- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 1, 2003

When Steve Martin, 52, met mother-of-two Bonnie Dorr, 41, five years ago at a swing dance at Blob’s Park in Jessup, Md., he was looking for a wife, not necessarily “a wife and kids.”

Mr. Martin already had been married and divorced once and had a grown daughter.

“I really had to think about getting into a situation with children. I had some hesitation,” Mr. Martin says as he squeezes his arm a little tighter around Ms. Dorr, his wife of 3 years. They’re sitting on a couch in the living room of their spacious, light-filled four-bedroom Laurel home.

“But now I value my relationship with Carissa and Ryan so much,” Mr. Martin says of Ms. Dorr’s children. “They’re such great kids.”

A good relationship between a stepdad and his stepchildren — in Mr. Martin’s case with Carissa, 13, and Ryan, 10 — doesn’t happen overnight.

Though sometimes exaggerated, there is a reason for the old “Cinderella myth,” the idea that stepparents are mean, says Sandra Hofferth, a professor in the Department of Family Studies at the University of Maryland in College Park.

“A stepchild is 40 times more likely to be abused by a stepdad than they are by a biological father,” Ms. Hofferth says. “That’s why research in this area is so important. We want to avoid those types of risks if at all possible.”

Her research shows that men who marry the stepchildren’s mother are likely to become the best stepfathers, as opposed to those who just cohabit with the biological mother.

“They tend to invest more time and show more warmth toward the stepchildren,” she says.

Moving ahead slowly, being prepared and not trying to dominate the stepchildren or the new wife are key issues for successful stepfathering, says Margorie Engel, president and chief executive of the Stepfamily Association of America, a Lincoln, Neb.-based, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing support and guidance to stepfamilies.

“Some stepfathers come in and think they are going to whip everyone into shape,” says Ms. Engel, who holds a doctorate in law and social policy, “but that’s not how it works.”

Mr. Martin and Ms. Dorr wanted to be as prepared for stepfamily life as they possibly could. They have gone to stepfamily support group meetings ever since they met to pick up tips and advice on how to make the complex nature of stepfamilies work, particularly how Mr. Martin can be successful in his role as a stepfather.

The stepdad’s role, particularly in the beginning, is carrying out the rules and decisions that the biological parents have made, Ms. Engel says.

The role as nurturer and disciplinarian evolves slowly, she says. If the children are older, especially teenagers, the stepdad may never earn that position in their lives.

Mr. Martin agrees.

“Initially, when we were together, I kind of acted like a baby sitter, enforcing Bonnie’s rules. I was the ‘executor,’” he says.

A stepparent’s role is primarily to support the parent, Ms. Engel says. A stepfather can never be a dad because he will never replace the biological father, especially if the biological father is in the picture, as is the case for Carissa and Ryan. He will always be an “additional parent” as opposed to a “replacement parent.”

Many stepchildren call their stepfathers by their first names. So, Steve Martin is just “Steve” to the children. One time when Mr. Martin’s mother suggested that the children say “Dad,” he corrected her.

“I told her, ‘I am not their dad. They have a dad. I am Steve.’”

Ms. Dorr says she didn’t think about it much at the time, but in retrospect, she really appreciated the gesture.

“I know the children really respected him for that,” Ms. Dorr says.

Strong couple

When, five years ago, Mr. Martin wanted a wife first and children second, if at all, he actually wasn’t that far off the mark, because a strong couple relationship is an essential foundation for any stepfamily, Ms. Hofferth says.

“We’ve found that a strong relationship is very important in a stepfamily,” she says. “If there is a committed relationship, the stepdad is more likely to invest in the children and for the children to trust him.”

Ms. Hofferth recently completed a study on stepdads in which she studied the parenting successes of biological fathers and stepfathers.

She discovered the biology mattered less than marital commitment.

The yearlong study, whose data was collected in 1997, looked at 1,628 children under the age of 13 who lived with their mother and the mother’s husband or partner. Most of the 1,360 children studied lived with biological parents who were married. One hundred and three lived with a biological mother and a stepfather who were married.

Ms. Hofferth’s research showed that the children in these two categories did equally well in the amount of time, warmth and engagement they received from their father or stepfather.

Also studied were 99 children who lived with two biological parents who were not married and 66 children who lived with a biological mother and her male partner who were not married. These two groups of children received less time, warmth and engagement from the father or male partner.

“Marriage is the most important thing for a good family life, whether it is marriage between the biological parents or between a biological parent and a stepparent,” she says.

A committed relationship makes the couple strong and is something consistent in which the children can trust.

For Jay Dettmer, 48, a stepfather and husband of Debbie Menard, 48, for the past 10 years, a strong couple relationship was crucial.

“If we hadn’t put each other first, even ahead of our children, our marriage wouldn’t have lasted,” says Mr. Dettmer of Ellicott City, Md.

If you don’t put your spouse first, you tend to side along bloodlines whenever a conflict arises, Mr. Dettmer says.

Mr. Dettmer sided with his daughter, Tori, now 18, and Ms. Menard sided with her daughter, Lisa, also 18.

Siding along bloodlines often causes a lot of conflict, Ms. Engel says, and if the couple doesn’t seem strong, teenagers will test.

