from: Smart Marriages

 

When Strangers Become Family

US News Cover Story 11/29/99

 

By Wray Herbert

 

Tori La Londe hosts a large Thanksgiving gathering every year at her

home, but she's never sure who will show up. It could include any

combination of her four biological children from two marriages, her

stepson, the two foster kids she raised, or the several strays the others

bring home. Although La Londe has little contact with her two former

husbands, she has a close, enduring relationship with Jud, the stepson

she helped raise. She also has a strong friendship with Jud's mother

(when the two get together one will quip, "How's our husband?"). Once,

when she ran into Jud's grandmother­his mother's mother­they embraced

warmly, and Jud's grandmother cheerily introduced Tori to her friends:

"This is my ex-son-in-law's wife."

 

Ex-wife now, which means the U.S. Census Bureau doesn't count Tori La

Londe's family as a stepfamily. Social scientists label it a broken

stepfamily, but calling her a "step" mother presiding over a "broken"

home belies the warmth and wholeness she sees in her recombinant family.

Like many Americans, she considers the collection of children and in-laws

she has inherited in her marriages as family, plain and simple. The ties

may not be biological, but they are strong nonetheless.

 

In fact, La Londe's extended family and other stepfamilies of various

configurations are becoming standard issue: The government estimates that

stepfamilies will outnumber traditional nuclear families by the year

2007. But a more inclusive estimate of anyone in any kind of step

relationship brings the number of people who are "steps" to about 60

percent of the population. Which means that sitting down this week to the

final Thanksgiving dinner of the 20th century will be more than 5.5

million American stepfamilies.

 

Their stories have become familiar in the two decades since Kramer vs.

Kramer: the uneasy navigation of strangers suddenly confronting each

other at the breakfast table, over the holidays, on the way to the

bathroom in the middle of the night. In interviews with U.S. News, they

spoke of awkward intimacies, jealous anxieties­and the strange alliances

that make stepparenting an experiment in heartbreak and joy. Many of them

are prospering, instinctively coming up with strategies that social

scientists and family experts have just begun to understand.

 

Name game. The challenges begin on the level of language: What do members

of new stepfamilies call themselves? Consider Kris Allen, 18, of Boulder

Creek, Calif. His mother is Kim Allen, Allen being the name she took from

her ex-husband, Kris's father. But Kris's father only became an Allen

when he himself became part of a stepfamily in his youth; his given name

was Hoops, and Kris is thinking of taking Hoops as his name. Just to make

it interesting, Kris's stepfather, Jerry Kaiser, was originally Jerry

Cohen. His widowed mother changed his name to Kaiser when she remarried,

when Jerry was 10.

 

As complicated as it is to deconstruct the Allen-Hoops-Kaiser-Cohen

family tree, in practice they act like any old American family. Both

parents are fully involved in family decision making and discipline, as

they have been since Jerry and Kim got together eight years ago. Kris is

a well-adjusted kid, no more directionless or cynical than the other

18-year-olds attending nearby Cabrillo College. Social scientists haven't

studied this family, but if they did they would point to a couple of

things that Kim and Jerry have done that most successful stepfamilies do.

First, they talk openly and daily, anticipating and defusing many

potential land mines. Jerry and Kim are both counselors, and the

communication skills that they teach to corporate managers are the same

ones they bring to parenting. They also developed their relationship very

slowly at first. Jerry and Kris actually became friends before Jerry and

Kim started dating­Kris attended a work-site day-care center where they

worked­so he was excited when his mother told him that Jerry would be

moving into their house. The 10-year-old had only one question: "Where's

he going to sleep?"

 

The Kaiser-Allen family is typical of what psychologist James Bray calls

"neo-traditional" stepfamilies, the most successful stepfamilies he

identified in his nine-year study for the National Institutes of Health.

