A Latino Couple’s Response to Stepfamily Education: A Two-Year Narrative Study
Utah State University
This is a longitudinal oral history narrative from one Latino couple who participated in stepfamily education. This couple provides an in-depth description about how they and their family incorporated the skills and knowledge presented in the course to improve their family life. They benefitted from the course in the following ways: (1) they learned to effectively discipline their children; (2) they reduced conflict in their couple relationship; (3) they learned to manage stress in a way that benefitted their family, (4) they became more united as a family; (5) they learned to share in managing their finances; and (6) they became more committed to their couple relationship and became more committed to the family. These benefits were evident two years after the completion of the course. However, they also had struggles with some issues presented in the course because of their cultural values.
family life education, Latino, stepfamilies
A Latino Couple’s Response to Stepfamily Education: A Two-Year Narrative Study
For the last two decades there has been a steady increase in the number of children living with at least one stepparent. This is particularly true of families of Hispanic origin (Kreider and Ellis 2011). The extant literature suggests stepfamily education can help stepfamilies enhance their communication, conflict resolution, and parenting skills (e.g., Robertson et al. 2006). Some of these findings have recently been extended to samples of Latino stepfamilies (e.g., Reck et al. 2013; Skogrand, Mendez, and Higginbotham 2014).
The existing knowledge base provides ample reason to believe traditional stepfamily education programs can be beneficial for Latino stepfamilies; however, the literature is far from conclusive (Lucier-Greer and Adler-Baeder 2012; Skogrand, Barrios-Bell, and Higginbotham 2009). For example, in a follow-up study conducted one year post-program, there was little variation when comparing the perceived benefits of Latino participants and European American participants (Skogrand et al. 2011). However, in a study that looked specifically at participants’ financial management practices, Latino participants were more likely to report change than were European Americans (Higginbotham, Tulane, and Skogrand 2012). In addition to the need for more scholarly attention to possible ethnic and racial differences, the study of stepfamily education would also benefit from more longitudinal evaluations because the vast majority of stepfamily education programs have not been evaluated for lasting effects (Whitton, Nicholson, and Markman 2008).
This study will contribute to the extant stepfamily education literature by providing a longitudinal oral history narrative from one Latino couple who participated in stepfamily education. It provides an in-depth narrative about how one couple and their family, over time, incorporated the skills and knowledge presented in the course to improve their family life. It also brought to light how a Latino couple struggled with a cultural issue. To our knowledge these findings are not evident in existing literature.
An oral history narrative was used as described by Creswell (2013) to more fully understand how a Latino couple used the information provided in a stepfamily education course. In a narrative study, the group or individual who is chosen “can best inform the researcher about the research problem under examination” (Creswell 2013, 118). The Latino couple in this narrative study was selected because of the richness of the narrative provided about their experiences and the extensive details about how they used the information taught in the course. An oral history provides personal reflections of events and, in this case, those reflections were obtained by way of three interviews over time (Creswell 2013). These interviews were then presented by restorying (Creswell 2013), or retelling their stories, and placing them into a format and sequence which makes sense for readers.
The selected couple were two of the of 296 Latino individuals who attended the Smart Steps: Embrace the Journey (Adler-Baeder 2007) stepfamily education course. In this course, stepfamilies attended six 2-hour classes at partnering family-service agencies in a Western state. Adults and school-age youth met separately for approximately 90 minutes to learn age-appropriate information and then came together for a 15-30 minute family activity. Additional details about the program are widely accessible (Higginbotham n.d.; Higginbotham and Adler-Baeder 2008).
For purposes of evaluation, we interviewed 72 of the 296 Latino individuals who participated in the stepfamily course. Those interviewed were selected by a project staff member who had no details about the individuals interviewed except their names and did not know how they felt about the course. One year later we were able to locate and interview 48 of the original 72 individuals. Two years later we were able to locate and interview 27 individuals. The Latino couple featured in this study participated in all three interviews; they were interviewed individually about their experiences with the stepfamily education course immediately after the completion of the Smart Steps course, one year later, and two years later.
