Anne Bernstein was pregnant with her first child when her 7-year-old stepson, Brian, floored her with this question: "Who would you rather have—your own baby, or me as a stepson?"
Clearly Brian, like many kids in his position, was wrestling with some tough issues. Just how am I connected to this baby? Will I be forgotten? Bernstein, who lives in Berkeley, CA, had worries of her own: Would she love the infant more than her stepson? How could she help them all feel like family?
Somehow, out of all this uncertainty, Bernstein came up with an answer for Brian. She said that, yes, there was something special about having her own baby, but that she loved him very much as well—so much so that she wished that she could have had him as a baby, too.
Having a child of one's own within a stepfamily can be bittersweet. On the one hand, a new baby often gives stepparents a sense of solidarity, which can also make them more confident. But adding a biological child to the mix stirs up insecurities that all stepfamilies face, even under the calmest of circumstances.
Between Mom and Dad
Before they help the kids, the grown-ups need to deal with concerns of their own. Fear of favoring one child, for instance, can cause guilty feelings, says Bernstein, whose experience inspired her to write Yours, Mine, and Ours, a book about how family dynamics change when a remarried parent has a new child. "Love and love alike doesn't really hold up in any group of relatives," she says. "It's okay to have different feelings toward different children; it's just not okay to give preferential treatment."
Telling The Kids
How parents break the news about a pregnancy can affect a child's reaction. Bernstein suggests that the biological parent tell the child privately, and make it immediately clear that the grown-ups' love for him won't change. Still, says Janet Laubgross, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Fairfax, VA, "Adults have to be prepared to hear painful questions and comments."
Get Everyone Involved
Once the baby arrives, enlist stepchildren as partners. But don't stick them with the dirty work—such as changing diapers—which might breed resentment. Feeding, playing with, and rocking a baby can create genuine sibling closeness. Of course, also allow older kids some distance, and set aside time to focus just on them.
Whatever anxieties stepchildren and their parents have, raising an "ours baby" can bring them closer together, creating bonds between people who may not have felt very connected before.