February 19, 1999|By KATE COLEMAN

Patricia Robinson is a stepparent. She also is a pastoral counselor and a certified professional counselor, but, despite her training, when the situation is personal, it can be hard to be objective, she says.

Robinson married her husband, Dexter Robinson, a widower with two teenage sons 16 years ago. They had dated for three years, and she says the boys knew her well. But marrying their father was "another whole ball game," she says. "I changed things in the house. It was different," says Robinson, who also is an ordained minister.

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"Happily ever after" doesn't always happen. Sometimes parents die, and their spouses remarry. Forty to 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce, according to Patrick Hammett, a Frederick, Md., licensed clinical social worker. Fifty to 60 percent of second marriages end in divorce, and 75 percent of those second marriages have children, Hammett says.

What makes a stepfamily work?


Realistic expectations and patience are essential. "This is not going to be a family in the sense that you want it to be from day one," says Robinson, who is associate chaplain at Brook Lane Health Services. Don't expect your stepchildren to call you "Mother," Robinson says.

Hammett, who is a stepparent himself, advises people to join the Stepfamily Association of America. Support groups also can be helpful, he says.

It takes time to adjust. It can be four or five years before a stepfamily gels, according to statistics that Hammett has seen. It takes awhile to make new friends at school, yet we expect instant love from step-siblings, Robinson says.

Teens actually are more upset by divorce than younger kids, Hammett says. They have come to count on particular guidelines and a base of operation as well as dealing with all the teen issues.

A stepparent has the hardest job in the world, says Sybil Schiffman, a licensed professional and nationally certified counselor at Blue Ridge Counseling Services in Martinsburg, W.Va. He or she is in a dance with two biological parents and the child.

Often, problems from the first marriage follow you, Hammett says. He recalls a bumper sticker that illustrates his point: "Ex-wife in trunk." He recommends counseling even as a person is coming out of divorce, thinking about choices before they are made. "You have to deal with the loss first," he says.

Most kids haven't dealt with the divorce of a parent before a parent is in a new relationship or remarriage, Schiffman says.

The child always will have two parents, Schiffman says. If a parent has died, the remarrying partner doesn't have to deal with visitation or the bitterness or distrust of divorce, but there is the child's sorrow and the permanence of the loss. Children also can idealize the deceased parent, Robinson says.

Robinson got books from the library and learned as much about stepfamilies as she could. She also says she coped by taking a lot of long walks.

A stepparent has to understand that he or she has no history with the stepchild, Schiffman says. But they can begin to develop a special history. Schiffman says she is a big believer in rituals. A stepfamily has to create its own rituals to bond.

Looking at old pictures, seeing her stepsons as babies and learning their history was something that helped Robinson. She made photo albums for each of them, and says it was a healing process for her and appreciated by her stepsons.

It took time for them to understand that she wasn't trying to replace their mother, but she was in their lives, too. "We really are family now," Robinson says.

Schiffman adapts something she heard an adopted child say on a television talk show. "My parents gave me life. My adoptive parents gave me a future."

Stepfamilies can make their own futures. It's not easy to work through it, Schiffman says. But it's worth the effort.

Schiffman says she has watched kids in stepfamilies grow. She has watched stepfamilies grow and bond. "Stepparenting can be wonderful. It really can be," she says.

Stepparenting tips & resources

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