Demographic information was collected and the first interview was completed at the partnering agency where the class was held. Each interview lasted approximately 30 minutes. Some of the questions included in the first interview were “Please tell me about the best part of the stepfamily course for yourself.”; “What was something that was not so good for yourself—or that you wish you could change about the course?”; and “Please tell me about good things that have happened in your couple relationship or in your family that resulted from taking the course.” Approximately one year after attending the course the second interview was conducted in the couple’s home. The second interview focused on what things had been useful or not useful as participants reflected back on the course. Some of the questions asked included “What things from the stepfamily course have you used in your couple relationship or family life?”; “Are there things that had a negative effect on your couple relationship or family life?”; and “What was the most important thing you learned from the course?” Other questions focused on their couple stability, their commitment level, and finances. The third and final interviews were conducted two years after completing the course and, again, the interviews were conducted in the couple’s home. The questions asked one year and two years after the course were the same, and each interview lasted approximately 45 minutes. All the interviews were conducted in Spanish by Spanish-speaking, Latina graduate research assistants whom we felt would likely be trusted by the participants. Because graduate students move on to other graduate school experiences or graduate, the interviews were conducted by three different interviewers who were unknown to the participants.
Regina, age 32, and Martin, age 35, had been in a relationship for four years, and were not married. They had two children together, ages 1 and a few months. Regina also had an 8-year-old daughter, Maria, from a previous relationship and Maria attended the concurrent class for school-age children. Both Regina and Martin had some education beyond high school. Martin earned about $23,000 per year and Regina did not work outside the home.
Interview at completion of the course
Regina heard about the stepfamily course from a flyer at Maria’s school. Regina said, “I sincerely didn’t know what a stepfamily was.” She enrolled because she wanted to know how to handle conflict and how to better understand her kids. Martin attended the course because Regina wanted him to go with her and he wanted to be a better parent. Neither Martin nor Regina considered themselves as being part of a stepfamily and realized only after they began attending the course that they were, indeed, a stepfamily. Martin explained, “. . . for us there is not a difference between natural daughters or not natural daughters . . . in our family relationships there isn’t a difference.”
In the interview, Regina and Martin both talked about personal issues they wanted to address. For Regina, it was about getting discouraged and feeling stressed, and the fact that sometimes she did not have energy to do things. She learned in the course, however, that she had to have enthusiasm for her children and she needed to encourage her children, even if she did not feel like it. Martin explained that he needed to learn to deal with stress and to control his temper. As a result of the course, they were able to help each other with these issues.
They also learned about parenting and made changes as in their interactions with their children. For example, they learned that they should not contradict each other in front of their children and that they should think about why children were doing things rather than just reacting.
For Martin, an important lesson from the course was, “The base of the family is the couple relationship.” He learned that parents provide examples for children about how to have a relationship, which included healthy communication. He felt that communication had improved with Regina and with Maria.
The best part of the course for Regina was that she realized that she “needed help, needed information.” She did not have the tools to manage her family. She also learned by talking with her daughter, that Maria did not feel good about their family life. Regina said, “It broke my heart that Maria would ask for new parents, a new house, and for things to get better.” That realization, according to Regina, was worth taking the course. By the end of the course, Maria seemed happy and she was enthusiastic about the future for her family. The course gave the couple what they needed to know, and now she and Martin had to put it into practice. Martin indicated that by the end of the course, “We can talk. There are little things we are changing, and it’s not a fast process, but I personally think that we are working on it.” He added, “If there were 100 things that weren’t solved, now there are only 40 or 60, but it is a big advancement.”
Both Martin and Regina appreciated learning that other families taking the course were going through similar challenges. Comparing her family to others in the course, Regina said, “I saw that we have similar conflicts, that I am not the only one. I am not the only one that fights or the only one that has difficulties with the kids.” Martin said, “I realize . . . that I am not in the worst situation, so I have hope that my family or the situation of my family is going to improve.”
