There are three facts about today’s family that many of you may not know about.
1. The traditional Mom and Dad in the house raising the kids no longer
represent the majority of families in the U.S. As of 2014, the majority of families are made up of stepfamilies, singles and families living together outside of marriage.
2. Two out of three people have a step-relative. The Pew Research Center determined in 2014, 40 percent of married couples with children are stepcouples. In comparison, only 13 percent of families in 1960 were stepfamilies.
3. The divorce rate among remarriages that involve children is high: 62-74 percent .
You wouldn’t know about this new shift in the family by watching mainstream TV and movies. The nuclear family is often presented as the norm although that’s changing with shows like, “Modern Family.” Yet, even in this show, the stepfather (Jay Pritchett) doesn’t have to worry about walking on his stepson’s father’s toes because the father lives out of the country.
Gloria is happily accepted by her new husband’s adult children and doesn’t have the challenges most stepmothers have. Today’s modern stepfamily usually paints a much more complex picture. Biological parents who are both very involved and often clash about parenting styles, stepparents who try to parent reluctant kids and kids who are going back and forth between two homes, trying to figure the whole thing out. The list is endless.
Unfortunately, many family therapists treat second families like first families. Given the biological differences in combined families and all the moving parts that don’t exist in first families, this is a colossal mistake.
Longitudinal studies that focus on stepfamilies are pathetically sparse but we know enough to say that children almost always naturally feel more loyal to their biological parents.
As a therapist who specializes in working with stepfamilies (whether the adults are married, living together or dating) I’ve witnessed the many painful complications these families experience. Simply put, it’s not easy to be in a stepfamily. Whether you’re the kid that has to go back and forth between two homes, the parents who have to split their parenting time 50/50, or the stepparent who comes in to a ready-made system.
The jury is still out about how this new shift in family composition will ultimately impact the culture. One thing we know for sure is that just because a family becomes instant, an instant family it does not make.
“Blended” family myths, stepparents who parent before making solid relationships with their stepkids (which more often than not takes years), poor boundaries between exes, too much contact with exes, not giving the kids enough time to adjust to the new family, stepparents, especially stepmoms, who are treated like yesterday’s news…all conspire to make these families very difficult to be a part of.
Friends and family don’t help. One complaint from a stepparent, a complaint that would be normal and natural coming from the mouth of a biological parent, is met with, “You knew it was a package deal.” In order words, put up or shut up. In other words, not helpful.
Education and support for all stepfamily members is key, not only for these combined families, but society as well.
The Glass Can Be Half Full
Stepfamilies don’t need to be doomed before the bride and groom say, “I do.” There are many ways to work towards having a healthy remarriage and combined family. Here are just a few tips to get started:
1. All members of the new stepfamily need to be given time to adjust to new people and new dynamics. This often takes 4-6 years. The Brady Bunch was a TV show, not a model for stepfamilies.
2. Get rid of the term” blended” families. What does that even mean? It creates an unrealistic expectation and using the term “stepfamily” works just fine.
3. Stepparents, especially stepmoms, need to stop being demonized and minimized. The new couple should operate as a team with the biological parent being the disciplinarian when possible.
4. Parents need to find partners who support rather than compete with their relationships with their children.
5. Children need to be prioritized appropriately and with patience, when it comes to accepting the new members of their family, especially their new stepparent.
The nature of life is change and we don’t need to be afraid of this new face of the American family. We just need to know how to adjust and adapt to the diversity, different households and family units that currently make up contemporary family life.
Follow Mary T. Kelly, M.A. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mwbaggage