Former School Counselor Pat Bubash Shares Her Unique Perspective
RemarriageWorks spoke with Pat Bubash, author of Successful Second Marriages and a now retired school counselor, to get the inside scoop on stepfamilies from a school counselor’s experience. Pat offers her perspective and some great insight into the challenges of blending a family and how she witnessed first-hand the impact on kids. She also offers some advice on what to expect, and what it may be like from the kids’ perspective.
How does being in a stepfamily make life a little different for students?
That’s one of the reasons I wrote my book. I had an open-door policy in my office. If I didn’t have something scheduled, my door was open. You get a lot of insight when people can just come in as needed. A lot of conversations over the years were with parents or kids or even grandparents when there was a remarriage.
It’s a difficult transition. It’s even difficult when the kid likes the stepparent because the composition of family life becomes different then. If the stepparent has children and they come over, those living in the house have to learn to share – their room, their time. I think that’s one area that has a big impact on kids, and when they find they have to share time with their parent.
There are so many factors involved that make blended marriage so difficult. One of the stories in my book is about one couple who in five years’ time, separated four times. Not because they didn’t love each other, but there were four kids among them and they drove them nuts. The kids didn’t want their parents to be married again – they were quite fine with how things were. Now the kids have moved on, and the couple is very happy.
What would prompt a student to come to you?
An advocate, an ear. I’ve always told kids this: even if they’re coming in to complain about a parent, what was said to me was between us. If they came to say they’re really mad at mom or didn’t like their stepmom or stepdad, it was safe. If they came in and said they were going to hurt somebody – that was different. Kids knew they could come in and tell me whatever was on their mind. It was safe with me and they could trust me. Then, it’s like any of us: you get something off your chest, and then you can go back and deal with it. I felt I had more of a rapport because I knew what it was like from my own experience. I think it made the relationship between my students and myself a closer one.
What would prompt parents to come to you?
Well, thinking I could – again – listen to their frustration and anger. I’ll give you an example. There were two kids, they were really great kids, in elementary school, and their dad was single. He was a very good dad, very involved. He was a lawyer, successful, and they lived with him full time. He met a woman who was a school counselor for their district. He was smitten with her. He’d been so super-involved with his kids, but he now needed time to woo this woman, and the kids’ behavior really changed. They became more difficult, not so pleasant and challenging with him. He came to the office, the only time he came in there, and he said how much he was in love with this woman. I said, “You may be, but it doesn’t mean they are, and you were there first for them.” It didn’t mean the kids were on board.
He was so involved with his kids and there for them, and then trying to have a relationship with this woman – he wasn’t even thinking how it affected them. He thought because he was so happy, everyone should be so happy. Your kids were there first. I tell parents, you are maybe forgetting they have a parent: the person you’re divorced from. They may not be your spouse, but they’re still their parent.
If parents took time to build a friendship first, they had a better chance. I was never quiet about the fact that I was a divorced person, which gives some credibility to what you’re talking about. I think that’s such a big problem with people who want to remarry, and more than half of people who divorce want to remarry. When they find someone again they think “finally” and they want everyone to be happy with that person, too.
It’s different for kids: it’s not their biological parent, and now they have to share you and your time – and sometimes your finances. It’s a lot of being willing to share everything, and I find teenagers are most unhappy about this and they’re in their own world and don’t want to be involved with what’s going on with their parents. They feel the focus should be on them. Little kids are easier: you go out play ball with them, and spend time with them, and they’re young enough to build that rapport. For teenagers, as far as they’re concerned, it’s “my world is the most important world right now.”
We all want somebody, but the kids were there first. And when you put them first, it’s to the detriment of a new relationship. I guess it’s like the couple who separated all those times… if you can wait it out until those kids are out of the house, it’s probably an easier transition and might even be better. Otherwise, it could be a lot of stress on your life. It’s not an easy thing; couples need to talk to a counselor, share the family dynamics and its composition. Understand how kids feel about it rather than how the adults feel about it.
Why would a grandparent approach school counselor?
There are times, more often than not, when their child divorces, especially if it’s a daughter-in-law involved and they don’t get to see the children as much, or even at all. Women are like this more than men: they are so angry at that ex-spouse, they remove their kids from the grandparents. Unfortunately, the grandparents get caught in the middle of it all. I love my mother-in-law – she was the best. I allowed my kids to spend time with her and love her. But that’s not the majority: the animosity, hurt - it’s one way to get back at your spouse by keeping them from those grandparents. It’s hard to recall that these grandparents were part of the kids’ life and need to continue to be. And grandparents need to understand that they need to stay out of that disagreement going on: they have to be uninvolved with what’s going on with the couple. Even with their own kids, they should not take sides. My mother-in-law managed to pull that off, but I know she felt I was the better parent.
I imagine school work is affected. What is your advice to a couple about to blend their family?
They need to not expect their kids to be as in love with this person as they are. And when children are involved, make sure you have family dinners together, but continue to let the biological parent have time with their own kids. If they want to go somewhere with them, don’t think you automatically have to become this family and share. If they only see their kids on weekends, give them time to do something together because they don’t get a lot of time. They need that time with their parent. I really think that’s important.
Don’t expect right off the bat that everything has to be done altogether, that everything has to be shared. I think that’s where resentment really gets built up. For kids not living with their biological parent, they really need that time with their parent. It builds up animosity when it’s not honored. They think the stepparent gets to see their parent all the time, while they’re their child and they don’t, and think ‘how fair is that?’
And when changes are being made, the parents should let the school know. Teachers know when kids are acting different and acting up. They’d come to me and ask me “What’s going on?” If there are any changes in family composition, let the school counselor know: it’s what they’re there for. Counselors are there to help – a resource.