Toronto Sun

February 21, 1999

We are family

Yours, mine and ours -- marital mergers in the '90s

By ELAINE MOYLE -- Toronto Sun

When Vicki Rieger and Colin Read married last year, two lives merged into four.

The couple's wedding vows connected more than two souls. A pair of pint-size onlookers -- Vicki's children from a previous marriage -- observed the nuptials, well aware that they too were bound in the spiritual knot being tied.

Such marital mergers, formally called stepfamilies, are touching the lives of a growing number of North Americans, the result of a high divorce rate that sees an estimated 75% return to the altar, often with children in tow.

Ready-made family

Recent Canadian data aren't widely available but in 1990, it's estimated 343,000 families were comprised of married or common-law couples with at least one stepchild. This group represented about 7% of all families raising children. But the Vanier Institute of the Family insists the number under-projects the actual number of blended familes, since many offspring had previously grown up and left home.

Research cited by the Stepfamily Association of America indicates one in three Americans is now either a stepparent, a stepchild, a stepsibling or another member of a stepfamily.

Not surprisingly, it predicts more than half of the current American population will become involved in a stepfamily situation at some point in their lives.

Aware of this growing social phenomenon, psychologists and social workers are now focusing their attention on the complex dynamics that befall such relationships.

The key to success, they say, is entering a stepfamily with realistic expectations. Devote time to nurturing each family link but don't presume overnight success.

Colin Read entered his ready-made family well-armed with such information. Raised in a stepfamily himself, he anticipated the needs of his young charges and, according to Vicki, followed through with true sensitivity and compassion.

"He has breathed new life into all of us with his humour and tremendous patience," says the mom of Nicole, 12, and Timmy, 9, and who's expecting her third child in early April. "He has introduced the children to soccer, karate, camping and boating. As a couple, we emphasize love and communication because if your relationship doesn't work, nothing else will."

Nicole and Timmy, once apprehensive about the arrival of a half-sibling, are growing excited as the due date approaches.

Meanwhile, Brian Balson, the father of an eight-year-old daughter and four-year-old son, plans to embark on the stepparent journey with his fiance and her two children.

"There isn't a rule book available so it's a case of playing some issues by ear," says Balson. "You have to trust your judgment as a parent and be confident with decision-making.

"In these situations, kids tend to have more opportunity to play the trump card, running to their (natural) parent for solace. It's a tough thing to admit but most parents feel protective towards their own kids."

Psychologist James Bray, of Houston's Baylor College of Medicine, has extensively studied stepfamilies and notes parenting issues are their "No. 1 stressor."

He reiterates the importance of curbing the naive notion that an instant family rapport will be established with the same idyllic ease as the '60s sitcom The Brady Brunch.

Social worker Esther Birenzweig agrees, saying it takes three to five years for family members to adjust.

'Major challenges'

"During that time, there are major challenges on a daily level," she says. "Until everyone sorts out their emotions and how to deal with them, it's natural to wonder if the whole experience is worth it."

Parents must deal with the trials of newlywed life as well as the ambiguity of parenting another's offspring.

"Stepparents don't know exactly what's expected of them," explains Birenzweig, facilitator of Second Time Around: Remarriage and Stepparenting, a program offered by Families in Transition, a division of the Family Service Association of Metro Toronto. "They're unsure of how much to get involved -- society doesn't provide a clearly defined role."

As parents struggle to cope, their amalgamated broods face unique quandaries of their own.

"These marriages centre around the adults who have a relationship -- the children don't," explains Birenzweig. "They're thrown into the arrangement whether they like it or not -- and usually they don't. In many cases, the children are still dealing with the aftermath of separation."

The act of remarriage can fuel resentment towards the stepparent because it dashes a child's inherent hopes to have their natural parents re-unite.

The biological parent can ease tension by doling out discipline to his/her own children while the stepparent diplomatically enforces the rules, Birenzweig suggests. "This gives time for the stepparent to get to know the children and develop a relationship based on trust and respect." The biological parent must spell out the parameters that define the delicate stepparent/child relationship. "It will evolve over time," she assures families.

