This is the second episode of a two part chat with international stepfamily expert, Dr Patricia Papernow in which we unpack the five key challenges faced by stepfamilies and explore her expert strategies to conquer them.
In this episode (Part 2), we pick up where we left off in episode one and delve into the final two of her five key stepfamily challenges. We tackle the crucial theme of building a new family culture and we explore the delicate dynamics of incorporating an ex into your household. Get ready for another dose of wisdom as we continue to unravel the intricacies of blended family life.
Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships
The Stepfamily Handbook
Dr. Patricia Papernow (00:01): Protecting kids from conflict and tension is really important. If you need to complain about your ex, go for it, but do it to your friends. If you’re going to complain to your partner, make sure you are whispering kids hear everything
Laura Jenkins (00:15): In the Blend is a podcast series that helps parents navigate life within a blended family. Join me as I speak with experts and guests to get practical advice on how to have a harmonious blended family life. This series dives deep into the unique dynamics, logistics and challenges of raising a blended family. From new partners to juggling mixed finances, we will help guide you through it.
(00:44): Welcome back to In The Blend where we’re about to embark on the highly anticipated part two of our enlightening conversation with the renowned Dr. Patricia Papow. In this segment, we pick up where we left off in episode one and delve into the final two of her five key stepfamily challenges. We tackled a crucial theme of building a new family culture, a particularly pertinent topic when navigating the complexities of two distinct foreign cultures merging under one roof. Additionally, we explore the delicate dynamics of incorporating an X into your household, unraveling the complexities with sensitivity and grace. Get ready for another dose of wisdom as we continue to unpick the intricacies of blended family life. If you missed out on part one, I highly encourage you to go back and soak in all of the wisdom of that chat. Two. So without further ado, let’s dive in to part two. So we’ve done number one, two and three. Three being the children. What’s the fourth area?
Dr. Patricia Papernow (01:48): Yeah, the first, it’s insider, outsider. Second was children. Oh, you know what I forgot to say about kids? Eight and under is easier. Really important piece of information. Boys adjust easier than girls. Generally 12 and 13-year-old girls have the hardest time. If you have a 12-year-old stepdaughter, which was my daughter’s age when I met my second husband, prepare yourself for a ride no matter what you do. I hadn’t read this research at the time, but it is helpful to know. I know that yours were very young when you met them. It makes it much easier for them.
Laura Jenkins (02:22): Yeah, they were.
Dr. Patricia Papernow (02:24): Okay. Fourth challenge. The fourth challenge is we have to build a family, a culture together. But we come from very different cultures, very different cultures, and oftentimes the differences are completely unexpected and they come at really odd times. And the story I always tell when I teach is it’s this family’s first Christmas together and stepmom is decorating the Christmas tree with beautiful white lights, stepdaughter, who’s 12 comes in and sees the white lights. She is used to colored lights and she bursts into tears. She slams out of the living room, she goes to her bedroom and slams the door. Stepmom thinks stepdaughter is ruined. Christmas stepdaughter is alone in her room crying because it’s too many changes. Dad gets where his kid is coming from, but he’s frozen. He’s stuck in that insider outsider position. If things go very badly, stepdaughter calls mom and says, can you believe what she did?
(03:34): And mom says, oh yes, she’s a witch. If it goes well, they all look at each other. I call it learning by goofing. Oh gee, I guess we just, but it’s a hard way to learn because there’s this spike of arousal and you have to wait till you calm down. So if it goes well, dad sort of gets himself together. He maybe pull stepmom into the pantry and gives her a hug because by the way, step couple physical connection needs to be out of kids’ eyesight. Often parents will say, I want to teach my kids what a good relationship looks like. It’s a sweet idea, but isn’t how it lands on kids. For kids, it intensifies their sense of loss. It intensifies the change. Daddy’s kissing her, and it may often intensify loyalty binds. So do
cuddle. Absolutely get your hands on each other, but do it in private.
