• U.S.

A Better House Blend

6 minute read
Francine Russo

Holidays can be complicated for any family, but when children, stepchildren and new spouses are involved, things can get really crazy. Consider the dilemma facing Merritt Patterson when her daughter Emmajane, then 7, requested a Barbie Jeep for Christmas two years ago. How could she possibly buy such a lavish gift for Emmajane and not get a similarly high-impact present for her stepson Michael Jr.?

And if those two got a fancy set of wheels, how could she leave her younger daughter Addie out of the equation? The high-priced solution she and her husband devised: three kiddie Jeeps. “We laugh at ourselves now,” says Patterson. “That was $900 driving around in the backyard. If we were not a blended family, there’s no way we would have done this. We go overboard to be fair.”

Ah, but what is fair? Parents in blended families struggle every day, in matters large and small, to make decisions that do justice to all their children–his, hers and theirs. Fifteen percent of American children live in a blended family, reported the U.S. Census Bureau in 2001. Unfortunately, studies repeatedly show that kids in blended families fare no better than those in single-parent households. While many factors, especially how well the exes get along, contribute to making such families work, the kids’ perception that they are treated fairly is a key ingredient of success.

Many divorced parents struggle with guilt, feeling they’ve caused their children a loss or that they don’t spend enough time with them or have hurt them in other ways. Special occasions like holidays and birthdays and even back-to-school shopping tend to bring out those feelings of guilt. Children sometimes see money spent on them and their siblings as a scorecard showing who is more loved. Yet in most families, total equality is impossible to achieve. What to do? Be realistic, experts say, and accept that the playing field may not be level. The message, says Jennifer Coleman, a life-transition counselor at Rosen Law Firm in Raleigh, N.C., should be that no matter who spends what on whom, all the children are valued equally.

It took Susan and David Emerling a few years to figure out how to bring that message to their blended family. Susan, a dental hygienist and artist, receives child support from her ex-husband and uses it to buy necessities for her two teenagers. David, an engineer, pays for his two. “I take care of Mariel’s and Jillian’s needs,” she says, “and he takes care of Rachelle’s and Ben’s.” To avoid hurt feelings over clothes shopping, they decided to give each child cash or a gift card in the same amount every fall and spring. It worked like a charm. “Before we did that,” says Susan, “the kids would say, ‘Why does she have that and I don’t?'”

What parents in blended families can’t even out are the things their exes buy for their kids. When Rachelle got a new car for her 16th birthday, for example, Mariel and Jillian, who drive the family car, were upset. Ultimately, says their mother, they made their peace with it: “The kids realize they have separate households. It’s part of the reality of their lives.”

When such inequities crop up, parents need to be on guard not to be angry with the child who got the goodies and not to badmouth the relative who paid for the expensive gift, says psychologist Jonathan Pochyly of Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Like all attacks on an ex or a new stepparent, negative remarks are deeply destructive to the new, blended family.

Discipline is another minefield where fairness issues regularly explode. The children often encounter three or four different sets of rules: those of their biological parent and their stepparent in each household. Experts advise that, with rare exceptions, biological parents should discipline their children, even if there are different rules within the same household. Explaining these differences to the child is key, says Linda Gordon, a Chevy Chase, Md., family therapist specializing in children of divorce. When husband and wife discipline their children differently, she suggests that a parent explain, “Stepdad and I have different values, but I still think my values are good.” Over time, though, couples in blended families should try to narrow the gap between their rules.

But what if the conflict is between your biological child and your stepchild? Balancing the scales of justice between them can test parents sorely. Susan Wallis, a kindergarten teacher in Ellicott City, Md., initially tried to defend her son Sam, now 10, when his three older stepsiblings teased him. “I’d react, ‘My poor baby!'” she admits. Her husband Kent Davis suggested that when the kids fought, the disputants should bring their issue before both parents. Each child, without interruption and using “I” statements, would explain what happened and how it made him feel. The tactic has helped the kids recognize when they are being unfair and learn to resolve their differences, although, says Wallis, it can be hard to listen without taking sides. Says she: “I had to teach myself not to add comments.”

Sometimes families need a little help from an expert who can stand back from everybody’s feelings. One counseling session was enough to help Susan Emerling and her husband resolve an ongoing argument between his daughter and hers soon after the couple married. One of the girls had lots of friends over and complained that her stepsister kept horning in. The other said it wasn’t fair to leave her out. The counselor suggested that they make a rule: Whoever had friends over had a right to privacy with them in her bedroom, but if they played in a common area, her stepsister had the right to join in. “This did fix it,” Emerling relates. After the child who needed privacy got it, she was more willing to include her stepsister.

All these issues lose their sharp edges when a family becomes truly blended, but that can take anywhere from four to seven years, research shows. Children under age 8 blend the fastest, and those between 9 and 11 the slowest, says Sandra Macias, a professor at the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology in Palo Alto, Calif. Experts warn newcomers to blended families to be realistic about what they can expect when.

When the Emerlings married eight years ago, Rachelle and Jillian often argued. One might scream at the other, “That’s my shirt!” Now, at 17, they share clothes. It’s not perfect, and it has taken work, says Emerling, “but we really are a family. I always wished our family would be seamless, not ‘his’ or ‘mine.’ But now I know that a blended family doesn’t have to be seamless to be full of love.”

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