A Book Review by Stepmom “Twinkle”
This book is an academic attempt to explain the development of stepfamilies. It illustrates how different members of a stepfamily may feel or behave at different stages. Papernow’s thesis is that successful stepfamilies go through different developmental stages. Just as children babble before they talk, Papernow believes that successful stepfamilies develop over time and that there are phases and patterns to successful development. Some families will move through the early stages quickly, while others will get mired. When troubles arise, Papernow asserts there is often unfinished work left to be done back in a more fundamental stage. One or more family members may feel like an outsider to the “family,” which may operate more like two or more mini-families. The long-term goal is to fundamentally restructure the family so that there is more balance between insiders and outsiders—at least to a degree that members grow to accept. This is a large task, and it takes time and awareness to find success.
Papernow’s stages are: (1) Fantasy (early hopes and dreams) ; (2) Immersion (challenges, discomfort, confusion); (3) Awareness (each member gains greater clarity about his or her own feelings, challenges, and needs, as well as those of other family members); (4) Mobilization (couples begin more openly airing differences); (5) Action (negotiation of new agreements, lessening of power struggles, more problem-solving); (6) Contact (family members deal with one another more directly and authentically—spouse with spouse, stepparent with stepchild); and (7) Resolution (greater clarity and acceptance of the new system; when issues arise, they are not felt as threats to the marriage or other relationships.)
Papernow does not assert that all stepfamilies actually follow her stages in this particular order. However, she believes that pushing too far forward without adequate time and attention spent on Awareness can cause problems. The solution is often to go back to the skipped stage(s) and to give enough time. Papernow believes the fastest families complete the whole process in about 4 years, while average families take about 7 years. I believe it is unrealistic to think of moving through the process entirely linearly. Each significant new issue will bring up a possible trip through the cycle. The key is that successful families develop strategies and learn to move through the early stages more quickly, reaching healthy problem-solving more easily.
Papernow is very thorough, speaks from experience, and illustrates common stepfamily struggles in a broad way. She includes many personal stories from a wide variety of people. Sometimes the extensive focus on the “big picture” doesn’t provide a lot of concrete advice. In the end, each family needs to find it’s own system. The book is non-judgmental, research-based, and professional. The author doesn’t offer “girl talk” and it is not a “quick fix” book. I recommend it to those who have an interest in the process and to those who feel that a strong dose of the “big picture” would help them.