CHILDREN / How to improve your step-family fortunes: Feeling they have to love their partner's children is just one of the problems faced by step-parents. Angela Neustatter suggests survival tips for the reconstituted family

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'SOMETIMES I'd stand outside the house not wanting to go in, feeling anguished, when I knew the stepchildren had arrived. I was scared of acknowledging, as I did each time they came to stay, that I couldn't love them enough. Their visits always left me with a cold, miserable feeling of having failed my husband.'

Eight years on, Martha, a 40-year-old solicitor, still has disturbing recollections of her first couple of years as a stepmother. Felix Muller, a 50-year-old American businessman whose stepchildren have now left home, talks with conspicuous regret of the 'self-absorbed and childish' way he behaved with the six-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son he took on.

'I felt a lot of resentment towards my new partner's children for not recognising the sacrifice I had made in leaving my country and my own child in order to help bring them up. Looking back now over the years of problems, tensions and rows around my treatment of the children, I can see that I was constantly vying with them for Christina's attention. It made her very angry with me. While pretending to be the nice Daddy figure, I was at times quite beastly to them in covert ways.'

Felix admits that he would go on outings, letting the children know that he was reluctant; he would refuse them money for treats in a bid to teach them discipline, while being very indulgent with his own daughter when she arrived. 'I would say I couldn't afford to help them buy something,' he says, 'when they knew I could have given them a loan. It was a way of punishing them for being in the way, while pretending to be the nice guy.'

Martha and Felix are by no means alone in such feelings, and in their reflections they have pinpointed the central emotional demand on step-parents: that they should love their partner's children as much as he or she does.

Deborah Fowler, stepmother of four and author of the newly published Loving Other People's Children (Vermilion pounds 6.99), is well aware of the distress this may cause. 'People go into partnerships with very high expectations,' she says, 'assuming they can be a loving and loved substitute parent. But this is often not possible. You may not love or even like the children. And if the chemistry isn't there, you cannot manufacture it. The best thing is to face up to the fact, hope that your feelings will change with time and make a point of being kind to the children, which is essential.'

It is estimated that there are several million step-parents in Britain. The 50 per cent failure rate of second marriages does suggest that it is not easy to get step-parenting right. According to Robin Blandford, a counsellor with Stepfamily, a national information and support organisation, the problems can begin almost immediately, with 'cracks showing and people coming for counselling' as early as three months after a couple has set up home.

Often the issues are to do with children, which demonstrates the importance of understanding and being prepared for the implications of a re-structured family. That damage to children may be considerable, if things are not worked out, was demonstrated at the end of last year in a Policy Studies Centre report. It showed that children with a step-parent are, among other things, more likely to leave home under the age of 18 because of friction, co-habit under the age of 21, and to leave school at 16. The study showed that the 'social deprivation' suffered in such families is even greater than in single-parent families after divorce.

Why is step-parenting so problematic? The primary reason is that, in most cases, it has come to be by default. As Robin Blandford says: 'You fall in love with someone and their children come as part of the package. It is not unusual for people to feel, at least secretly, that they would have preferred not to have the children.' Martha agrees: 'David and I had a very passionate affair and I knew I wanted to settle for a life with him, but in honesty I would have preferred not to have had to find space for his children. In the beginning they seemed like an intrusion into our love affair. Happily I now love them very much.'

Anna, 29, is 14 years younger than her husband, who has three children aged between nine and 15. When they all went away on holiday, before getting married, she realised how much she resented the children 'taking away time I felt should be devoted to me.' Anna separated briefly from Paul and during this time realised that if she married him she had to accept that she would be on a par with his children - and not more important than them. She accepted this. But, says Robin Blandford, it is surprising how many partners compete with stepchildren for attention, or, when their own children are born, feel that they should have bigger and better love.

Deborah Fowler, in her book, takes a comprehensive look at the things adults need to consider on behalf of the children. She uses real case histories to illustrate successful and unsuccessful practice. The situation is not helped by mythical ideas of wicked stepmothers or cold stepfathers: 'Most people want to love their partner's children, but it is a mistake to try to be a substitute for the natural parent. It's better to form a quite separate relationship and not ask to be called Mum or Dad. If the child chooses to use this, fine, but you are not their Mum or Dad. Particularly when the partner is very young and close in age to the step-children, being a friend can work well.'

Film-maker Adam Rogers, who married producer Fizz Oliver, who is 17 years older than him, discovered this as his stepson Joe approached puberty. 'I leave almost all the discipline and decision-making to his mother. I see myself in the elder brother role and Joe has not seen me as competing with his real father. We have a lot of fun, but I also feel protective of him and responsible for his welfare.'

