Anita Malootian renovated a basement as a playroom.
Stepfamilies Try to Stretch Their Space
By KATE MURPHY
Published: New York Times; April 19, 2007
WHEN Rebecca and Robert Blanche married nine years ago, they lived in a narrow three-bedroom house in Baton Rouge. There was plenty of space for the two of them and his four children from a previous marriage, who visited every other week. But when his children started to live there most of the time, and the Blanches had a baby in 2000, things got a little crowded.
“We were always in each other’s faces,” said Ms. Blanche, a registered nurse who owns a yoga studio. The baby slept in an upstairs kitchen, Dr. Blanche’s daughter had her own room and his three sons slept in a room with a bunk bed that had a full-size bed on the bottom and a twin bed on top. “I’d wake up every morning and no one was where I’d left them and someone was always on the couch,” she said. “I have no idea what transpired during the night to cause that, but it probably wasn’t good.”
Such space problems are common. Many American children of divorce play a residential version of the schoolyard game Red Rover, shuttling between their parents’ houses. But these children are not just visiting their mothers and fathers. Their parents often remarry or live with partners who have children, and sometimes the new couple has children too. With multiple stepparents, stepsiblings, half siblings and pseudosiblings, it’s a whole new type of family, and with it comes the challenge to design a home where everyone feels welcome.
Members of these blended families, as well as psychotherapists, said creating a comfortable and inclusive home is fraught with difficulty. For adults and children alike, having a place in the house has parallels to having a place in the family. Hurt feelings and lasting resentment can spring from something as seemingly mundane as wall color or closet space.
Age, personality, privacy, full- or part-time residency and even sexuality can add to the emotional and architectural complexity. “Visiting children need a place in the house that’s theirs so they have a sense of belonging,” said Francesca Adler-Baeder, director of the National Stepfamily Resource Center at Auburn University. That does not necessarily mean a bedroom. For many families, providing a separate area for each child is not affordable or even logical, because a room that is sealed off and useless much of the time is wasted space.
Robin Samet, a health care consultant, and her fiancé, Gregg Turk, an investment manager, will move into a high-rise condominium in Reston, Va., next month. Her home office will double as a bedroom for his 7-year-old son and a guest room will be a bedroom for his 10-year-old daughter when they visit every other weekend. The two rooms have custom cabinetry that conceals and protects the adults’ things when the children are there and that stores and hides the children’s things when they are not.
“Since we’re the ones who live there full time, and we both work from home, the pink pony and Spider-Man motifs are not something we are interested in devoting precious space to,” Ms. Samet said.
Therapists said children do not have to have their own bedrooms, but accommodations have to be made. “It’s not about equal or exclusive space so much as their own private space while they are there,” said Anne Bernstein, a psychologist in Berkeley, Calif., and senior scholar with the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago concerned with issues affecting modern families. “You can create little enclaves, carve out nooks, rearrange furniture — there are lots of creative ways to make a special area for a child.”
Katie Gray, who shares a home in Tampa, Fla., with her fiancé, Philip Monson, has tried to do that for his two daughters, 8 and 10. Ms. Gray puts flower handles on the door to the guest room, lays out special pillows and clears closet space when the girls visit every summer. “Since they don’t live here full time, I try to do little things to make the room look happy and welcoming and like it’s their place,” she said, especially because her 2-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, who lives in the house full time, has a nicely decorated room of her own.
Involving children in designing their space is helpful, family therapists, child psychology experts and architects said. “I quiz the kids in private to find out their concerns and what they want,” said Kevin Harris, an architect in Baton Rouge. “A lot of times the only thing they really care about is where the TV is going to be.”
Even if a child must share a room or sleep on a sofa, there are ways to promote a sense of ownership. Choosing the paint color for their half of the room or the linens for their bed can help make children feel at home.
“Because they aren’t with them all the time, divorced parents often go overboard in decorating rooms for their kids,” said Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, an interior designer and founder of apartmenttherapy.com, a popular design blog. “But room design isn’t compensation for poor parenting.” A former elementary school teacher, Mr. Gillingham-Ryan said, “The best way to honor a child is to give them a quiet, clean space to sleep and do their work.”
