Jim Borgeld and Christy DeYoung sat down at the kitchen table last year to announce to their respective kids -- all six of them, all younger than 8 -- that they had decided to get married. They went on to explain what would change and what would not.
Borgeld and DeYoung, both previously divorced, thought they were prepared for a smooth blending of their families. Like many people in their position, they were dead wrong.
"After a first-time marriage, the couple runs off and has a honeymoon," says Marjorie Engel, a psychologist who is president of the Stepfamily Association of America. "But people often forget that when kids are involved, the romantic honeymoon ends with the wedding."
Remarriage is an increasingly common experience in the United States. About a million American children watch a mother or a father get remarried every year. While this may seem to be a largely positive change for these children, in reality remarriage can be a mixed blessing -- or worse. The arrival of a new adult -- often accompanied by a child or two from a previous marriage -- can turn a child's world upside down, prompting fears, creating conflicts and raising doubts about the child's role and status in the family. A new parent's presence raises questions about who's in charge of money and discipline, whose rules will govern the home and what the children need to do to win love and support.
And to make matters even worse, a majority of these remarriages fail -- often very quickly -- forcing half a million children a year to deal with the breakup of a second marriage and to figure out what the next set of new rules will be.
"Twenty or 30 years ago many researchers believed that remarriage would solve all the problems of divorce in terms of a child's well-being," says Andrew Cherlin, a demographer and sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University.
"But after years of study we've been very surprised by the findings."
Those findings lead to two sobering conclusions:
* Remarriages that involve children are more likely than other ones to fail. Couples are naive about the difficulty of building a stepfamily and they often fail to prepare for the stresses, conflicts and problems they will face.
"People planning to remarry when kids are involved don't ask enough questions," says Washington psychologist Richard Mikesell, who specializes in divorce recovery. "They have stars in their eyes and proceed to the altar."
* Children in stepfamilies fare no better--in school, in mental health, in avoiding substance abuse--than do children who live with a single parent.
"People are under the mistaken impression that a remarriage will heal all wounds," says Cherlin, who studies the effects of change on children. "But people in stepfamilies have to work from scratch to get to that point where most first-time families begin."
Little Things Mean a Lot
For the Borgelds, who live in Wyoming, Mich., that kitchen-table meeting was a positive step in building a new family. But within days of their wedding, the trouble began. "You're not my daddy," the four kids from Christy's first marriage told Jim. "You're not my mommy," the two from Jim's told Christy. "You can't tell me what to do," they all said, and "You're taking sides with your own kids."
After a few weeks, the parents made a list, titled "Ten solutions to our most common problems," with Rule No. 1 being: "No hitting." Every time a family member broke a rule, someone would shout "Foul!"
"For a while there, we heard 'Foul' every five minutes," says Christy.
E. Mavis Hetherington, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, has conducted a variety of studies involving more than 700 divorced and remarried families over the past 30 years. She says children have three common reactions to seeing a parental figure replaced or lost: grief over disrupting established family routines; fears of an unknown future; and feelings that their once-predictable lives are now out of control.
The list of "little" things that may change for a child entering a stepfamily can be quite long--and may involve things that are hardly little to a child looking for stability:
* The new stepparent may want to say grace before meals with children who never set foot in church.
* Meal times may be different. And maybe the meals themselves.
* Bedtimes and bedrooms may get switched around. And children may have to share a room with a stranger who has suddenly become a stepbrother or stepsister.
* A new stepparent may repaint the living room or replace the furniture with something "better" than the items that seemed just fine before he or she joined the family.
* Mom or Dad, who used to be home every night, may now be out more often, enjoying an adult social life with a new partner.
According to Mikesell, perhaps the toughest thing for children is simply learning to live with the new people in the house. "It's natural at any age to want to reject a new person [coming] . . . into the household," he said. This is especially true, he says, for children aged 10 to 14: They are less flexible than younger children and more concerned than a 17-year-old, who is probably preparing to leave home soon anyway.
