Blended family is all stirred up

CAN THIS MARRIAGE BE SAVED?

January 14, 1996|By FROM LADIES' HOME JOURNAL Los Angeles Times Syndicate

"Mike takes no interest in my 6-year-old son Carl, but he idolizes his own two daughters," says Kate, 29, whose second marriage is approaching its first anniversary. "I've bent over backward to try to make his daughters feel at home -- I know Carl feels sad about that sometimes. The least Mike could do is not play favorites either," she adds. The trouble is, many times Mike shows preference for Jane, 10, and Jennie, 7, over Carl and even Kate, and she is not sure just how much her husband cares about her anymore.

"The minute the girls arrive for their alternate weekends or holidays, our happy family life shatters," snaps Kate. "Those two have Mike wrapped around their little finger." Just last week at dinner, she recalls, they behaved deplorably, tearing through the house, spilling juice and gravy on her best tablecloth -- then blaming it all on Carl. "When Carl started to cry, Mike called him a crybaby. But he didn't even scold his daughters," she says.

More than anything, Kate had hoped her marriage to Mike would provide Carl with a strong father figure. Now she finds herself in the role of wicked stepmother. "The girls complain I'm a terrible cook and a mean lady who yells at them. They tease and tattle on Carl all the time, forcing me to be referee."

But Mike, 30, a sergeant in the fire department, feels he's caught in a bind. "No matter what I do or how hard I try to be fair, I can't win," he says.

Mike adores his children and feels guilty about divorcing their mother. "We were miserable, and our home life was filled with anger and loud fighting," Mike says. "I couldn't see them growing up in such a poisoned atmosphere." More than anything, Mike wants his children to witness a happy and loving marriage -- the kind he thought he'd have with Kate.

He agrees they have problems but believes that Kate is exaggerating. "In the last 11 months, the girls have spent part of two holidays with us and five or six weekends. And Carl, though I love him, can be quite a handful sometimes. She has to admit that."

Easing step-sibling rivalry

"Children experience many changes, some obvious, some subtle, when they enter a blended family," notes Mark Snowman, a child and family therapist in New York City. "Keep in mind that birth order is changed when two families are blended into one, and it's common for children to feel displaced. Carl, for example, had been an only child for several years. Now he has to share parental time with two big sisters. Jenny treasured her spot as the baby of the family. Suddenly, she's sandwiched in the middle. Inevitably, there will be cries of 'Mommy (or Daddy) loves you best.' "

What's more, many new stepparents feel, like Mike, the tug of loyalties between their own children and their stepchildren -- and are at a loss as to how to balance conflicting responsibilities. Many, like Kate, don't especially like their new stepkids.

The following advice helped Mike and Kate achieve a more harmonious family life.

1. Give each child private space -- and private time with you. Keep in mind that turf battles are inevitable. Children who come to visit, like Jane and Jennie, feel out of place, while those who live in the home already, like Carl, feel invaded. In the best of all possible worlds, children should have their own rooms, but since that is often impractical, try to divide the room in such a way that each has his or her own place -- for instance, the top of the bunk bed or even one shelf that's off limits to everyone else.

2. Work together to set up house rules that all children must abide by -- even if they are different from the expectations in their other home. Kate can say: "I know your mom feels differently about this than I do, but in this house, we stick to these rules."

3. Let the biological parent handle the discipline until you and your stepchildren have a longer history upon which to build.

4. Set aside one-on-one time with each child. Spending time doing an activity that the child enjoys can help mitigate resentment.

5. Remind yourself that, to a certain extent, sibling rivalry can be emotionally healthy. Children need to find their own way, to measure themselves against others. Give them time to do that. However, if the stress seems to escalate, consider professional counseling for the entire family.

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