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Step-families aren’t families in the traditional sense, so let’s ban the idealistic language and get realistic about second marriages with children, says Wednesday Martin.
“Natural family.” “Failed marriage.” “Broken family.” “New wife.” “Stepmonster.”
Living, researching and writing about step-family life for over a decade, I’ve witnessed the power of words to shape attitudes and feelings. “Wicked stepmother” can bring the most loving, self-confident woman with step-kids to her knees. The dated and Dickensian “broken family,” still popular in the British press, perpetuates the inaccurate, damaging view that children and adults can never recover from divorce. “Co-wives,” a trendy term for ex-wives and “new wives” who put aside their differences to “co-parent the kids,” suggests something much creepier – that step-family life is akin to polygamy and that the ladies should be not only united caretakers but also BFFs. Ewww!
With one in three people in the UK now a step-parent, step-child, adult step-child, step-sibling or step-grandparent, can we please resolve to clean up our language in 2013? Top of the hit list: blended family.
What’s wrong with that? you ask. It has an upbeat and optimistic sound. It’s supportive and non-judgmental. Right? Actually, for those who live in step-families, the term and all it implies are like poison.
Why blended is damaging
Ignorance about the reality of step-family life is what sinks the up to 72 per cent of remarriages with children that end in divorce. Consider a typical story:
Hopeful that he is “fixing” the emotional pain he and his kids have been through, a divorced dad remarries – mostly likely, statistics tell us, before his ex-wife does. Dad and his bride might feel her role is to help heal emotional scars, set the family on course, and be “another mother”.
In this powerful and common fantasy, parent, kids of any age and step-parent don’t just get along. They “blend” into a semblance of a first family, with the step-parent “loving those kids just like they’re my own” and the kids returning the sentiment.
Who can blame them for their high hopes? After all, anyone in a remarriage with kids has likely been bludgeoned with the term and the idea by the media, well-intentioned friends, books on the topic of “blended family life” and even therapists who specialise in treating “blended families”.
It’s hard to imagine a more harmful concept. Because re-partnership with children or adult children is anything but an ambrosial smoothie. The dad who wants his kids to love his new wife as much as he does quickly realises they don’t. The step-mother with good intentions often becomes a target for resentment about all the changes in their lives, and is frequently blamed for their mother’s unhappiness, too.
Reaching out to the kids (or their mum) to bridge the gap can backfire, creating feelings of failure and disappointment that in turn stress the couple. Indeed, it may come as a surprise to the general public (and a relief to stepfamilies) to learn that conflict is the rule, rather than the exception, in the first years of step-family life.
These “family” members are more likely to argue, seethe with jealousy or simply distrust one other than they are to meld into a happy mix right away. It’s normal. But thanks to the “blended” paradigm, they are bound to wonder, “What are we doing wrong? Why don’t we feel like a first family?” Why aren’t we blended yet?
Let’s Break It Down
First of all, step-families are not precisely families. They bring together a cast of characters, often under one roof, who aren’t related and may have been raised in entirely different ways. Second, step-families often span two households, with kids making potentially stressful trips back and forth. Third, there’s an ex or deceased spouse in the picture. And fourth, step-kids, step-parents and parents in step-families face social bias and ignorance – the view that they are second best or abnormal.