Japanese rice paper screens and wood veneer partitions sometimes used for office cubicles are ways to demarcate territory. “If you block line of sight, you give a sense of privacy even if there is someone else just inches away,” said Liz Howard, an interior designer in Honolulu who has installed wood blinds and fabric shades that draw up to the ceiling to create boundaries in crowded stepfamily homes. Privacy and physical boundaries are even more important in blended families when there are biologically unrelated members of the opposite sex. Another strategy, Ms. Howard said, is to have built-in beds high off the floor with draw around curtains hanging from the base to conceal each child’s desk, dressing and storage space underneath.
If children are around more often, a more permanent solution is required. When Ms. Blanche in Baton Rouge was pregnant with their second child three years ago, she and her husband bought and remodeled a home so they would have enough space for the four of them and his four children from his previous marriage, who had begun to live with them full time.
They turned to Mr. Harris, the architect, who came up with a design that enlarged and reconfigured the main house as well as transformed the guest house, pool house and attic into children’s rooms, bathrooms and play areas. “With eight people in one house you have to be able to retreat to your separate corners before you kill each other,” Ms. Blanche said.
Equally important are places where everyone can come together, like the large family room off the kitchen that Mr. Harris designed for the Blanches. Otherwise, wary stepchildren and teenagers in general tend to withdraw into their private spaces. “Communal areas are important to encourage stepfamilies to casually interact,” said Diane Ranes, a clinical social worker in Durham, N.C., who specializes in counseling stepfamilies. She suggests putting televisions and computers in a common room “to draw kids out of their private spaces.”
Family dynamics experts said moving to a new house as the Blanches did is ideal when blending families because no one feels like an interloper. “It’s hard not to feel like an intruder when you are moving into another family’s house,” Dr. Bernstein said.
When Ryan Asper, a lawyer in Katy, Tex., a suburb of Houston, remarried six years ago, he briefly moved into the home of his wife, Jennifer, and her daughter, who was 12 at the time. His 6-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter visited on weekends. Since there were only three bedrooms, they converted a dining room into a bedroom for his son. “It wasn’t the best situation,” Mr. Asper said, which is why within a few months they moved to a new house with four bedrooms where, he said, “everyone felt like they had a room that was really theirs.”
If moving is not possible, stepfamilies frequently raise roofs to add another partial or full floor, or they may turn a basement or a garage into living quarters. Anita Malootian, a medical writer in Hillsborough, N.J., enlarged her Cape Cod-style house last year to accommodate her two children and two stepchildren, ages 8 through 15, by adding a second floor and finishing the basement. Her husband, David Kravitz, a software developer, moved in with her after they married in 2002 and he got primary custody of his children the following year. “It was unexpected and we couldn’t afford to move because most places with five or six bedrooms are big mansions,” Ms. Malootian said.
In the years before the renovation, Mr. Kravitz’s son and Ms. Malootian’s son shared a room and his daughter stayed in a guest room while her daughter had her own room. “No one complained, but we just felt maybe as the kids got older, everybody was going to want their own room,” Ms. Malootian said. Since the couple did not have enough money to add a third bathroom, Ms. Malootian said they had a double vanity installed in the laundry room so her teenage daughter could “blow-dry her hair and do whatever else she does for 45 minutes every morning getting ready.”
The addition also allowed Ms. Malootian to reclaim the guest room for a home office; the finished basement gave her children a place to hang out and her husband space to pursue his hobby of brewing beer. And with the children’s bedrooms now upstairs and the parents’ bedroom remaining downstairs, the couple have more privacy, which Ms. Malootian said has been a “big bonus.”
Indeed, family therapists agreed it is best for the parents’ bedroom in stepfamilies to be somewhat removed from those of the children. “Any hint of sexuality in these situations makes children extremely uncomfortable,” particularly if the children are adolescents, Dr. Adler-Baeder said. She warns parents and their new partners against overt displays and advises “to create as much physical distance as possible between your bedroom and the kids’ rooms” or at least make sure you have soundproof walls.
Couples need their own space to bond. “Particularly in stepfamily situations, they need privacy to talk, for sex and to just be alone together,” said Judith S. Wallerstein, a psychologist and an author of “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study.” Second marriages fail even more often than first marriages, which she attributed to the additional stresses and strains of stepfamily life.
“Before you call an architect or invest in bookcases or furniture or anything, parents in stepfamilies need to invest in time alone together,” Dr. Ranes in Durham said. “Marital harmony has got to be your foundation.” Otherwise, the home, no matter how well designed, is not going to last.