If children have been through a recent break-up of their old home - or even if the separation took place some time ago, but the children still see their parents together regularly - they will probably still feel upset. They are likely to be worried about how things will be in the future and very possibly resentful of the new partner. It is a good idea, therefore, to take things slowly, allowing the children a chance to get to know the person you intend to live with and to express their feelings. Robin Blandford observes: 'A great many of the children we see say things happened too quickly.'

It is also understandable that, if one partner's children are living with them, the 'visiting' children may feel they will lose their parent's love to them. A parent who has step-children living with his or her own children needs to be very careful about letting a quite natural greater affection for their own young seem very evident. Martha agrees: 'I have much more tolerance for my own daughter than for my stepchildren, and I am aware that I need to monitor my behaviour carefully.'

Discipline is one of the most frequent stumbling blocks for stepfamilies. Robin Blandford, who married when he and his wife were both in their forties and had four teenagers between them, says: 'It is unlikely that two people will be in absolute agreement on how things should be done, so you probably need to compromise - this is something which comes up repeatedly in counselling. I was lax on discipline and my wife felt that I didn't support her enough. In the early days, that caused some difficulties.'

It is particularly tricky when children visit a home where their new step-siblings are living, and the natural parent compensates for not seeing them all the time by letting them break the house rules and have things the other children can't. This can damage the relationship between the children.

Nor is it sensible to assume that the children must all like each other, says Tim Kahn at Parent-Link, an organisation which holds workshops for parents. 'These children have not chosen each other,' he says, 'and there is really no reason why they should be friends - although it quite often happens that they do become very close. But it is not a good idea to expect them to share rooms and toys, or to play together all the time.'

Being able to discuss issues around children in a reconstituted family may make all the difference. Felix and Christina both talk with a mixture of amazement and relief at having survived a decade of rows and problems. Felix says: 'I was angered at having no authority over the children, and more angry still that Christina did not seem to support me; the trouble was, this usually triggered a row. Had we been able to sit down on the same side and take a good look at what was going on, it would certainly have been better.'

Christina agrees: 'I was constantly furious with Felix for being so harsh with my children and yet I realised I should have supported him. I felt that the spontaneous relationship I had had with the children when we lived alone had gone. There were certainly times when we both wished we had never got together.'

It is daunting stuff, but although 50 per cent of these marriages fail, an equal percentage are successful. Penelope Leach, child-development expert, speaks rapturously about her stepfather; and Deborah Fowler declares: 'I have enjoyed being a step-parent enormously, and I consider it a bonus to have a large family.' Rather than seeing it as an immutable route to disaster, step-parents can step back, decide they will not ask the impossible of themselves and regard creating a family shaped to suit stepchildren as a challenge.

SIX STEPS FOR STEP-PARENTS

PARENT OR FRIEND Don't struggle to be a substitute parent - stepchildren tend to be very loyal to their natural parents and may resent you trying to be in loco parentis. Form a natural relationship as someone in your own right and take it slowly, giving that relationship time to evolve. Step-parents, eager to prove that they can get on with the kids, may be too pushy.

BELONGING If your children do not live with you but visit regularly, encourage them to feel that they belong. If possible give them their own bedrooms and suggest that they keep clothes, toothbrush and favourite toys at their 'other home'.

DISCIPLINE It is important that you agree on house rules which stepchildren must abide by when they are there. It can lead to great resentment if resident children see the 'visitors' are allowed special dispensations.

SEPARATE SPACE It is very important, particularly in the early days of your reconstituted family, to allow the stepchildren exclusive time and space with their natural parent. They may, quite understandably, feel hostile to you if the attention they got from Mum or Dad is no longer available; or if they can never have private time to voice anxieties, sadness and questions - or just to do the things they have always done with their natural parent.

THE NEW BABY The stepchildren may worry that a new baby will replace them in their parents' affections - and remember, they will already have learnt through the break-up of a first home that love can die. But with sensitivity you can capitalise on the fact that the new sibling also 'belongs to them' genetically, and stepchildren who may have reservations about the new partner may well grow to love the new member of the family.

TALKING It is invaluable to talk through what is going on, at every stage, with your new partner. Many of the 'big issues', such as discipline or the behaviour of the other parent over access visits, can only be dealt with if you can sit down and discuss what is going on.

Stepfamily, 72 Willesden Lane, London NW6, tel 071-372 0844 (office), 071-372 0846 (counselling), is a membership organisation which runs support groups and offers telephone counselling. It also publishes a list of books and publications on step-parenting.

Parent-Link, 44-46 Caversham Road, London NW5, tel 071-485 8535, runs workshops.

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