Their most striking characteristic is that they take a realistic­and

flexible­approach to building a family out of strangers. They know

they're not a 1950s-vintage nuclear family and don't try to be; but they

are also the type of stepfamily that after a few years most closely

resembles the traditional nuclear family, in intimacy and unconditional

support of one another.

 

But successful stepfamilies come in many different shapes. Brenda and

Jeff Micka of Joseph, Ore., have staked out a bold position, perhaps at

odds with what the experts counsel, but which works for them. All four of

their boys­three from his first marriage and one from hers­call them Mom

and Dad. They also call their other biological parents Mom and Dad­an

arrangement that the kids seem comfortable with. But the Mickas are well

aware that they have an unusual setup. For one thing, Jeff's ex lives

eight hours away in Eugene, so every other weekend the three boys have to

travel 16 hours round trip to visit their mother. Still, they've been

able to turn this awkward arrangement into an acceptable routine. For

Michael and Simone Humphrey of Overland Park, Kan., the sacrifice has

been even greater: They recently moved their new family to Kansas from

Dallas, following Michael's son and daughter and their mother­his

ex-wife­who had relocated in 1996. Says Simone: "We were flying Jennifer

and Matthew to Dallas and back once a month. It was just too much, and

too little time with them."

 

Every successful stepfamily has stories about compromises and adjustments

it has had to make. In the case of Drew Myers and Anne Marie

O'Connell-Myers of Westport, Conn., a major issue was religion. Anne

Marie and her daughter, Jackie, are practicing Catholics; Drew and his

four kids­Brad, Carter, Garrett, and Libby­were not churchgoers when Drew

and Anne Marie got together. Anne Marie had no interest in converting her

new family, but she did think as a matter of shared values that it was

important for all of them to attend church. So Drew and his children

began attending the Congregational Church, where they now go on the first

Sunday of each month. It was an adjustment at first for the formerly

unchurched Myers kids, but now they sometimes choose to join Anne Marie

and Jackie at their services, too.

 

Lifestyle change is inevitable when a new stepfamily is formed, and it

can be especially difficult for only children. In the Micka family, for

instance, Brenda's son, Cody, inherited three younger brothers overnight.

"Cody had some difficulty at first," says Brenda Micka, "going from

having me to himself to sharing a mother with three younger brothers."

But the three younger boys' adoration of their new "older brother"

brought Cody around. For 10-year-old Jackie O'Connell, the adjustment had

more to do with family finances. An only child who had lived with her

single mom since birth, she had never really wanted for anything; when

she joined the Myers clan, she inherited four siblings and a stepdad who

was used to running a disciplined family budget. "We had to negotiate

family finances," says Drew. "I was budgeting for four, and Jackie had

been used to getting what she wanted."

 

Baby makes three. The arrival of new half-siblings can also be

disruptive, although it doesn't have to be; indeed, it can be tonic if

the parents involve the older children in the excitement of the pregnancy

early on. That's certainly how 12-year-old Madeleine Schlefer of

Brooklyn, N.Y., sees it. She and her 9-year-old sister, Gwen, live

primarily with their mother, but her dad and stepmom live close by in the

same Park Slope neighborhood. That proximity makes it easy for the two

older sisters to stop by after school and check in on their baby sister,

Juliet, who was born 10 months ago. Meg Schlefer, the girls' stepmom,

credits their mother with helping to make Madeleine and Gwen's comings

and goings uncontentious.

 

RELIGION, FAMILY FINANCES, DIET, discipline­these are all issues that

stepfamilies around the country are struggling with every day. And most

of them are doing it gracefully. Even so, there is a sizable minority of

stepfamilies in America that are not doing well at all. A variety of

studies have demonstrated that stepkids do more poorly on a variety of

measures than do kids who live in traditional, two-parent families­even

adjusting for income level. They are more apt to repeat a grade in

school, have disciplinary problems, and drop out of school altogether. In

fact, these studies collectively indicate that stepchildren do about as

well as kids who live with a single parent, which is to say much worse

than kids in traditional nuclear families.