One year later
Both Regina and Martin had problems with getting upset in certain situations. As a result of the course, the couple had developed their own system to help each other calm down. If they “were at the point of losing their minds” they put a cardboard sign around their neck that said, “Don’t talk to me right now.” They used the sign when they did not want to debate anything; they did not want to be hassled. Using this system, they were able to avoid some conflicts and fights, and they only addressed these issues when they were less stressed. Regina indicated that before the course “[I] thought my husband needed to change; that the children needed to change. And in the course I realized that regardless of who changes, I have to do it first.” One year after the course they were more likely to “sit and talk about things now and reach an agreement” than before taking the course. According to Regina, she and Martin both wanted control and they learned that “one of [us] has to yield. If he doesn’t, then I yield.”
Even though Martin was not Maria’s biological father, Martin and Regina had been together since Maria was very little and she thought he was her biological father. Since taking the course both Regina and Martin felt the need to tell Maria that Martin was not her biological father. Martin was hesitating about telling Maria he was not her biological father. He had a great relationship with Maria and he did not want anything to upset that. Regina felt they needed to tell her before she learned it from someone else.
Martin and Regina both indicated that after taking the course they were more committed to their relationship. Before the course, they had not gotten married because Martin did not like how Regina handled her temper. After taking the course he concluded, “I love my family, I love my children, I love my wife . . . . If I want to be with my family, then I had no reason to continue to postpone what was my wife’s desire, a dream of hers.” The course also made the couple think more about Maria’s needs and they wanted stability for her—so they got married. According to Martin, “. . . we are a family. We are a family like any other biological family, 100 percent biological, right?” Martin also wanted Maria to “feel no doubt, regardless of any biology, that she belongs to us—that she belongs to me.”
Regina reflected on how the course helped her understand Maria’s feelings. Regina said, “It was like I didn’t know my daughter.” Because Maria participated in the course a year ago, she felt better about her place in the stepfamily. Regina and Martin were more involved in Maria’s life. Regina also learned that her daughter wanted them to be unified as a family, and after the course, they had done more things together. They had done more activities together such as sharing family meals. The course also affected how they disciplined the children. Previously, Martin disciplined the children when he came home—he was the ogre. Now, according to Martin, they both disciplined the children—they tried to find a balance. They also tried to use “corrective ways, not abusive ways” to discipline.
Finances had always been an area of conflict for the couple. Martin had always handled the money and Regina would often complain about how he did it. According to Regina, “It was a sure thunderstorm when it came to money.” Martin also used words such as “thunder” and “sparks coming out” to describe issues around finances. After taking the course, he gave Regina the responsibility, and she realized that he not only paid the bills, but when money was short, he would put in extra time at work to make extra money. When Regina realized this she said, “The numbers don’t match. How do you do it?” Regina finally told Martin to go back to being in charge of the finances. She said, “You can do it better. I’m going to trust you.”
According to Regina, what they learned in the course contributed to “more tranquility, more understanding, more communication.” The most important thing, however, was that she learned about not hurting her daughter, how to support her, and that her own behaviors affected Maria.
Two years later
When Martin and Regina attended the course two years earlier, they realized that they were one of the few couples who had not disclosed biological parentage to their (now 10-year-old) child. This was an area of concern expressed by the couple throughout all three interviews. According to Martin, “It’s still a case that we have not solved. . . . Supposedly, I am the reason for not having cleared that up yet, but at the same time she [Regina] is afraid to do it.” Until the course, Martin and Regina never considered their family a stepfamily—they were just a family. They wanted to tell Maria that Martin was not her biological father because they were afraid she would hear it from someone else and, yet, both were afraid to do so because she might feel lied to.
Both Regina and Martin reflected on the benefits of taking the course as a family. According to Martin, “We felt like we were all working towards the same goal and we were all focused on the same things.” Regina had learned about some of her daughter’s frustrations about her family and, as a result, Regina become more involved in Maria’s life. Martin also indicated that the course reinforced that each child in the family was important and “we try to listen to their opinions” when making decisions. Martin described how two years after the course, the children felt they were truly part of the family. His example was that they recently bought a car and his son talked about it being “our car.” Martin continued by saying the course helped them, “see the value the children had in the family whether they come from nuclear families or stepfamilies.”
