It was Brandy Van Zitter's elementary school graduation, a seemingly commonplace family celebration. Since she became part of a stepfamily, however, it took 2 1/2 years of putting hurt feelings aside and learning to cooperate before getting two biological parents, two stepparents, and a variety of aunts, uncles and cousins in the same room at the same time.
The turning point wasn't lost on the youngster.
"It used to be lonely, having parties without one of my parents. Graduation made me feel good, because my parents could be on good terms, not like before, when they used to argue a lot," said Brandy, 12. With sister Kelly, 10, she shuttles between the Corona home of her mother and stepfather, Louise and Roy Van Broekhuizen, and the Cerritos residence of her father and stepmother, Peter and Ceci Van Zitter.
Like growing numbers of American youngsters, Brandy and Kelly are navigating stepfamily life. Some experts believe as many as one-third of all children born in the 1980s may live with a stepparent before reaching age 18.
But determining just how many of today's children are stepchildren is problematic because there are no statistics on "unofficial" stepfamilies, where a child's biological parent lives with a new partner without marriage. However, surveying married couples, demographer Paul C. Glick of Arizona State University found that 8.78 million children under age 18, or nearly 1-in-5, live in stepfamilies.
Once, social scientists believed these remarried families resembled nuclear families. However, as researchers and clinicians shed light on today's stepfamilies, what emerges is a highly complex family forum, with members sometimes struggling for years to forge relationships and negotiate between households.
"I was surprised at how long it takes (stepfamilies) to work things out. In most stepfamilies, there are enduring differences in parent-child relationships and how children relate to stepparents," says James H. Bray, associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who for nearly seven years has conducted a longitudinal stepfamily study.
Although many describe being part of a stepfamily as a rewarding experience, most agree it rarely resembles "The Brady Bunch."
Consider the obstacles. In first marriages, adults have time to gradually come to know each other, resolve differences, prepare for the birth of each child, and develop family routines and philosophies.
In contrast, "in a remarriage with children, you are bringing two cultures together," says clinical psychologist Patricia Papernow, a stepfamily specialist in Cambridge, Mass. "All of a sudden you are slammed together. Everything is up for grabs, from how you celebrate Christmas to the size of the kids' allowances, how much television viewing is appropriate and whether it's OK to leave wet towels on the bathroom floor.
"These seemingly small details are the threads holding our daily lives together, and it feels as though our lives are unraveling."
Mental health professionals believe many of these difficulties are avoidable. Through increased education, therapists and researchers maintain, stepfamily relationships can improve greatly.
Here are seven problem areas stepfamilies may wish to be aware of, which emerged from interviews with experts and stepfamilies nationwide:
One big happy family: Whether through divorce or death, therapists note, stepfamilies are born out of loss. Adults dream of blissful marital happiness, a magical "blending" of two families, with members instantly loving one another. Children, on the other hand, fantasize about reuniting biological parents or returning to the days of sharing a close relationship with a single parent.
Rather than forcing constant togetherness, experts report, many of the most successful stepfamilies preserve individuality.
"If you find a family that's 'blended,' someone got creamed," says psychologist Papernow, who thinks family members need time apart, even if the breaks are small. Couples should spend some time away from children; biological parents need one-to-one time with each child; stepparents need individual time with each stepchild; and stepsiblings need activities without parental involvement.
Shaping up the kids: A prevalent myth, therapists agree, is that the new couple should provide a united front and act as instant parents to each other's children. Actually, this may be the worst approach, because "it takes many children a long time to accept stepparents as active parents," said Bray of the Baylor College of Medicine.
"My research indicates the most important thing stepparents can do, from the beginning, is function like an aunt or baby-sitter. Discipline should be left to the biological parent," said Bray.
In this stage, Papernow advises, Mom or Dad should sit down with the kids and explain, "You know my rules, and when I am not here, it is up to your stepdad/mom to see that you follow my rules."