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If Audrey Kendall's real name were made known, it would be recognized as belonging to a celebrated decorator, a career woman whose talent and drive have brought her notable success. Two years ago, at the age of thirty-eight, Audrey was married to interior designer John Wes, forty-six. It was her first marriage, his third.
John brought with him two children of his second marriage, Jessie, eleven, and John, Jr., eight, who is called Jed by his family. John had been granted custody of the children as part of a divorce settlement reached with their mother three years earlier.
Audrey brought with her a love for John and an eagerness to become a parent. "I was approaching forty," she said, "and I had never been married. I think I'd always wanted to be a mother. To be honest, part of the appeal of marriage to John was that children were included in the offer."
So it was that Audrey Kendall became an Instant parent," a term used here to describe a woman or man who takes on a parenting role (full or part time) for the first time by marrying a spouse who has children.
Said Audrey, "I was totally unprepared for what followed."
Although she had intellectually, even eagerly, accepted the entrance of children into her well-ordered life, the romantic side of Audrey had been harboring "a honeymoon fantasy, of John and I just being a couple." Reality presented a different picture. "One moment I was single," Audrey said, "and the next moment I'd become. a family!"
It was not a gentle transition.
"There were so many practical concerns that had to be handled right away schools,visits to the orthodontist, pediatrician, music teacher, to name just a few," she continued, "romance became the least of my considerations. At least, that's what I kept telling myself. And the, children really were so nice and so quickly accepting of me, I began to hate myself as I found I was growing to resent them . . . and, by extension, their father."
Audrey tried to suppress her feelings. After all, hadn't John been honest with her from the beginning? Hadn't he been clear in telling her that theirs would be a love-me-love-my-children marriage? And hadn't she been the one who'd pressed more strongly for institutionalizing the relationship?
What was wrong with her now?
Audrey was going through a typical critical period of instant parenthood, one that may be as predictable as childhood's terrible twos. It is a crisis that comes about when premarital fantasy is replaced by postmarital fact.
Dr. Richard A. Gardner, associate clinical professor of Child Psychiatry at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, addressed this phenomenon in his practical guide, The Parents' Book About Divorce. Dr. Gardner wrote,
A woman with no children of her own, when involved with a man with children whom she wishes to marry, may entertain unrealistic fantasies about how wonderful life will be with him and his children .... After marriage, and the lessening of romantic euphoria ... the bride may become oppressed with the new burden she has taken on. Other women ease into the role of motherhood and gradually become accustomed to its frustrations. Having it thrust upon her cannot but produce feelings of being trapped and overwhelmed.
The Rescue Fantasy
At the same time, the natural parent must confront a reality that is equally unsettling. Psychologist James Meltzer, who directs an ongoing study of stepparenting roles at New York's William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Psychoanalysis, sees the natural parent as one who harbors a rescue fantasy: the new parent will join our family and all our problems Will be solved. . . . Johnny will do better in school; Mary will stay at home and stop fooling around . . . and so on.
I "It's an enormous burden for the stepparent," says Dr. Meltzer, "an expectation nobody can live up to." But it takes time and travail before that realization sinks in.
The rescue fantasy is not limited to the caretaking parent. It is often indulged in by the stepparent who comes upon a family in chaos and decides to become the-hero who will set matters right. Typically, this role is volunteered for by a man who has had no previous experience as a parent. Sociologist Gerda L. Schulman has described him as "someone who in his early years was an 'anti-family' man . . . but later settled down and wanted to make up for the loss of time, unconsciously hoping for respectability and stability."
This instant father can be very authoritarian. Perhaps because we have been raised to view the male as an authority figure, his assertiveness is regarded more favorably by the wife and, ultimately, the children he has joined than is similar strong control when exercised by a woman who takes on the challenge of instant parenthood. Many men find great satisfaction in acting out the rescue fantasy.
Buddy was a drifter, an ex-marine and sometime house painter who rented a room in a boardinghouse outside of San Francisco while he made up his mind about whether to re-enlist. On the floor directly above his room (as he discovered when he went up to complain about the noise) lived Jan and her two young children. The family was demoralized by years of having lived onagain off-again with a drug-dependent father.
Buddy befriended the family. He helped Jan with her budget, baby-sat for the children while Jan attended night school, and found he liked the responsibility, liked having the children look up to him. Buddy took a job as a stock clerk in a local supermarket for the time being" and recently was named assistant manager. He also married Jan...Making It as a Stepparent copyright © by Claire Berman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All Rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.