Another expert on the impact of remarriage on children, Lawrence Ganong, makes a child's view of the typical stepfather sound like a distant uncle who arrives for the holidays--and never leaves. "Suddenly, not only is there a strange man sitting on the couch every evening, but he's got control of the television remote, watching his shows, or telling the kids what shows . . . are good or bad--or worse, telling the kids what they can and can't watch," Ganong said.
In a 1989 study, Hetherington found that divorce and remarriage initially causes irritability, depression, poor school performance and other problems for most children. But long-term negative effects vary. Indeed, some children exhibit "remarkable resiliency and in fact benefit from coping with these transitions," she wrote.
But others do not. And in those cases, "the additional stresses of living in a stepfamily often counter any perceived benefits from, say, extra income," says Hetherington.
Creating a stepfamily isn't necessarily easier when the children involved are fewer and older than the Borgeld clan, according to Catherine and Richard Dudley of Lindenwold, N.J.
Catherine, a widow, and her 13-year-old daughter, Chelsea, had a tough time settling in with Richard, a widower, and his 16-year-old daughter, Leslie.
In the first months of the new marriage, Leslie went into a rage nearly every day, and Catherine found herself tiptoeing through the role of stepmother.
Something as simple as the position of a window blind could cause a painful furor. Leslie, whose mother had only recently died after a long illness, exploded when Catherine snapped up the blinds to let in a little light. "Her mother lived with the blinds pulled down," says Catherine. "Leslie went around and pulled them all back down."
Catherine did her best to put her stepdaughter at ease. "Leslie's mom had made three huge, brightly colored pillows," she says. "I made curtains to match them, even though they were colors I could never choose. I was trying to be very careful."
Chelsea adjusted more easily, but not without shouting at one point, "I hate that man!" in reference to her new dad.
"My husband is an optimist," says Catherine. "He stressed over and over again that everything would go all right, that we weren't taking anything away, we were adding [by getting remarried]. But we did not realize the grief the kids would sustain or how much they were losing."
Shortly after the marriage, the family began to seek counseling, and today the three remaining members of the family--Leslie, now in her twenties, is living elsewhere--see a therapist every six months. The sessions help to keep communications channels open in case some large conflict arises.
"I can honestly tell you that I don't know if we would have made it if it hadn't been for stepfamily counseling," says Catherine, who leads a stepfamily support group and serves on the board of the Stepfamily Association of America. "Stepparenting is not for everyone."
Sonya Stagnoli, a Fairfax psychologist who specializes in stepfamily counseling, agrees.
"Everyone is always talking about having a 'blended' family, as if people were some sort of fruit juice drink. There's no such thing. You have individuals suddenly being thrown together and being asked to live as a family. The first step families need to take is to identify all the differences in the new family, to understand the complex dynamics, then learn coping techniques."
"The hardest thing for us surrounds the issue of discipline," says Mireya Edwards, of Fairfax, who married Michael Edwards six months ago. She and her twin boys, aged 12, had lived alone for five years after her divorce from her first husband. "Michael helps them with their homework and drives them around to places they need to go, and they get along fine, but when it comes to discipline, that's when it gets really hard. They say things like, 'You're not my dad. You can't tell me what to do.' "
The boys recently celebrated a birthday and eight friends, all boys, were running wild through the house at the party. The stepfather lost his temper because of the noise. "I often act as mediator," says Mireya Edwards. "I frequently ask myself, 'Whose side should I take?' I tell the boys, 'Your stepfather has never had kids, so we need to teach him to be a dad.' And I tell my husband, 'Boys will be boys. They can be really rambunctious at times.' "
"At first, I used to get very upset," she adds, "but now I stay calm and we try to sit down and discuss things and resolve our problems out in the open as a family. It's not easy, but the future, I think, looks good."
Stagnoli has found that the pressure to get along with the new stepparent often clashes with the child's need for a close link with the father or mother who is no longer part of the home.
