When Adryenn Ashley got married, she became an instant stepmother to Greg and Brad, then 15 and 13 years old, respectively. A year and a half later, she gave birth to her and husband Jim's baby, Jack. Even though Jack is 4 years old now, Ashley still struggles to bring her blended family together. "I walk on eggshells with the stepkids, trying to get them to bond with Jack," says the Petaluma, Calif., mom, who adds that the bigger the age gap between the children, the more creative you have to be.
According to the New York-based Stepfamily Foundation (stepfamily.org), more than half of all families today in the United States are stepfamilies—those in which one or both partners already have a child or children—and the numbers are only expected to grow. Many people who remarry or "recouple" go on to have a baby with their new partner, which can pose additional challenges to a couple.
Not only do such parents need to work through the usual sibling adjustments, they may also have to cope with feelings of resentment because the new baby gets to live with the stepchildren's biological parent instead of just visiting, as many stepkids do. In addition, stepchildren may have a more difficult time forming as close a relationship with the new sibling because they may not see the stepbrother or sister as often as a biological one does. They also often feel there is no longer any room or attention for them because the parents are so focused on their new "joint" baby.
Making the situation easier on everyone requires time, patience and flexibility. "It's certainly not automatically going to be the Brady Bunch," says Robin Goodman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and art therapist in New York.
Blending begins before birth
Building a new family doesn't happen overnight, and pregnancy is the right time to start dealing with the issue. Ericka Lutz, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Stepparenting (Alpha), advises making the family a joint venture from the get-go. For example, she says, "Ask the older child for baby-naming suggestions (though you don't have to take them), and by all means, do not displace the older child. This means that if your stepchild is going to have to share a room with the new baby, let the child take the lead on which side of the room will be his or hers before the baby is born."
To make the adjustment easier, Ash-ley suggests saying, "We are having a baby," and make that "we" inclusive of the older child. "Depending on their ages and inclinations, talk with the stepkids about getting involved with caring for the baby, either rocking, holding, feeding or—heaven help you—changing him," she adds. "This way, you'll stand a much better chance of them bonding." Just don't force them into any baby-care roles, or you'll breed resentment.