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Blended families more common, but the 'step' in 'stepmom' still carries a stigma
In fact, stepfamilies can take years to form the emotional bonds taken for granted in other nuclear families.
"When two people fall in love and get married, you can't assume the kids will love each other, too," said Paula Bisacre, a Howard County therapist who married a widower eight years ago, forming a blended family with five children.
Her stepchildren refer to her by her first name, as her children do with her husband. Today Bisacre runs a Web site for stepfamilies called Remarriageworks.com.
"At the end of the day, if everyone in a stepfamily is respectful of each other and caring, that's true success," she said.
Some therapists argue the language can be a hurdle, and even some of the euphemisms for stepfamily are under attack.
"A lot of experts feel the term 'blended family' gives people the false hope that his and her kids can mix together, and everything will be one new formation" said Brenda Ockun, who began publishing StepMom magazine after she became one.
More commonly, she added, "People come together with their own traditions and history, and in trying to define the new stepfamily, they struggle to determine what it's supposed to look like. Calling them a blended family can create pressure to instantly bond and look like the first family."
The struggle can last for years, said Tracy Cacho of Upper Marlboro. Her six stepchildren have used various terms to describe her since she met and married their father, a widower. She said she sees her role not as their mother, or as a friend, but as an adult around to support them.
The nomenclature varies with the situation. The children, now ages 9 to 19, sometimes introduce her to friends as their mom, she said. Alone in the house, they usually call her Tracy. And when she disciplines them, they call her their stepmother, a word that she says confers on her a status one rung lower than "mom."
Whenever Cacho calls their teacher or physician's office, however, she says she's calling on behalf of her kids.
"I'm okay with the term stepmother," said Cacho, who often blogs on her stepfamily experience. "That's what I am. In the beginning, it hurt. I play the role of mom. But that's how they define me, as their stepmother. Being in a stepfamily, you have to pick and choose your own battles. At the end of the day, I'm a stepmother."