Chaos reigns in a post-divorce household, from sharing the holidays (Thanksgiving for you, Christmas for me) to switching homes midweek (lunch box, sneakers, special blankie—check). So in the midst of these issues, is a silver lining even possible? Logan Fisher found one in Jackie, her sons' stepmom. “At first, I was resentful that she got to be with my boys [Aiden and Gannan, then five and two],” says the Queensbury, NY, mom. “But everything changed one day for Gannan, who was then nine, while he was at his dad's house. He was weeping on the phone with me, begging to come home, but it was my ex's turn to have the kids.” Later on, Gannan called back completely happy—Jackie had taken him for a ride to a nearby lake, the special place she goes to feel better when she's blue. And it worked! “I realized right then how lucky my sons were to have her,” she adds. The latest findings back up Fisher's sentiment: The majority of families with step-relatives in the United States say they're pretty happy with the arrangement, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center.
With about 25 percent of American families now fitting this formula, “stepfamilies in 2011 are ‘out’—and they're asking for more help than they did ten years ago,” says Patricia Papernow, Ed.D., a clinical instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. “Most important, today's divorced co-parents understand better how critical it is for kids to be protected from post-divorce conflict.” But that's not the only rule of stepparenting. Here are the other stepfamily commandments, straight from the front lines:
It's a second chance at success. It wasn't long ago that unhappy couples felt obliged to stay together: Divorce was a taboo that brought with it a social stigma. Today, it appears that stepfamilies can offer new nourishing relationships after the initial adjustment period. More than 60 percent of married adults with step-relatives say their marriage is closer than their parents' marriage, according to the Pew Research study, but only 45 percent of married adults without them say the same thing.
Be sure he's worthy of an introduction. Thanks to online dating and social media, your single life can move at the speed of WiFi. (You can now download an application on Facebook that alerts you when friends change their status to “single.” 'Nuff said.) While there may be no shortage of suitors, be careful whenever you introduce a “special friend” to your children. “Tyler, my eleven-year-old, gets attached to people pretty quickly, so it's hard on him when they suddenly aren't around anymore,” explains Melinda Weeks of Mount Olive, NC, who's also the mom of Tyler's half brothers, ages 1 and 4. “Make sure the one you bring home is really important to you.” (For more on this topic, check out “The Single Parent Handbook.”)
Add the ingredients and mix slowly. Group outings can be draining in the beginning (everyone's trying to get to know each other and be on their best behavior). Moving in a big pack during activities can set kids up for competition—they'll often spend the time trying to attract Mom's or Dad's attention and steer it away from the new spouse. The fix? Focus first on having the steps get to know each other, one on one, rather than trying to mix it up too much.
Discipline is a joint effort, but each of you has a different role. When it comes to dealing with less-than-stellar behavior, it's the parent who has the final say. “Kevin's more strict about enforcing the rules, and I'm pretty much the ‘fun one,’” admits Melissa Gormly, an Indiana, PA, stepmom of three kids, ages 5, 9, and 11. Stepparents shouldn't put up with a bunch of sass, but for kids who are still adjusting to the new setup, being polite can be a lot to ask. If they're acting up, a step is better off relaying the information to the parent, especially early on, rather than taking action.
A little patience makes a big difference. A strong bond from the original family can serve to squeeze out newcomers at first. A toddler or preschooler may cling desperately to Mom, refusing to separate at the appointed drop-off time; older kids may pull away both physically and emotionally, and may even feel guilty about loving a step. Patience is key, as kids of all ages will need lots of time to adjust to the new family dynamic. During this adjustment period, the onus is on the adults to show a vested interest in their new stepchildren. Sit down and build blocks or play catch with little ones; attend an older kid's swim meet or teach her to make food you both like. “Be supportive by showing an interest in her activities and friends,” advises Papernow. Little by little, she'll start to let you into her life.
Blending families is a process, not an event. Stepfamilies are not like first-time families: A new culture has to be built while respecting the old. Jackie was a nemesis in the early days for Logan Fisher, but they ended up bonding. “In another life, if she weren't my ex-husband's wife, I'd like to think I would seek her out,” Fisher says. “She's got a lot to give—just ask my kids.”