By Araceli Alvarez
Mary Anne's son from her first marriage is getting married for the second time. His fiancée has her kids for the weekend, so they're coming, plus Dad's cousin Phyllis is bringing her girlfriend and she's bringing her kids -- and Grandpa met this nice woman in rehab and they're both coming. So I'm afraid Dad would be pretty hurt if I didn't show up because I think he was hoping to have a traditional family dinner of his own."
This is the way the youngest daughter in the NBC comedy "Something So Right" explains to her mom and stepfather the plans for the upcoming weekend with her biological father. Boston Globe reporter Renee Graham says this television sitcom which tackles divorce and stepfamilies is more realistic than the 1960s "Brady Bunch" which conveniently eliminated the new couple's first spouses.
The American family has experienced rapid and dramatic changes over the past several years. Divorce rather than death of a spouse has become the most common reason for remarriage, and stepfamilies have become a reality for millions of Americans.
Writing in The Encyclopedia of Marriage, Divorce, and the Family, Margaret DeCanio says by 1990 stepfamilies outnumbered biological families in the United States, and three out of every five divorcing couples had at least one child. More than a million children every year are involved in a divorce, and nearly three-fourths of all divorced people remarry within three years from the time their divorce is final. According to these statistics, approximately 1,300 new stepfamilies are formed each day.
In a society which celebrates its different cultures, customs and religions, stepfamilies face great conflicts and must compromise in order to stay together.
Second marriages which involve children often occur for reasons other than romance. Some single parents marry for companionship. Others may feel a need to provide a home for their children with two resident parents. Still others may not be able to manage financially with children and therefore marry for security. DeCanio found that remarried couples indicated dealing with the children involved was more difficult than solving financial problems, the number one problem for most married couples.
Similarly, children with more than two parent figures in their lives often have problems, feeling disloyal, jealous, neglected or simply confused about their identity. The demands of time and energy made by children sometimes leave both biological and stepparents also feeling frustrated, jealous and neglected.
Ilene Springer, a writer for Good Housekeeping, says, "Stepparents have more than their share of tension in trying to resettle the nest… If a stepfamily gives itself time to adjust (usually two to four years), the stress will gradually reduce and the new family is likely to succeed."
El Pasoan Martin Terrazas, a remarried father with two noncustodial children, says his current spouse finds adapting to the different behavioral patterns among his children "very difficult." Stepparents who have nonresidential biological children face the problem of balancing their personal resources, and sometimes they are tempted to treat their biological children preferentially when they see them. Researcher James Bray found that after three years, 30 percent of stepfamilies had a new baby and a possible new problem of preferential treatment.
R.M. Becerra in the book Mental Health and Hispanic Americans reminds stepfamilies that some cultures, including Hispanics, tend to look upon their extended families with great pride. Family boundaries must be flexible enough to allow children to be close to relatives of the former marriage, not only the ex-spouse, but grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The ability to negotiate and schedule time that children spend with this extended family serves stepfamilies well, especially when dealing with holidays and vacations.
Children need to know that only some rules change in a remarriage, not all of them. When he remarried, Terrazas had to help his children from his previous marriage adapt to his current life with his new wife and son. He says, "We have all discussed 'what's mine' and 'what's yours,' and the standards of the entire household." Space, privacy and belongings need to be negotiated so all family members know what is expected of them. Children should share in the discussion and have some voice in decisions.
Disciplining the children in a blended family also can cause problems. Couples must decide whether only the biological parent has the right to discipline or whether the responsibility will be shared with their new partners. Children often resent a stepparent disciplining them, and the classic "You're not my mother [or father]" phrase becomes a litany.
In a recent interview, El Pasoan Susan Chavez said, "My boys didn't want Robert, my present husband, to discipline them. They would get mad and behave even worse when I wasn't around and then come crying to me, wanting me to take sides." She adds, "It was very stressful, and I found myself not wanting to come home from work to see what had happened that day."
Circumstances often get better as time passes. Chavez says, "Now we have a daughter together and the boys love Robert. They seem to realize that he treats all of them the same. They go crying to him now when I discipline them."
Cultural differences often pose problems. Something seemingly small, such as food preferences, may cause difficulties in stepfamilies. El Pasoan Adrianna Mosqueda, a Hispanic mother who will soon remarry to a non-Hispanic, worries: "I'm a little nervous about fixing dinner because he doesn't like any Mexican food, and that's what my children and I are used to."
Even more important are religious beliefs and values. El Paso has a high number of Catholics, many of them divorced and remarried or planning to remarry. In early March of this year, the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family announced that divorced Catholics are not to engage in sex, not even in a new marriage. For Catholics, marriage is a sacrament, not just a legal contract, and as such it can only be dissolved through annulment by the church. Divorced Catholics also are not supposed to receive communion. These official pronouncements can make the parents in stepfamilies feel guilty and isolated from their traditional religion and make teaching values and religious tenets difficult. Terrazas says, "We are only human, and whether you're Catholic or not, religion comes from within yourself. No matter what the church says, …it is not their place to say what to do in a marriage." Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Mary Rourke says many priests off the record give their parishioners advice contrary to the official teachings of the Catholic Church.
In a multicultural area like El Paso, differences often do not appear as problems until a family goes through major upheavals like divorce and remarriage. As stepfamilies become more the norm than the exception, all parties must learn the arts of negotiation and compromise in order to form new, lasting relationships.
The next time introductions get underway at a family gathering, parents, children and guests may just want to shake hands with each other and not try to figure out who really "belongs" to whom. As one remarried father says about his stepchildren, "I am just one more person who loves them, and no one can ever have too much love."