"The biological parent and stepparent face better chances of succeeding if they sort out their own relationship and parenting approaches in advance."

Above all, never bad-mouth children's biological parents.

Ray Heinrich, founder of the Ontario Stepfamily Association (onstep@yahoo.com), shares the same view.

"Children are very loyal to the parent who's outside the new marriage," he explains. "They'll let you know very quickly that you're not their father or mother."

Heinrich, of Port Dover, says it's vital for stepparents to reassure their partner's kids they aren't a replacement for Dad or Mom. "Explain that you're there as a friend who'll be there for them when you're needed. When you acknowledge the distance between you, it takes the tension away."

Until sets of biological parents bury their differences and focus on their children's welfare, insecurities will plague innocent, young pawns caught in the middle.

"Adults are so busy fighting each other, they can't put the child first," Heinrich says regretfully. "Mutual support -- extended not only by the parents but by aunts, uncles and grandparents -- goes a long way in helping children cope with divorce and, eventually, stepfamily situations."

Couple therapist Lillian Messenger, who has worked extensively with stepfamilies, says premarital counselling is a tremendous tool for facilitating continuity in a child's life as well as ironing out relationship wrinkles before they occur.

'Poorly prepared'

"I strongly urge parents entering a second marriage to draw up a pre-remarriage contract that acknowledges the history of previous marriages, leaving the doorway open for a relationship with ex-partners and their extended families," says Messinger, former head of social work at the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry. "The great problem with post-divorce marriages is that people enter them poorly prepared for their special complexities and differences."

Proposed changes by the Senate/Commons Committee on Child Custody to keep divorced fathers more active in their children's lives will have an impact on subsequent marriages, she notes.

"We don't have enough long-term research to know how this shared parenting movement will affect stepfamilies."

But Jay Bishop, a widowed father of two recently engaged to another single parent, fears the recommendations will disrupt the fragile dynamics of blended families.

"It would mean planning your life around the other parent," says Bishop, who fathers a three-month-old son with partner Rena Mina and will officially stepparent her three children from a previous marriage. "It means surrendering control of your life to someone else. When it's time to plan your family vacation, it won't be just a matter of finding out when a campsite's available -- it also has to fit into the ex's schedule."

Dealing with a former spouse is just one of many challenges that has plagued Marie Willis during her 10-year commitment to a blended family of five children.

"As a mother, you have to balance everyone's situations," she says. "If I'd known in the beginning what the future held, I wouldn't have done it. All the red alerts were there."

Raising two sets of children has taken a toll on Willis (not her real name), whose second husband openly displayed hostility towards her son. The boy also received an icy reception from his stepbrother.

Finances are kept strictly separate, she says, with her current husband refusing to contribute to her children's upbringing. Even the rent is split right down the middle.

Years of therapy helped Willis understand, but not accept, the source of her partner's venom: Misplaced anger stemming from "the loss" of his own son, relegated to weekend visits.

"It's only now that they're all learning to be sociable with each other," she explains, saying an unexpected pregnancy and subsequent birth of a daughter fused the family together.

'Face tense times'

"My husband's attitude has totally changed and all the kids love her," says the middle-aged accountant. (However, experts warn against the use of such a "unifying" tactic.)

The road to stepparenthood was far smoother for Eunice and Domenic Vas, who share a joint brood of three now ranging in age from 10 to 18. They also had a fourth child, now age 5, together.

In addition to the headache created by conflicting discipline styles, the pair also endured the disruptive force of cultural differences. Domenic is East Indian while Eunice is Caucasian.

"There were some difficult moments but no major problems," reports Eunice of their six-year relationship. "I was surprised at how well all the kids fit in together."

The secret to their success?

"A lot of patience and a lot of willingness to work things through," Eunice replies. "I made it a point not to replace my stepdaughter's mother. I let her decide when it was time to approach me with a hug or a kiss ... A sense of humour was a great stress-reliever that helped us take change in stride.

"You do face some tense times and I wouldn't recommend this lifestyle to someone who can't handle stress. As for me, I'd do it all over again at the drop of a hat."

Copyright © 1999, Canoe Limited Partnership.