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Navigating the Challenges of Blended Families

Smiling Mother Holding Baby Up in Front of Her

Like any mother with a newborn and three older kids, Michelle Schultz is exhausted. "Just having that extra child who can't do anything for himself makes everything really hectic," says Schultz, who lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, and spends much of her day on the road, chauffeuring her older kids to tennis, soccer, and ballet.

It sounds like the life of a typical soccer mom until you add in the fact that hers is a blended family, with a 6- and an 8-year-old from her husband's previous marriage, a 4-year-old from her own former marriage, and a baby son that she and her second husband had together. Not only is Schultz on the road for after-school activities, but she's also constantly carpooling the kids to their other parents' houses.

About 75 percent of the 1.2 million Americans who divorce each year eventually remarry. Most have children, and, like Schultz, they find that stepfamily life is more complex than they ever imagined. It's rife with complicated schedules, squabbling stepsiblings, issues with ex-partners, and new spouses who've never been parents trying out childcare.

Yet the flip side of life as a stepfamily is that there are many opportunities for joyful interactions. "Most stepparents genuinely grow to feel affection for the kids in their care, and the kids usually learn to accept and return the affection," says therapist Judy Osborne, director of the Stepfamily Association in Brookline, Massachusetts. "And because you have to work hard in a stepfamily to build relationships, it often ends up that everyone learns a lot about trust, safety, and love."

How do you make it through those rocky beginnings? These tips from stepfamilies and experts may help smooth your way.

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.

Once you've put your parenting house in order, turning it into a loving, well-blended home is another task entirely. Stepfamilies need time together in order to bond and figure out the new relationships, a tall order when you consider visitation and custody schedules.

But you don't have to carve out enormous blocks of time to connect with one another. Reading a story together every night before bed or taking a weekly trip to the playground as a family helps children feel loved and listened to, cornerstones of harmonious family life.

And because kids in blended families may spend lots of time moving from house to house, establishing return rituals is another way to smooth the transition and show them you're not just Daddy's new wife -- you're also a caregiver. This is a strategy Schultz employs. "When we do a house switch, we always stop for ice cream on the way home. It gives us all some grace time before jumping into a different routine," she says. It also turns a potentially anxiety-provoking transition into a fun family ritual the kids eagerly look forward to.

Remember, too, that "the most important relationship to nurture in any stepfamily is between the adult partners," says Erwin. In fact, putting more energy and effort into coupledom may improve your relationships with all the children, who will begin to see you as a strong, united front instead of two bewildered (or even squabbling) individuals. To accomplish this goal, you need to set aside time alone with your partner to discuss family issues. At each meeting, pick the two most important problems you've been having and brainstorm solutions. At the end of each meeting, do something special: Give each other backrubs, or watch a movie to reward yourselves. And schedule regular date nights and weekends away when kid-related topics are off limits. All of this planning, scheduling, and communicating is tough but worth it, says Schultz, who feels that learning from past relationship mistakes makes couples in stepfamilies better able to weather family storms. "We know that you need to work hard to make a happy marriage and family," she says.

No matter how hard you work on household harmony within your own four walls, however, it's important that you do the same with ex-partners. Research shows that one of the primary sources of children's problems after a divorce is the inability of parents to keep their negative feelings about their ex (or their ex's new partner) to themselves. "Remember, children take their emotional cues from their parents," says Engel. "Negative comments about what goes on in that other household just makes it harder on your kids," she adds.

In a perfect world, the rules and values in each of your child's homes would be identical. In the real world, the most practical way of handling inevitable household differences is to choose what's most important to you and compromise when necessary. "Be the best parent you can be, and give your ex the benefit of the doubt when you can," says Engel. Of course, sometimes ex-partners are vested in keeping a fight going. Schultz, for instance, has found it tough to deal with the mother of her stepdaughters, who has not gotten past the bitterness of her divorce. "But I'm not giving up," she says. "I really think it's best for our kids if we can get along, so I just keep trying to be nice." Most important, adds Engel, keep your own home as peaceful and structured as possible, no matter how fierce a battle zone your ex tries to create.

The most unpredictable part of the blended family equation may well be how the kids deal with one another. The truth is, many children consider new stepsiblings a nuisance or even a threat. Your 2-year-old may feel dethroned if she finds herself living with a cute 1-year-old brother, and your 4-year-old may resent the fact that his kindergartner stepsister gets to color on the big-kid worksheets.

Interestingly, one of the best strategies you can employ to make sure stepsiblings get along is to recognize that a blended family is a family within a family -- and that you and your kids need your own time together. Respecting and cherishing your original family helps kids realize that they're still special and not just part of a bigger group. So take off for the zoo with your 3-year-old, just the two of you. And let your partner do the same with his kids.

As much as you want each child to feel special, you also want them all to feel they're getting equal treatment. This is often difficult, because multiple homes frequently mean multiple opportunities for gifts and activities. It's hard for a 3-year-old to see her stepsister come home with a new Barbie from her grandma and not want one herself. According to experts, trying to even out these kinds of situations is a losing battle. "It's impossible for everything to be equal in any household," says Erwin. The best way for you to handle this challenge is to be equal when you can be -- spend the same amount on each child for holiday gifts, for example, and stand firm on your decision to say no to an extra gift even if a stepsibling gets one more from her mom.

Of course, adding a new baby to the blend creates a whole other set of kid-related situations as family positions shift once again. As wonderful as a new baby is, there's no guarantee that the stepkids will be thrilled by his arrival and embrace him immediately. "For instance, if the children are younger than 5 and have felt neglected by their noncustodial parent or by a stepparent, they may feel intense jealousy," says Osborne. "But young children with good relationships with their parents and stepparents will most likely react the same way all young children react to a new sibling: with a mixture of jealousy and affection."

Experts say that babies are good for your marriage; stepparents who have not had children may find that adding a baby diminishes issues with stepchildren or ex-spouses because now they appreciate the parent-child bond firsthand. And regardless of how many kids there are, or which parents are also stepparents, a new arrival adds a unique intimacy to a family. "A baby definitely makes life more challenging, but our son seems to have brought everyone closer," says Schultz. "He's a link between all of us."

In the end, the most comforting piece of advice about blending families is this: A blended family is a family, first and foremost. The more parenting experiences you gain, the more mistakes you make and learn from, the better you become at being a parent, stepparent, and spouse. The result? A happier, well-adjusted, well-blended family.

Holly Robinson is the mother in a blended family of five children.