(04:31): So dad pulls stepmom into the pantry. He gives her a hug and says, oh, I’m so sorry, sweetie. He then goes upstairs or downstairs or out to his daughter, puts his armor around his daughter’s, oh, put white on the tree, put white lies. And dad is preventing himself from saying, oh, not that bad. He’s not saying that. He’s saying, oh sweetie, they’re really upset. And if he’s had a little stepfamily education, he’s probably saying So many changes. So many changes. And this wasn’t one we thought we talked about Christmas. We tell step couples to talk ahead of time, but a lot of these things are not even in language. Who would’ve thought of talking about lights on a Christmas? It wouldn’t have occurred to them. So if it goes well, he holds her until she finally calms down and everybody blows their nose and maybe they go and have a cup of cocoa and over cocoa, they start telling each other’s stories. Stepmom tells stories about what Christmas was like when she was a little girl and what her tree looked like. And the kids tell stories about some of their favorite trees because in a stepfamily, these stories must be shared on purpose. They’re not held by everybody.
(05:54): And then next year I have a family that made a tree that was half white lights and half prairie lights. I have a family that had two trees. I am Jewish and my husband is Jewish. I grew up with a Christmas tree. My husband did not. So Christmas tree was really hard for him. It’s very hard for many Jews. So it had to be in a certain place. And I didn’t leave it up for a month. I only left it up for two weeks. Those things can be worked out. You don’t expect them there. You have this blended family and we’re a blending. So one of the things that I say is we have to change the metaphor because blended is like you take strawberries, frozen strawberries and frozens and blueberries, and you blend them together and you make a delicious smoothie. Well, it’s really more like I got a group of Japanese or fairly formal and a group of Italians who are not so formal and I’m saying live together.
(07:01): And the Italian is slapping the Japanese on the back and that feels aggressive. The Japanese is somewhat formal and that feels cold. And we’re not going to get closer if we tell everybody eat pasta with chopsticks, that’s going to make misery. That’s true. That’s such a good analogy. So one of the things about culture is first of all to know you are not failing when you’re learning by goofing. You are bringing Japanese and Italians together and it’s uncomfortable and sometimes it’s hard. And anything that you do with ritual, you’re going to need to include some of each family and you’re going to need to ask the kids what matters to them. And I also suggest for things like holidays, see if you can find some, I call it virgin territory, some holiday that not everybody is attached to. In my first stepfamily, it turned out to be Easter. For whatever reason, there was not a lot of attachment to Easter in my Easter. And so we developed this thing of three Easter baskets. I had a stepdaughter who would spend in my first marriage, who would spend Easter with us. She and I would go get a basket for her father.
(08:22): He and she would go get a basket for me. So mine would have plants in it. His would have every exotic fruit you could imagine, and hers would have actually, I would go and get hers. We had clothes in it and the makeup, but it made a way that was a ritual that didn’t have to take from anybody. There was no ritual there to steal from. Yes. Can you make some rituals that are brand new for this family that do not require that you give this up or you give that up?
Laura Jenkins (08:59): Yes. That’s such a good suggestion and it helps to take that emotion out of, from the child’s perspective, out of the loss of not having that occasion with one parent versus the other parent.
Dr. Patricia Papernow (09:13): Yes. It is a loss. And one of the things about a new culture is that you really do have to go a step at a time. Remember, as the rate of change goes up, kids’ wellbeing goes down. So all new, everything isn’t going to actually, it may feel good to the adults, feels terrible to kids. I remember one of my first, when Steve and I, my now husband and I got together, I changed my daughter’s shower curtain. It was the ugliest shower curtain you could imagine. It was ugly. She was beside herself. I had not asked her. Oh dear. So step at a time. And when the double family, sometimes they’re going to have to have two sets of rules. So my daughter did grow up, by the way, on grape nuts, which is a whole wheat cereal. It’s not very tasty. But I made her eat whole wheat cereal.
(10:11): And the first time she ever went with me to visit my now husband, she opened the pantry closet floor to ceiling sugar cereals. My daughter had never seen sugar cereal, much less floor to ceiling. So sugar cereal, married whole wheat cereal. And I would say to my step kids ate sugar cereal. I’m not going to make them eat whole wheat. Are you kidding? And she has soft teeth. I wasn’t going to let her eat sugar. So she would say she gets to eat sugar. And I would say, yeah, we’ve brought two different families together in our family. We eat whole wheat cereal for breakfast in their family. They eat sugar cereal for breakfast. I know it tastes better and you like it better, but when you grow up, you can decide what you think is better for now, eat your whole wheat cereal and when you’re done you can have a little sugar for. And then his daughter needed to not to make fun of or tease my daughter, and I needed him to monitor that. If she did, I would probably tell him, Becky, just, I like you to say something to her.
Laura Jenkins (11:27): Yes. And then that’s his place to say that to her.
