Setting Up House
It typically takes between two and five years for a stepfamily to establish itself, according to Osborne and other experts, so in the beginning everyone's in for a bumpy ride. For example, your child-rearing role as Dad's girlfriend will be entirely different when you become a stepmother; a child who viewed you as a playmate may have trouble swallowing your discipline. Or, antics your partner found amusing on weekend visits with your toddler may lose their charm once you're all living together. Just ask Misty Morgan of Rancho Santa Fe, California. "When I fell in love with my husband, Brad, I also fell for his 2-year-old daughter, Bailey," says Morgan. "At first, I was a glamorous babysitter," she says. "But once we were married, the glamour quickly rubbed off."
One of Morgan's biggest surprises was that Brad was hesitant to discipline his daughter. "When it came to Bailey's wants, Brad couldn't say no, and that made me really mad, especially when he let her sleep with us all the time," Morgan remembers. That's when she realized that if she wanted her new family to work, she'd have to shed her glorified babysitter role and act more like a parent. In order to make the stepfamily transition smoothly, it's vital that you and your spouse sit down and hash out your child-rearing and discipline expectations.
Kids need parental consistency, or they become confused and insecure. It's little wonder, then, that "one of the greatest sources of tension in stepfamilies is dealing with discipline," says therapist Cheryl Erwin, coauthor of Positive Discipline for Your Stepfamily (Prima). "Research shows that young children learn trust when they experience fair, effective discipline. Disagreements between parents about discipline often invite manipulation from the kids, who quickly learn to pit adults against one another to get what they want."
Experts suggest that you and your partner develop a list of values you both want to teach, such as responsibility and honesty. Then tackle your beliefs on parenting. For example, you may think that time-out is an effective discipline tool, while your partner may feel it's a wimpy way out. Next, draft a list of household rules, such as how much TV the kids are allowed to watch. Once you're both clear on each other's opinions, you can discuss discipline problems and what strategies you can use that will be effective for your family and that honor everyone's beliefs. That strategy worked for Morgan. She and her husband brainstormed together to find the perfect way to get Bailey to sleep on her own. "We decided to put a 'fairy tree' in her room. Every time she spent the whole night in her room, we gave her a fairy to hang on it," Morgan says. "After only 12 fairies, we had our bed to ourselves again."
Of course, developing a strategy seems like child's play compared with following it, and it can be particularly difficult for a new stepparent to start laying down the law. "Early on, the children's biological parents should take responsibility for enforcing rules whenever possible, with the stepparent acting as deputy," says Marjorie Engel, PhD, president of the Stepfamily Association of America.