 

And that's not the worst of it. According to extensive research by Martin

Daly and Margo Wilson of McMaster University in Ontario, stepchildren are

more likely to be abused, both physically and sexually, and even more

likely to be killed by a parent­100 times as likely­compared with kids

being raised by two biological parents. Another line of research

indicates that they are less likely to be provided for. For example,

American children living with a stepparent are less likely to go to

college and to receive family financial support if they do. New research

also shows that biological mothers around the world spend more of family

income on food­particularly milk, fruit, and vegetables­and less on

tobacco and alcohol, compared with mothers raising nonbiological

children. The list goes on.

 

Unsolved mysteries. Just why these families fare so poorly as a group is

a matter of dispute. It's widely accepted that kids in single-parent

families have troubles at least in part because the parent­usually the

mother­has money problems following divorce. Facing financial

difficulties, she is more apt to be absent­actually or emotionally. But

remarriage doesn't seem to ameliorate the children's problems. And while

few doubt that the dislocating effects of the initial divorce contribute

to the situation, many experts believe that these experiences cannot

fully account for the problems.

 

Experts offer several ideas about what might be going on. For example,

unsuccessful stepfamilies often overromanticize the new family. What

psychologist Bray calls "romantic" stepfamilies picture themselves as the

idealized nuclear family, and they do whatever they can to fit into that

mold­usually with unhappy results. The main problem, Bray says, is that

in their impatience to be seen as traditional, these families push things

that should evolve slowly. In most families, for example, family members

spend a fair amount of time apart, more and more so as the kids become

teenagers. Romantic stepfamilies, on the other hand, spend a lot of time

in forced camaraderie, and teens are especially quick to detect the

falseness. The decidedly unromantic Kris Allen wasn't even comfortable

being photographed for this article taking a walk with his parents. A

friend asked him, "So, Kris, you mean that photographer dude tried to

make you act normal doing stuff with your parents that you'd never do?"

Kris: "Yeah. Like I'd ever be walking on the beach with my parents!" In

extreme cases, stepfamilies actually pretend they are nuclear families,

hiding their step-status from schools, for example. And the bottom line

is that they break up at a higher rate than other stepfamilies.

 

The problem, experts say, is that stepfamilies are not nuclear

families­even if they wish they were­and trying to squeeze into that mold

can backfire. According to historian Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way

We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America's Changing Families,

stepfamilies are not a new phenomenon in American life, but the dynamics

have changed in important ways. Before divorce rates exploded in the

1970s, stepfamilies were usually formed after the death of a parent, and

those stepfamilies could in effect create a second nuclear family. But

modern stepfamilies are mostly the product of divorce (or out-of-wedlock

births), and it's nearly impossible for these families to fit the

traditional mold. Most have to deal with ex-spouses­the "ghost at the

dinner table," in one expert's phrasing­and often with the exes' new

families as well. These interactions can be complex under the most

congenial circumstances, and more often than not the circumstances are

not congenial. Meg Schlefer has found that humor goes a long way in

navigating the tricky territory of step-relationships. When she's trying

to get her stepdaughters to attend to chores, for example, she'll say:

"Your wart-covered, foul-smelling, evil stepmother asks you, 'Please

clean your room.' "

 

Biological nuclear families form gradually, allowing a couple time to

negotiate rules, responsibilities, and traditions before children come

along. But in stepfamilies these processes unfold helter-skelter. From

the point of view of the child, it can seem that one life has been torn

away and replaced with another­and all without the child's vote. Jerry

Kaiser, for example, was 10 when his widowed mother remarried. Seemingly

overnight, he inherited two older siblings and had to share a room with

one of them in a strange house. Perhaps most disconcerting, he lost his

name and the name of the father he grieved for. He was Jerry Cohen one

day, Jerry Kaiser the next. He was never clear on what he was supposed to

call his stepfather­nobody ever told him­so he simply avoided addressing

him at all. "I got very good," Kaiser recalls, "at positioning myself in

the room so I didn't have to call him Norm or Dad."