Dr. Patricia Papernow (11:30): It doesn’t, by the way, mean that stepparents have to be silent. If Becky and my stepdaughter did something, I wouldn’t have to be silent. But it means you cannot come down leading with control. You have to come down leading with warmth and with something that makes relationship rather than disconnection. So it would be much less like Becky stopped that right now and more like, sweetie, that doesn’t feel good to Dina. I’d like you to stop. I’d like you to stop sweetie. And if you can, I’m going to have to tell your dad, it’s an I message.
Laura Jenkins (12:10): Yes. The I messages. Yes, definitely. What’s really resonating for me, loud and clear as we’re chatting, Patricia, is this idea of warmth. And it’s the way you say things and it’s really acknowledging the other person’s perspective and showing them that you hear them and you understand
Dr. Patricia Papernow (12:33): You got it. And not easy to do. If you’re upset, you may have to go calm down first. Better to, there’s a guy named John Gottman who does a lot of research on what he calls master couples in disaster couples. And it’s very, he was a mathematician. So some of the research is very complex, but he’s getting more and more simple. Recently he said the most important couple skill is self-regulation, being able to calm yourself down before you open your mouth. Another one of his is kindness is a muscle. Use it often, that was number four. Number five, ex-spouses
Laura Jenkins (13:13): Of course.
Dr. Patricia Papernow (13:18): You are making this new family and you are a partner’s ex spouse. A dead or alive is a permanent part of your family. Well, bummer, that is not how I planned it. That person is a permanent part of your family. That person will always be your child’s parent, dead or alive. And as I said earlier, that person now has to deal with you. That person now has, this is a perspective compassion thing you were just talking about. That person, your stepdaughter’s mother now has to deal with being afraid of losing her daughter to you of having to share her daughter with somebody, a stranger she didn’t choose. So the research is really clear that child wellbeing, the most strong predictor of child wellbeing is not divorce. It’s not stepfamily, it’s not single parent family. It’s adult tension and conflict. Children from high conflict never divorced families. Their parents are high conflict, never divorce are doing much worse than children from low conflict, divorced families. So sometimes this might be the hardest thing you ever do for your kid is to not say something nasty about their other parent who is saying things nasty about you and who you don’t like.
(14:50): But it turns out we have to protect kids. And it turns out it’s not just conflict. It’s not just screaming and yelling, moderate tension, moderate tension. And these are families never divorced. Families is linked to children’s poor, academic, functioning, poor, attentional, functioning and compromised immune systems. And it turns out by the way, that what makes all those happens is sleep. When the adults are tense, kids don’t sleep as well. When kids don’t sleep as well, all those bed things happen. So protecting kids from conflict and tension is really important. If you need to complain about your ex, go for it. But do it to your barber, to your friends. If you’re going to complain to your partner, make sure you are whispering kids. Hear everything. Make sure you are whispering or say it outside the house. If you need to have a fight with your ex, do it out of kids’ earshot. Oh, she wasn’t listening, you wire the kid up they were listening.
Laura Jenkins (16:04): Something else I was just thinking about then was text messages as well. And the same would apply to refrain from sending that angry text, which when the kids get old enough they can read. They’re just as likely to see that nasty text messages.
Dr. Patricia Papernow (16:22): You’re absolutely right that, and I used to read, this was before we had texts. I used to read my client’s emails and I would help them. Let’s see what you want here. He thinks he can take our daughter on my Sunday. He’s an asshole. He always was an asshole. All right, let’s rewrite this.
(16:49): I have something I teach called soft, hard, soft start with something soft. I understand. Of course, you’d like to go to the baseball game with Janie. You and Janie both love baseball. There’s a soft, it’s her Sunday with me. I’m sure you wouldn’t want me to take her on your Sunday, her Sunday with you. So I expect, I’m afraid you’re going to have to give those tickets away or take somebody else. There’s the hard, another soft. That must be disappointing. I’m so sorry. And I assume you’ll not say anything bad to Janie about this another hard that may be difficult, but we both care about Janie soft hard, soft, hard.
Laura Jenkins (17:38): It’s also about being very firm on your own boundaries, isn’t it, Patricia? And protecting your own time with the child as well, which is precious when the child is going to and fro between houses.
Dr. Patricia Papernow (17:54): Well, and there may be times when you let it go, this is a game, and maybe my decision would be take her this time, but I know you wouldn’t want me to take her on your time, and so please don’t do it again. Yeah, that may be the decision that I make in order to make less of a mess. Yes, after I’ve talked to three
friends, calm down a little bit.
