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Blended, Bothered And Bewildered Part 1

Posted in Articles,Newspaper Articles by Estalyn Monday May 14, 2007 at about 12:43 pm

Becoming A Stepfamily Can Mean That It’s Hostility Instead Of Hugs. But Help Is Available.

Democrat and Chronicle – May 25, 1999

By Staff Writer, Chris Swingle

When Brighton’s Estalyn Walcoff and Marvin Skorman were falling in love, life looked rosy. Their daughters from previous marriages even liked playing with each other.

“We thought because they loved to be together so much, once we got married it would be more of the same,” Walcoff recalls.

Oh, how wrong they were.

“We call the first year nuclear war,” says Walcoff, who began stepfamily life six years ago. “And we call the second year atomic war.”

For her daughters, now 12 and 15, and Skorman’s daughter, now 17, becoming a stepfamily was like being taken hostage in a foreign land where you don’t speak the language, you feel no control over your life and you don’t even like the food.

“The house was full of tension and uncertainties… and outright hostility,” says Skorman, a psychotherapist.

His daughter, Stephanie, remembers fights every night and says she was mad at both newly-weds: “I hated her in the beginning because she took away my dad. I was furious with my father for putting me in this situation.”

Nuclear families share a history together and can draw on the bonds of those experiences. But in stepfamilies, suddenly the old rules don’t apply. Blending two distinct families — which is the way one-third of American families are formed — means merging different holiday traditions, conflicting parenting styles and all kinds of angst.

Walcoff, a psychotherapist who now counsels about one-third of her clients on stepfamily issues, says knowing what to expect would have helped her family understand and cope with the changes. “People need to be educated that this is normal.”

To that end, she and other local stepparents have formed the Stepfamily Association of Rochester, the first local chapter of a national group. Its first seminar, which is open to the public, will be June 13.

The association plans to provide a way for stepfamilies to find each other and set up self-help groups, says Walcoff. Stepparents and therapists say the Rochester area hasn’t had much available specifically for stepfamilies.

Blended families face unique challenges, and their failure rate is higher than that for first marriages. But they often suffer in silence, embarrassed to admit the struggle to others.

“Other people really don’t understand,” says Barbara Alessi, a mother and stepmother in Wyoming County. “It’s more like The Addams Family than The Brady Bunch.”

Retreat to the car

Four years ago, when her stepfamily formed, life at home was so rough at times for Alessi that she would storm out of the house. But she didn’t go far.

“I used to spend a lot of time in my car in the garage,” she says.

“We’d sit there together,” says her husband, Joe, vice president of the new Stepfamily Association.

Her two kids constantly clashed with his three kids, and all five distrusted the new adult in their lives, His two sons and one daughter already had lost their mother to breast cancer and then their first stepmother to divorce, so they didn’t welcome a new person in that role.

“It goes beyond not being trusted,” Barbara Alessi says. “It’s not being wanted. There are people our household who hated each other at times.

Andy Alessi, who at 24 is the oldest child, admits he was territorial and argumentative when Barbara’s kids moved into his family’s home in 1995. He didn’t appreciate new rules and expectations, especially when he’d been on his own at college.

“It’s a tug of war, really,” he says. “You’re yanking and yanking to see how much of your family identity you can keep.”

Time and distance have provided a new perspective. Now living in Baltimore, he even called to wish his stepmother a Happy Mother’s Day this month.

In hindsight, he says he should have made Barbara and her children more welcome. “It’s the hardest kind of making friends. You’ve got to look and find something to like about them, or you will be miserable.”

His stepsister, 15-year-old Kate Starkweather, says even during the rocky times there were some real pluses. “It was really neat to have a big sister,” she says of Joe’s daughter, Erin, who is two years older. “And we can share clothes.”

Now she is excited about another change: Barbara and Joe Alessi are expecting twins this fall. “I think the twins are going to bring us more together,” Kate says. “It’s a little of all of us.”

Working things out

Stepparents often feel like failures because techniques that worked with their own kids aren’t necessarily effective with stepchildren.

Bob Nazzaro, a Perinton father of two who became a stepparent five years ago, says he didn’t realize he was marrying both Cheryl Nazzaro and her daughter.

He was surprised that he felt jealous of their time together and that his attempts to set and enforce rules were strongly resisted. Through counseling, he’s learned to let go of a lot of things that he wished he controlled.

“I’ve grown up a lot in the last year,” admits the grandfather of three.

In turn, Cheryl Nazzaro says she’s worked at not getting upset when things aren’t done her way. “We use a lot of humor.”

Walcoff, meanwhile, says she and Skorman found success in keeping the routines that were most important to each parent. She restricted her daughters to watching one-half hour of television per day, for example, while he didn’t limit his daughter’s TV time.

But they also compromised. They celebrate the winter solstice instead of Christmas and Hannukah. They created a tradition of covering each other in balloons on their birthdays, something neither family had done before.

All kinds of things could become a battleground. With whose grandparents do you spend Thanksgiving? What do you do when you’re torn between what your child wants and what your spouse wants? How do you let stepchildren do something that you wouldn’t let your biological children do?

“Giving up is a very, very hard thing for people to do,” Walcoff says. During counseling, she challenges stepfamilies: “Is it worth your marriage, or can you give up on that?”

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