Dan Warthman (美)
I have a Chinese friend who at a very young age was sent to live with her grandmother. As she grew up, she never understood why her mother was so unaffectionate,or why she was never allowed to live at home with her younger brother and sister. Now a newlywed with a good job, she only recently found out from her grandmother that the woman she always thought was her mother is in fact her stepmother. Her real mother died in childbirth. She says she is relieved to know that the woman who treated her so coldly over the years is not her real parent.
Since hearing this story, I have asked other acquaintances about stepchildren. Apparently Chinese men in particular tend to bristle at the thought of raising children not their own.Many women are loath to see someone else's children drawing their husband's affection away from their own offspring.
America too has its share of problems with stepfamilies. Prominent anthropologist Margaret Mead once noted that the increasing life expectancy of Americans made it absurd to think that all marriages would or even should endure for a lifetime. People, she argued, develop intellectually and emotionally all their lives; two people may evolve very differently, making it uncomfortable, if not impossible, to live together. Most experts agree that some marriages should be dissolved, and between 1970 and 1996 the US divorce rate more than quadrupled.
But some studies suggest that children in mildly unhappy, low-conflict, first-marriage families are better off if the parents tough it out till the kids are grown. Statistics indicate that the alternatives to traditional nuclear families - single parent families, stepfamilies, and children living with other family members, such as grandparents - are less satisfactory for the mental health of the children. In fact, about 20 percent of children in stepfamilies have some sort of behavioral or mental problem, twice as many as in first-marriage families.
Nevertheless, stop to reflect how many societies have experimented with other forms of child rearing. And every developed or semi-developed country in the world has trouble with orphans and homeless children,with some form of juvenile delinquency, with child abuse, with child labor issues.
When I tell my Chinese acquaintances that I have a daughter and a son, they reply that I am lucky because I have the perfect family. When I add that they are my stepchildren, some people are surprised that I would agree to bring up someone else's children; others wonder what problems exist in such a relationship; most ask if I wish I had children who were‘really’mine.
My wife and I married in 1987 when her children were eight and four. We had known each other for several years, and her kids knew me well already. We had spent a lot of time together, and the children had known for a while that I was going to become their stepdad. Still, once we were married, many things changed abruptly. My wife took a new job in a new town, so we moved. Some of her old furniture got left behind, some of mine got added; the children left some toys, some clothes and a ton of memories in their old house,swherestheir father was living.
But it was not only a different constellation of material surroundings to which everyone had to adjust. I had never had children, and now my wife's children were with me day and night, well or ill, happy or sad, sometimes acutely missing their real dad. And always, no matter what their mood or mine, they needed parenting from me. I was suddenly required to make decisions about going out to play after dinner, about bedtime, about bathing, about school clothes and rain gear. I had to help them with their homework.I had to read to them, and remind them to eat their vegetables and brush their teeth.
My wife too found herself almost overnight sharing the parenting of her children with someone new. At times we disagreed.Perhaps I thought the children should be allowed to have a friend stay overnight but she felt they needed a good night's sleep.Maybe I thought they should be made to practice the piano but she felt it was their responsibility to do it voluntarily.
The four of us had all the predictable disagreements and typical trials that beset any family. Plus there was this other man - my wife's first husband, the children's dad - who was an equal partner in the major decisions affecting the children's lives. His parenting style was quite unlike ours.The kids behaved very differently around him, and we could detect the influence when they returned from even a weekend with him. Also, he remar-ried, adding another adult to the mix; and then he and his new wife had two more children.(to be continued