Laura Jenkins (18:19): Oh, that’s so true. Wow. So that was the five. So could you do a quick recap for us, Patricia?
Dr. Patricia Papernow (18:27): Yes. The five challenges are because stepfamilies start with a parent-child relationship that precedes the adult couple relationship. It’s we’re strong what we call attachment and shared understandings about how we do things live between parents and children. And kids need their parents. They also need stepparents, but they need their parents because of that. There are five challenges though. One is stepparents are stuck, outsiders to that preexisting relationship and being stuck outside can feel invisible. It can feel like you’re being rejected. Oh, here’s one other piece. Stepparents. Go do stuff outside the house on your own. You or your partner may think it’s not family-like you got to do this in order to being an outsider is too hard. You got to go have a break so you can come back and do some more. And parents are stuck insiders. If I turn to my kid and do what I need to do as a parent, I have to turn my back on my sweetie. If I turn to my sweetie, I have to turn my back on my kid.
(19:48): That’s insiders and outsiders. Children come with losses and loyalty binds and too much change. And for both of those two challenges, making sure you do have family time, but you have lots of one-to-one time, time for the couple and time for the parent and child. And the third challenge is that parenting and step parenting are different. Children really need their parents. Parents do need to spend one-to-one time with their kids. Kids also need their stepparents. Stepparents are really important in children’s wellbeing, but you’re going to need to lead with connection, not correction. And you are going to be pulled to authoritarian, do it now or else, which is the worst. That’s the third challenge. And stepparents and step kids need time alone together, together to get to know each other without the parent present. I was remembering the other day that I would often have a stepparent come in and say, I had a great weekend with my step kids, and I would say, was their parent away? And the answer would almost always be yes.
(21:06): That’s the third challenge. The fourth challenge is we have to build a new culture and we need to respect that we’ve got two very foreign cultures here and they’re going to be a lot of surprises. And how do we both honor the cultures we each came from and make something new? And by the way, down the road, there will still be differences in many step families. When my daughter was about 12, she went through our refrigerator. My husband’s last name is Goldberg, and she pointed out Goldberg, Goldberg, Goldberg, Papano, pap. All the Papanol food was Skimm milk, low fat milk, chicken, veggies, fruit, low fat mayonnaise, yogurt. The Goldberg was red meat, real mayonnaise, whole milk, not a drop in the vegetable or the fruit drawer.
(22:07): That was year one. I think about year five we did weight watchers and my husband discovered that white meat had fewer calories than red meat. He does now eat fruit. He still does not eat vegetables. And there is still, he now eats low fat yogurt, but only real mayonnaise. So there are things that become alike and things that are different. So that’s the culture one. And the last one is you have another parent outside your household who is part of your household. And what I didn’t mention is even if that parent
has died, and with Covid we have more of this than we used to often actually, my experience is sometimes it’s harder for kids to welcome a new stepparent when a parent has died. And that is partly because stepparents expect to step in and replace. Kids don’t want to replace them. They want help holding on forever. And that’s what stepparents are going to need to do is to include that other parent in the family.
Laura Jenkins (23:14): Such amazing advice. Patricia, thank you so much for sharing those absolute pearls of wisdom we could keep chatting on for hours here. I’m conscious it’s getting very late in the evening your time. And just before we wrap up here, I would love to ask, where can listeners go to connect with you or to get their hands on your terrific books or other resources?
Dr. Patricia Papernow (23:39): Well, my name is very unusual, Papernow, P-A-P-E-R-N-O-W. If you Google Pap now plus Stepfamily, you will get to my website. My website is stepfamilyrelationships.com. And the two books are surviving and thriving in stepfamily relationships. And it is on audiobook if you don’t like to read. And the Stepfamily Handbook also an audiobook. And if you don’t like to read, there are videos, some very short ones and an hour long one. And radio podcasts on my website as well.
Laura Jenkins (24:15): Fantastic. Well, we will absolutely link to all of that in the show notes. Patricia, it’s been an absolute privilege chatting with you today. Thank you so much once again for your time.
Dr. Patricia Papernow (24:25): It’s a pleasure. Glad to be here.
Laura Jenkins (24:28): Thanks for listening to In The Blend podcast. The show notes for this episode are available @intheblend.com au. And if you like what you heard, be sure to subscribe and please rate and review in your podcasting app. You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.