 

If stepfamiles shouldn't pretend they're traditional intact families, how

should they act? Nobody really knows, including stepparents. In one

recent research project, adults were asked to rank various roles

according to their importance as sources of their sense of self. Not

surprisingly, "parent" topped the list, but "stepparent" ranked extremely

low, below such identities as neighbor, in-law, or churchgoer. Because of

the low regard accorded stepparenting, it's not surprising that many

stepparents are tempted to put more of their time and energy into other

roles, making their presence in the new family shadowy at best. But this

can set in motion a vicious circle: When a stepparent lacks a clear

mandate as the authority figure within the family, he or she may err on

the side of disciplining too much­or too little, withdrawing from that

traditional parental role completely. The result may be that the

stepchildren receive less attention, monitoring, and supervision than

children in nuclear families.

 

Being somewhat disengaged as a stepparent isn't always bad, however. The

third type of stepfamily to emerge from Bray's study is what he calls

"matriarchal" stepfamilies, and as the name suggests, the mother plays

the dominant parent- ing role in these families. Matriarchal stepfamilies

often come into existence when a single mom finally remarries; since she

has been carrying the full parenting load, perhaps for several years, she

often simply continues to do so. These stepfamilies usually do best when

the new stepfather takes a somewhat marginal role; this is especial- ly

true if the stepchildren are teenagers, who are just beginning the

psychological process of distancing themselves from parental authority.

Indeed, matriarchal stepfamilies are more likely to experience problems

when circumstances force the new father into a disciplinary role with

which he is unfamiliar or uncomfortable.

 

WHEN PAUL AND GALE HAL- pern decided to end their marriage, Paul expected

he would at least have some kind of continuing relationship with their

1-year-old daughter, Laurie. Although he was not the girl's biological

father, he felt that he had been a committed "psychological parent": He

had coached Gale through the birth and cut the umbilical cord; his name

was on the birth certificate, evidence of the couple's intention to raise

the child together. And he had been a stay-at-home dad since Laurie's

birth. Indeed, she had even called him "Daddy."

 

No relationship. But when Paul Halpern petitioned for visitation rights,

the California courts denied his request in what has become an

often-cited legal landmark. Because he was a stepparent during the

marriage, the dissolution of that union made him nothing more than a

"nonparent" in the eyes of the court. The judge dismissed Paul and his

claims with this terse comment: "He absolutely has no relationship to the

child bloodwise or otherwise, and I can't accept I should burden all of

the parties in this matter, including Mr. Halpern, with conflicts,

struggles, and disruptions for years to come because of Mr. Halpern's

present emotional state in connection with the child."

 

The Halpern case took place nearly two decades ago, but it has remained a

symbol in the legal profession of the gross disregard and lack of

protective laws that beset stepparents and stepfamilies. Sadly, the shaky

status of stepparents is just as much a fact of life today as it was in

the Halperns' time. Indeed, it is now under fresh assault: Conservative

critics have recently embraced the sweeping biological indictment of

stepfamilies proposed by evolutionary psychologists, who contend that

parents have evolved over eons to care only about the welfare of their

genetic offspring. The critics are using the scientific theory as

ammunition to lobby for stronger "pro-family" social policies. If

stepfamilies are so unnatural from a genetic point of view that they

imperil children's welfare, the argument goes, then anything that can be

done to prevent divorce and preserve traditional families ought to be.

This includes a number of ideas proffered by the nascent "marriage

movement"­from pro-marriage tax policies to the so-called covenant

marriages that are intended to make divorce (and thus remarriage) more

difficult.