"Kids really get pulled by a conflict of loyalties," she says. "They think, 'If I love my stepmom, can I still love my biological mom?' "
While these stresses are largely unavoidable, Stagnoli says, parents can make them much worse.
"Never, never, ever bad-mouth your ex-spouse in front of your child," she says. "Divorced parents often feel they have a right to be angry and to be mean-spirited and they trash the other parent in front of the kids. Both parents are a part of that child. The kid thinks, 'If you're saying something bad about Daddy, then you're saying something bad about me.' "
Mistakes Parents Make
Single parents often remarry to cope with severe pressures: Loneliness. A desire to overcome a failed marriage. The stress of doing too much alone. A father may worry that his children need a maternal influence. A mother may believe her children need a dual income.
Ganong, a University of Missouri professor of human development and family studies, says his 25 years of research on stepfamilies reveals that many people remarry within a few months of finalizing their divorce. "I take longer than that to decide what kind of car to buy," he says.
"Parents rush into the second marriage without building a relationship between the kids and the new adult," he says. "I've talked to a lot of kids who never spent any time alone with the stepparent before the wedding," says Ganong, who interacted with his stepsons for two years before marrying their mother 20 years ago.
Not only do many single parents jump too quickly into a new marriage, they often do so without adequate preparation. Although at least 12 states, including Virginia and Maryland, require couples to seek counseling before divorce, not even one state requires people to seek counseling before marrying again.
"People do almost nothing to prepare for a remarriage," says Ganong. In fact, he says, people tend to not even discuss their intentions with anyone for fear of negative reactions.
"The worst thing we did was not get stepfamily counseling" before the wedding, says Catherine Dudley. "We got marriage counseling, but no one said, 'Hey, let's talk about being a stepfamily.' "
"No specific study shows that kids are the absolute main cause of the failures of remarriages," says Ganong. "But research shows that conflicts in stepfamilies often revolve around children: how to discipline, finances, competition for affection."
In a 20-year project called the Virginia Longitudinal Study of Divorce and Remarriage, Hetherington has tracked 450 families. Among the project's findings is that remarriages involving children are five times more likely to end in divorce than other second marriages. That number may sound extraordinarily high, but it rings true to Roger Coleman, a minister in Kansas City, Mo.
"The primary reason second marriages fail is because of children," says Coleman, a stepfather who has married hundreds of previously wed people--only to see many of them get divorced. "The mistake is [to think] that you're marrying an individual, rather than a family."
Well-Being of the Children
Researchers studying the effects of remarriage use the term "well-being" to include everything from school performance to substance abuse to mood disorders. They report that 10 percent of children in non-divorced families indicate problems with their well-being, compared to 20-25 percent of children in stepfamilies.
"We should not take that 20-25 percent lightly," says Hether-ington, "but it also means that 80 percent are doing okay. Certain researchers would have you believe that all kids in stepfamilies or divorced families are like [victims of] terminal diseases. It's just not true. Most of them are doing fine. But the point that alarms us is that in terms of well-being they fare worse than kids in [nuclear families]."
All this suggests that single parents who remarry "for the good of the kids" may be mistaken about the likely benefits of such a step.
The journal Demography published a study earlier this year by a researcher from the University of Utah. Analyzing data from regularly updated samples of 22,000 adults in the United States, Nicholas H. Wolfinger, an assistant professor of family and consumer studies, reported "a lessening of divorce's harmful effects on children."
"Single mothers and their children don't suffer the same ostracism they once did," Wolfinger said in a statement about his findings. "When divorce was uncommon and heavily stigmatized, its toll on children was much greater."
Similarly, Cherlin has found that problems such as depression, poor school performance and substance abuse are as common among teens in stepfamilies as among those in single-parent families.
"I would never advise anyone not to remarry," says Ganong, "but what parents find is that stepfamilies are very, very tricky. You get conflicts between the kids or the kids and the parents, problems with tension between the non-residential parent and the new spouse, and a host of other problems. People need to figure out how to make it work. It's not going to work on its own."
Dudley says her support group wants prospective stepparents to be aware of those stresses.
