrum, dont step in and demand respect and obedience. There is a middle ground in there somewhere where you just have to feel your way through it.” “We just go with the flow and it works,” Barbara adds. “I’m happy, Randy’s happy, and the kids are very happy.” This page was last updated on 11/26/2003http://www.srhs.org/betterhealth3.asp?StoryID=371 Page 3 of 3