31 January 2005

Single...With Children: Real Life Isn't Anything Like The Brady Bunch...And That's OK!

Single With Children: Brady Bunch Syndrome strikes; Alice not around

By Susie Parker

Publication Date: 08/23/00

"Mom, I have to be honest. Dad's new step-daughters REALLY get on my nerves," my daughter said after returning home from a spring break snow-boarding vacation with her brother, their father and their new stepmother and stepsisters.

Ah, yes. The Brady Bunch Syndrome. I watched the show religiously as a little girl, but I was 10 years old then. I loved that show. The perfect sitcom. Single father with children meets, falls in love with, marries and lives happily ever after with single mother with children. Oh sure, they had their ups and downs. How could they not with six kids sharing one bathroom?

But miraculously, despite the catastrophes that descended into their lives (and I mean really important ones like Jan nearly being allergic to the boys' dog Tiger, or the episode where Mike and Carol had to decide which pediatrician to use, the boy's male doctor or the girl's female doctor) somehow, some way, everything would be neatly wrapped up at the end of the half-hour show. The family always came together smiling, close and just loving each other to the point of almost inciting a case of diabetes. Right.

Fast forward 30 years. I find I'm a divorced woman, the mother of two wonderful (OK, I'm biased) teen-age kids, and my ex-husband takes the marital leap again and there you have it. The Brady Bunch Syndrome. Obviously a classic case if ever I've seen one. Unlike the Bradys, however, this situation lasts more than half-hour, the kids involved get together only four weeks or so, and my gosh, Alice isn't around to clean up the mess!

My description may sound flippant, but that's not my intent. In fact, I have a very real stake in this new family's working things out and finding happiness - my children. Regardless of the swirling emotions that well up when our ex-husbands or wives remarry, at some point we have to put those aside, and with everything we've got wish the newly formed family the very best possible shot at success. Why? Because no one wins when families break up. The unhappiness spawned during the course of broken marriages is no respecter of persons, and if parents are left hurting and sad, it invariably touches the offspring.

So once again, we're navigating uncharted waters. How to discuss my children's obvious distaste for the two girls that are suddenly living under Dad's roof? Having the audacity to be sleeping in what used to be their bedrooms during their visits and vacations. Territorial? You bet it is. Forget the fact the those bedrooms were used a total of four weeks a year. Never mind that they did nothing to decorate those rooms because they were too busy going places with their father and were using those beds only as places to sleep without even bothering to hang a poster or set up a stereo. Apparently these rooms were sacred ground, even when not being occupied. "Where are the girls supposed to sleep?" I ask. "Who cares?" I'm told.

We talk about it. We discuss it. Two out of three of us aren't rational. Whether they admit it or not, those "girls" could be any daughters or sons. Of course they aren't taking the place of my daughter and son. I remind them that they had absolutely no power over the situation and probably are feeling lost and bewildered and confused. I remind them, but they aren't ready to realize that. Perhaps on some level they do make this realization. I suspect some of these complaints are designed to make me feel secure. There seems to be a kind of "you can't be replaced" undertone to the discussions.

I've met the woman that is now married to their father. As strange as it was, I found her to be a very cordial, gracious woman. She's even a nurse, and I have to admit I found comfort in that. I've also met her daughters, and I was impressed with their manners, the fact that their clothes matched and that she doesn't let them run wild or stay up too late. I've never had any reason to doubt that she would treat my son and daughter with kindness and consideration. I really believe that.

There are new rules, of course. My kids report they are made to eat vegetables and don't drink nearly as many Cokes as they did when their father was single. Staying up late has been vetoed as well. And yes, they even have to make their beds when they visit. The days of visiting dad and eating pizza for breakfast are long gone.

I try to remind my two unhappy kids that the story of "Cinderella" was, in fact, a fairy tale that, given the number of blended families in today's society, has long outlived its shelf life. Not all stepmothers are evil, and with some effort they might just find they have more in common with these new stepsiblings than they might imagine.

Of course, all this takes time, understanding and a sense of humor. I wouldn't be surprised if they actually come to like each other but I'm realistic enough to accept that it probably won't happen tomorrow. I'll keep gently reminding them of these things, pray a great deal and hope for the best. Meanwhile, if anyone has Carol Brady's phone number, I sure would appreciate it if you'd send it to me!

Readers can e-mail Susie at Susiewrites@gmail.com or write to her c/o Amarillo Globe-News, Features Dept., P.O. Box 2091, Amarillo, TX 79166.

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