"In our group, two couples with intentions of getting married decided not to after a lot of discussion," she said. "Basically, we prevented two future divorces."
* Stepfamily Association of America Inc., 650 J St., Suite 205, Lincoln, NE 68508; 402-477-7837; www.stepfam.org.
* Children of Separation and Divorce Center Inc., 2000 Century Plaza, Suite 121, Columbia, MD 21044; 410-740-9553; COSD.bayside.net.
* Stepfamily Foundation Inc., 333 West End Ave., New York, NY 10023; 212-877-3244; www.stepfamily.org.
Step by Step
Fairfax psychologist Sonya Stagnoli says stepfamily counseling works best if it begins before any resentment and anger erupts--and preferably before the wedding.
"Often in the very beginning of a stepfamily, things feel very wacky and very foreign. Perhaps you have a woman who has gone from living alone to suddenly facing a house full of kids," she says. "The earlier you get in [to a therapist] the better. At the end of the sessions, the family should have developed competence to deal with issues as they arise."
Other experts on stepfamilies offer various survival tips, nearly all of which jibe with a basic rule for living a sane life: Compassion, empathy and communication go a long way.
* Level with your kid. Don't sugarcoat potential traumas, and don't lie. For example, suppose your child says he's afraid he's losing you. "The reality is that, yes, you and your child probably won't have as much one-on-one time together," says Lawrence Ganong, a University of Missouri professor of human development and family studies.
* Tap gently below the surface. "Continually observe, check out and communicate with your children about their comfort level," says Washington psychologist Richard Mikesell. "Approach it this way," advises Marjorie Engel of the Stepfamily Association of America: " 'I imagine you're wondering about . . .' Direct questions will just put them on the spot."
* Keep the kids posted, but don't give them veto power. Explain what will change, what won't, and try to incorporate those changes into the existing household as slowly as possible. "Perhaps you will paint all of the children's rooms, but let everyone keep their existing space," says Engel. "Let them know you are considering them and their issues in the whole process, but do not allow the kids to make final decisions."
* Include the kids in the wedding, a gesture that boosts the child's self-worth in the new family. "Even if a child is in the ceremony, you should arrange to have an adult friend or relative oversee the care of the child while you are so busy," says Engel. "That person can at least give the kid a hug a few times throughout the day."
A Child's Perspective
"Don't expect your child to instantly hit it off with your new sweetie pie," says Lawrence Ganong, a University of Missouri professor of family studies. "Settle for mutual respect. If you're lucky, the deep love and affection may come later."
A child's reaction to remarriage can't be predicted, but certain behaviors and thought processes can be categorized by age levels. Here are some guidelines:
10 and under: After a divorce, younger children often go through a period of "mommy [or daddy] shopping," says Marjorie Engel, president of the Stepfamily Association of America. "They pick out people in grocery stores as potential new parents. But the children may begin to balk when the real thing comes along. Before, it was just a game."
Teens: "At this age, kids are starting to pull away from the family; they might even have a job," says Engel. "They will really feel at odds with the whole lovey-dovey new family concept." And especially as teens begin to be aware of their own sexuality, Johns Hopkins University sociology professor Andrew Cherlin says, "no kid wants to think about their parent having sex."
"[Teens] are budding sexually, and suddenly putting a towel around themselves when walking from the shower to their bedroom becomes a big issue," says Engel. "Also, a teen may suddenly be living with someone, a stepsibling, of the opposite sex ... whom they could technically date."
Adults: Don't think you're off the hook just because the kids are grown and no longer living at home. "Older children are separated from the home but still connected," says Engel.
"`Where will we go for Thanksgiving?' becomes an issue. And money and inheritance comes into play. Many children believe inheritance should follow blood lines, not wedding bands. This includes heirlooms and family photos."
HEALTH TALK ONLINE
Got a question about stepfamilies? Join us today at 2 p.m. for a discussion of this topic on The Washington Post's Internet edition at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline. Send in your comments and questions.