The course also had a continued impact on how they disciplined the children. First of all, they calmed down and did not respond when they were angry. Secondly, they did not contradict the other person in front of the children, especially when it involved discipline. Martin said, “We’ll talk later,” and they would typically reach an agreement away from the children. Regina also said she communicated better with her children as a result of the course.
They continued to work on finances together. Because they had both been in charge of the money at different times since taking the course, they had learned to trust each other. Martin said, “Finances have evolved. . . . We both managed them.” According to Regina, “We used to eat out . . . but now we eat healthier and watch the money.”
Regina talked about their couple relationship and said, “I think there is acceptance of the way we are. . . . I feel really loved by this person [Martin].” She added, “We talk when frustrating and upsetting things happen. He is committed to our family and that has been good for us.”
Martin and Regina felt there were several positive aspects of their family life that resulted from taking the stepfamily course. First, they learned how to effectively discipline their children using methods such as learning the reasons for their children’s behavior rather than just reacting, using “corrective ways, not abusive ways” of discipline, and not contradicting each other in front of the children. Second, they learned how to talk things through as a couple and reach an agreement, which reduced conflict in their relationship. Third, they learned how to manage their stress in ways that benefitted their couple and parent/child relationships. Fourth, they became more united as a family by doing things together and including children in making decisions. Fifth, they shared the management of finances and learned to trust each other. Finally, they became more committed as a couple and more committed to the family—which resulted in them getting married. They felt they were a “biological family” after their marriage. It is also clear that these impacts were still evident two years after completing the course. What they learned had changed their lives for the better for the long term.
The findings of this two-year longitudinal study are consistent with other studies with Latino stepfamilies, in that parent/child and couple relationships improved through processes such as communication, stress and finance management, and having family time (Reck et al. 2013; Skogrand et al. 2011; Skogrand et al. 2014). Becoming more committed as a couple and a family was also identified as a benefit in a one-year follow-up study which included Latino stepfamilies (Skogrand et al. 2011). It is worth noting that this is only one family’s experience with a stepfamily course, and we do not attempt to generalize to other courses or participants. That said, this research adds to the literature in that it provides in-depth knowledge and understanding of how the couple and family struggled through their issues and ultimately developed “more tranquility, more understanding, and more communication.”
There was also evidence from this study that there were two topics in the course that resulted in challenges for Martin and Regina, and these two issues may have resulted from beliefs and values from their Latino culture. First, there was time spent in the course talking about the need for children in stepfamilies to know their biological parents. Both Martin and Regina agreed that it was important to tell their daughter, Maria, that Martin was not her biological father, but they did not want to affect their relationship with this disclosure. Their narrative indicates there was considerable anguish over this issue. This is related to the second issue with which Martin and Regina struggled—being considered a stepfamily. Martin, especially, did not feel they were a stepfamily. It was clear they wanted to be like any other family that was “100 percent biological.” He also did not feel there was a difference between “natural daughters or not natural daughters.”
According to Adler-Baeder and Higginbotham (2004), two themes in the stepfamily literature that were integrated into the Smart Steps curriculum are (1) stepparent-stepchild relationships are different from parent-child relationships and (2) relationships with former partners should be positive since they affect the couple and the stepfamily relationships. An implication of this current study is that these themes may not be culturally appropriate for Latino stepfamilies (Skogrand et al. 2009). The term “stepfamily” is rarely used in the Latino culture and, instead, Latino stepfamilies often mimic the nuclear family structure (Skogrand et al. 2009). Ties are often cut with former relationships and children do not typically have contact with the non-custodial biological parent.
It is clear from this oral history narrative of one Latino couple who attended the Smart Stepsthat as a couple and as a family they felt many benefits resulted. It is also clear it took considerable effort to make changes in their relationships, and their stories describe that effort. It is also clear that the issues of telling Maria that Martin was not her biological father and viewing themselves as a stepfamily were difficult and not easily handled by the couple. For this couple, these aspects of the course were challenging in light of their cultural values. This study provides an indication that when serving Latino stepfamilies, issues of family structure and biological connections may need to be addressed with increased cultural sensitivity and curricula may need to be adapted to be inclusive of Latino values.
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