Achieving 'The Brady Bunch': Blending Real Stepfamilies

By Gormly, Kellie B | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, July 20, 2009 | Go to article overview

Achieving 'The Brady Bunch': Blending Real Stepfamilies


Gormly, Kellie B, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Lisa Spahr of Regent Square, by her own admission, acted in a nasty way toward her stepfathers while growing up, when her mother married several times.

So when Spahr, 35, met her husband -- Rob, 44 -- she was wary about his having four children, three of whom are younger than 18 and live with him. But when she met the younger kids -- Matthew, 8, Austin, 10, and Amanda, 12 -- she felt braver about becoming a stepparent.

"Coming into this, I don't think I would have embarked on this adventure with anybody other than my husband; I would have run away screaming," she says. "When you meet the right person, those fears are expelled to a great degree. ... I knew even before I met the children that his children were also going to be exceptional."

The Spahrs, who got married in May, get the children, who live in Ohio, on weekends. Spahr is facing challenges in her new role as stepmom, but "we're on a path to acceptance."

In an age where about half of marriages end in divorce, blended families are common. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 1,300 stepfamilies are forming every day in America; and that more than 50 percent of American families represent a remarriage or re-coupling. While blended families can be successful, "The Brady Bunch" -- the popular television show from the '70s about a utopian second marriage with six children, three of each sex -- has given people an overly idealistic view of what their stepfamilies should be like, experts say.

"What happens is, it gives the message ... that stepfamilies will just blend together like 'The Brady Bunch,'" Bari Benjamin says. She is a psychotherapist with Squirrel Hill Psychological Services, a division of the Jewish Family & Children's Service. "That was a myth ... and unrealistic. What can happen is people will have a fantasy that everything will fall into place and everybody will get along. ... Generally, that's not the case."

Benjamin doesn't like the popular term "blended family" for that reason: The blending typically doesn't happen quite so smoothly. A relatively successful, peaceful and happy stepfamily might be formed within two years, but the process can take as long as seven years, she says.

"It takes work," she says. "It takes a commitment on the adults' part. It takes a strong parental unit, and also egos that aren't easily bruised."

Elaine Fantle Shimberg, an author in Tampa, says the term "blended family" is broader than it seems.

"I've come to the conclusion that it isn't just when you marry someone who has kids," Shimberg says. Her books include "Blending Families: A Guide for Parents, Stepparents, and Everyone Building a Successful New Family" (Berkley Publishing Group, 1999).

"It's really a blended family whenever two people get together, because you've got your in-laws," Shimberg says. "In a way, we all have a blended family."

Parents and stepchildren will fight, but so do children and biological parents, she says. Likewise, all siblings will bicker, whether they are biological or step-siblings.

Usually, stepfamilies include children who have gone through a loss, like a death or a parent or a divorce. The grief can create anger and resentment toward the new stepparent, Benjamin says.

"This is almost the job of the stepchild," she says. "At some point they will say, 'I don't have to listen to you; you're not my real parent.'"

One of the most difficult stepfamily situations is when a widower remarries, Shimberg says. The children, even adults, might feel strong resentment toward the woman who seems to be crowding out their deceased mother, whose pictures and things may be moved.

In all stepfamily situations, Shimberg says, boys often adjust more easily than girls, especially preteens and teenagers. Women often have confessed to Shimberg that they were ugly toward their stepparents, she says.

Often, children will be accepting of a new partner when their parent starts dating someone, Benjamin says. …

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