Mr. Dettmer and his wife decided they would not make important decisions in front of the girls because that would be a chance for conflict. If they approached the girls as a united front, they were more likely to succeed, he says.

Mr. Martin and Ms. Dorr use the same approach with Ms. Dorr’s children.

“If we have disagreements, we try to resolve them away from the children,” Mr. Martin says. “We don’t want to give them a chance to drive a wedge between us.”

To build the relationship, Mr. Dettmer and his wife would spend weekends away and have date nights.

Building the couple relationship is not only important when facing the children, Ms. Engel says, but also in dealing with former spouses.

Focusing on the ills of dreaded former spouses instead of building a new relationship can be detrimental to a stepfamily, she says.

“Don’t let the ex become a common enemy. What happens when the children are grown and the ex is out of the picture? Then you have nothing to talk about,” she says.

Exactly Mr. Dettmer’s point.

“Your children will leave one day, but hopefully your wife is a lifelong partner,” he says.

Taking it slowly

Another essential aspect of making stepfamily life work is patience, Ms. Engel says.

“People who think in terms of weeks or months are going to fail,” she says. “We’re talking years, sometimes many years, before a stepfamily gets to a comfortable place.”

Stepfamilies have cycles and are at greatest risk of falling apart in their first phase, the first couple of years. The second phase is the “noisy period,” Ms. Engel says. The stepfamily is working out differences while building trust. In the third stage, which can be after five or seven years, stepparents and children are starting to build real, lasting bonds, she says.

It’s important for the stepparent to do things one on one with the stepchildren to build trust and friendship.

“As a stepfather, you want to start the relationship with the stepchild right away,” Ms. Engel says, “but you want to do it in pieces, gradually.”

She recommends doing something at home so the child or stepparent can leave the activity easily if either gets uncomfortable, and maybe just spend 15 or 20 minutes of one-on-one time. Activities can be baking or cooking, she says.

For Mr. Martin and Ryan, it was shooting hoops in the neighbor’s driveway.

“I enjoy that,” Ryan says. “And we play games,” he says, referring to video games and board games.

Mr. Martin and Ryan also go to the mall together, build Styrofoam model airplanes and have gone on canoeing trips. Mr. Martin spends one-on-one time with Carissa, too, but not as often.

“I’m not sure why it’s that way, but I think Carissa tends to spend more time with Bonnie alone, which is when Ryan and I get a chance to do things,” he says.

Both Ryan and Carissa say they appreciate Mr. Martin’s patience and the fact that he’s a good listener.

“He talks things out, and I appreciate that,” Carissa says. “And he doesn’t treat me like a little kid.”

Carissa and Ryan also rely on Mr. Martin to pick them up from various activities, such as piano and tae kwon do, during a part of the week they spend with the Martin-Dorr household. (The children spend half the week with their biological father.) They can trust Steve, they say.

Doing things one on one is how a stepfather builds personal history with the stepchild, which is what creates closeness and trust in the long run, Ms. Engel says.

“After a while, the stepchild may come to start to trust the stepfather enough to go to him or her with a concern or problem,” she says.

“Ultimately, children can benefit from stepfamily life. There are more adults around to meet their needs.”

Stepping lightly is the best way

Margorie Engel, president and chief executive of the Stepfamily Association of America, a national nonprofit organization, offers the following tips for successful stepfathering:

• Major decisions

Many new stepfathers make a crucial mistake in their new role when they try to impose their rules and be authoritative toward their wives and stepchildren. This authoritative approach won’t work because the stepfather is not a “replacement parent” but rather an “additional parent.”

Instead, the stepfather’s role should be to support major decisions made by the biological parents.

If an important decision has to be made on the spot at a time when the biological parent is not around, the stepparent should make sure the stepchild knows it’s a temporary solution.

One way to prepare for the role as a new stepfather is to go to stepfamily support groups and pick up tips and advice from seasoned stepfathers.

• Household rules

Household rules, however, are different. A stepfather can help decide what should be expected of the stepchildren in the home.

He and the mother can discuss what chores and rules apply in the house. For example, should television be allowed before dinner? Should the children have to help with the dishes a couple times a week?

Household rules can be discussed at weekly or monthly “family meetings” in which all individuals in the stepfamily can raise their concerns and questions about the rules and other aspects of stepfamily life.

At times, when the mother is not present and a disagreement over a household rule comes up, the stepfather, instead of being authoritative, should say: “Your mother is not here, and I am simply here to enforce the household rules.”

• Parenting skills

If the stepfather is new to parenting, it’s important for him to read up on child development to identify certain behaviors.

If you’re new to parenting and the child throws a temper tantrum, it’s easy to start second-guessing the mother’s parenting skills when really that behavior is quite normal. “Maybe it’s the ‘terrible twos’ ” for example.

Parenting classes and books on child development can help the stepfather.

It is also the biological parent’s responsibility to make sure that the stepparent is as prepared as possible for the new stepparenting role.

• Bonding

It’s very important that the stepparent spend one-on-one time with the children because that’s how you build a personal history. You start sharing experiences with your child.

If the shared experience is a visit to an art museum exhibit and works from the exhibit ever come up in a different context, both child and stepparent can talk about their day at the museum.

The shared experiences and the one-on-one time as well as taking care of the child’s immediate needs such as food, getting picked up from school and getting tucked in at night are what ultimately build trust and respect.

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