 

Biological determinists represent a minority viewpoint in family-policy

debates. Other social critics contend that if there is a genetic

predisposition that favors biological children over stepchildren, it's

just that­a predisposition­and predisposition is not destiny. Creating

social policies that keep unhappy families trapped in the same house,

these critics argue, would be wrongheaded and far more risky

psychologically than life in a stepfamily. What's needed, these critics

argue, is not more stigmatizing of stepfamilies, but rather policies that

strengthen stepfamilies and reduce any risks that might exist.

 

Changes in their legal status are one possibility. Like domestic

partners, stepparents currently have almost no legal standing in most

states, which means that even when they assume responsibility for their

stepchildren­supporting them emotionally and financially, for

example­they have no corresponding rights. If the marriage ends, the

stepparent has no legal standing to ask for custody or visitation.

Similarly, stepchildren rarely have rights­to life insurance benefits,

for example­or, if the marriage ends, to continued support or

inheritance. Existing family law has been challenged in various ways in

different localities, but the resulting legal rulings have been

inconsistent. In a case now pending before the Supreme Court, a child's

grandparents are suing for visitation rights, but some legal experts

believe that a ruling for the grandparents could be interpreted as an

affirmation of stepparents' rights as well.

 

Many family experts are now arguing for legislation that explicitly

spells out both the rights and responsibilities of stepparents, perhaps

modeled on England's Children Act of 1989. That law gives stepparents who

have been married to a child's parent for at least two years the right to

petition the court for a "residence order," which conveys many of the

same rights and responsibilities as the biological parents'. Children in

these stepfamilies in effect have legal relationships with three adults:

both biological parents and the stepparent. The theory is that giving the

stepparent enhanced status will legitimate his or her role, both in the

family and in society, and that the very process of asking for rights and

responsibilities will bolster the stepparent-stepchild bond. (The law

only went into effect in 1991, so its effects are not yet known.)

 

Cultural connection. Ultimately, the changes that will strengthen

stepfamilies will likely come from shifts in cultural prejudices. Such

change is slow, but there are signs that some preliminary movement along

this line is beginning to take place. For instance, Roger Coleman, a

clergyman in Kansas City, Mo., performs marriage ceremonies specifically

designed to include children when a parent remarries. In years of

officiating second marriages, he says, he became acutely aware of the

confusion and insecurities of the children, and the ceremony­which

includes a special medallion worn by the child­aims to celebrate the "new

family" and move the church beyond mere condemnation of divorce. This

year, Coleman says, over 10,000 families across the country will use the

medallion in their remarriage ceremony.

 

Similar changes are occurring in public schools around the country. One

of the difficulties for stepfamilies is that schools and other public

institutions have typically not recognized the stepparent as a legitimate

parent; school registration forms, field trip permission slips, health

emergency information­none of these required or acknowledged the

stepparent. The message, whether intended or not, has been that only

biological parents count. It's a message that the stepparent and

stepchild internalize, undermining what's often an already difficult

relationship, and one which the larger community takes as another sign of

the stepfamily's illegitimacy in American society. Through the efforts of

the Stepfamily Association of America and other advocates, schools around

the country have begun changing their policies to acknowledge the

increasingly important role of stepparents.

 

Change is also evident in a marketplace eager to exploit this wide social

trend. In a particularly American sign of the times, the Hallmark

greeting card company, that longtime arbiter of normalcy, is about to

launch a line of cards devoted entirely to nontraditional families. The

cards never use the word "step," but most of the "Ties That Bind" line is

clearly aimed at people who have come together by remarriage rather than

biology­or, as one card puts it, "Thrown together without being asked, no

chance of escape." Some are straightforward ("There are so many different

types and ways to be a family today"), while others are more elliptical

("It's like looking at a puzzle where the pieces aren't where they used

to be"). But all are aimed at the vast and growing market of people who

don't identify with the old definitions of family, and who­like the

Mickas and Kaisers and Allens and Schlefers­are finding ways to make

their new families work. Who knows­soon there may even be a card Tori La

Londe can send to her ex-husband's ex-mother-in-law.