Story transcripts

Step by Step

Friday, July 31, 2009

Reporter: Karl Stefanovic
Producers: Sandra Cleary, Kirsty Thomson

Meet the step-parents and their step families. Welcome to the turmoil that can happen after the divorce, when two families become one.

Back in the 70s, in the days of the Brady Bunch on TV, they were a novelty. A laugh a minute.

These days, they're much more common, in the last 10 years, the number has doubled. One in five Australian children now lives in a step-family. And the laughs can be few and far between.

It's no picnic. In fact, while many do manage to make a go of it, the majority fail. Karl Stefanovic reports on the highs and the lows, why it's not always one big happy family.

Story contacts:

For further information about support for stepfamilies contact:
Stepfamilies Australia
Phone: 03 9639 6611

Full transcript:


KARL STEFANOVIC: Welcome to the newest battlefield of modern domestic life - the step-family.

RACHEL THAMM: You're not asking Daddy after I've already said "no". Put the Game Boy down.

MARK THAMM: Come on! Let's go.

RACHEL THAMM: Hand it over.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Rachel and Mark Thamm face a daily challenge that's increasingly common in Australian homes - combining their two families into one.

RACHEL THAMM: That phone call cost $5.00. You little weeny! You owe me five bucks!

KARL STEFANOVIC: So you are the evil stepmum?

RACHEL THAMM: Definitely!

KARL STEFANOVIC: You don't look evil.

RACHEL THAMM: Oh, no, I am. Ask any of the kids.

COHEN THAMM: Yeah, she was a bit like the evil stepmum, I guess, for a while.

KARL STEFANOVIC: The evil stepmum? That's pretty full-on!

COHEN THAMM: Yeah, yeah, none of us really liked her.

RACHEL THAMM: Did Brooke eat your breakfast or did you eat your breakfast?

MARK THAMM: It gets bloody hard sometimes. Yes, there was times, certainly, when we first got together that is was Rachel and I against the world.

KARL STEFANOVIC: This is the story of Rachel who had a daughter, Keelin. And it's the story of Mark who had two kids of his own, Cohen and Sarah. 10 years ago, Rachel and Mark met and fell in love. Together they formed a family and had two kids of their own, Ashton and Brooke. Back in the '70s, television offered us the picture-perfect step family - The Brady Bunch. Every conflict was neatly resolved in a half-hour episode. But these days, one in five Australian children grows up in a step-family and in the real world things don't always run as smoothly as a sitcom.

RACHEL THAMM: Come on, I want to spend five minutes with Dad after I've got home.

MARK THAMM: It's never been happy families 100% of the time, but we have the best of the worst. We have great times and we have some pretty bad times.

RACHEL THAMM: Anything I find of Cohen's I sort of crack open the door and shovel in because it's a nightmare.

KARL STEFANOVIC: In the Thamm household, Rachel's hard-line approach grates most on her 16-year-old stepson, Cohen.

RACHEL THAMM: I think technically that's the clean clothes spot. They've only been worn four or five times.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Conflict is constant. For one thing, they've reached complete stalemate over his messy room. Neither will touch it.

COHEN THAMM: I wasn't really used to her telling me off and stuff and being like a parent. It was normally my mum that would tell me off so we had a few arguments about that.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Disciplining a partner's children is the most contentious issue in step-households.

RACHEL THAMM: Where did you get that from?

COHEN THAMM: I bought it with my money.

RACHEL THAMM: This stuff is crap. It will rot your insides.

KARL STEFANOVIC: And it's caused problems on both sides of this combined family.

MARK THAMM: I think it's more like the excuse that you're allergic to sugar because it makes you fat.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Rachel's daughter, Keelin, also resented being told what to do by Mark, when he wasn't her real dad.

KEELIN THAMM: At the beginning I was horrible, I was just awful and I hated him so much. But, you know, I had to grow to like him.

KARL STEFANOVIC: It's a real minefield isn't it? It's tough?

DR JAN NICHOLSON: It's certainly very challenging and it comes with a lot of difficulties in the early stages.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Dr Jan Nicholson, from the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, offers some grim realities for families like the Thamms. Studies reveal a third of these relationships will fail within the first two years and over all a staggering 60% will end in separation. You don't like that statistic, do you?


KARL STEFANOVIC: Why don't you like it?

DR JAN NICHOLSON: I think that a lot of times we hear the bad stories about step-families and there are a lot of good stories out there. If you allow children the time to develop their relationships with the step-parent, then, yes, you can make it work and you can come out with a really happy family that meets everyone's needs.

KARL STEFANOVIC: You can have the Brady Bunch?

DR JAN NICHOLSON: No. Most of us don't have an Alice.

ROHAN McKAIGE: We're no longer individuals or it's his or hers, we're one big family now.

KARL STEFANOVIC: If you were beginning to think Mike and Carol Brady and their Bunch were pure fantasy, meet Rohan and Carolyn McKaige, blissfully happy after five years together with their respective children.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Carolyn, have you ever been the evil stepmum?

CAROLYN McKAIGE: No, No, absolutely not.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Come on! And have you ever been the evil stepdad?

ROHAN McKAIGE: No, I don't think so, I hope not.

KARL STEFANOVIC: There's something seriously wrong with you two.

ROHAN McKAIGE: No, I think we just get on so well together as a couple and also as a family.

KARL STEFANOVIC: There are two of his and two of hers. Rohan has 16-year-old twins, Alex and Pat. Carolyn has two boys, 16-year-old Dylan and 18-year-old Adrian. With four teenagers under the one roof, surely there's got to be drama? Alex, for you, what's the toughest thing?

ALEX McKAIGE: The first thing was probably getting used to how people acted. Like, you didn't know how they would behave in the mornings or at night. You had to sort of get used to their moods swings and that.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Their mood swings aren't too bad, though, are they?

ALEX McKAIGE: No, I'm probably the one with the biggest mood swings.

KARL STEFANOVIC: I'm going to have one of these rosters too. That's how organised you've got to be?

CAROLYN McKAIGE: You do, absolutely.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Rohan and Carolyn make it look easy but they work hard at keeping everyone happy.

CAROLYN McKAIGE: OK, who wants what?

KARL STEFANOVIC: In the kitchen, Carolyn will serve up two versions of the same meal to ensure both sides of the family get what they're used to. And Rohan has taken on far more than most real dads would dare - teaching all three 16-years-olds to drive. That's a lot of log books to fill in.

ROHAN McKAIGE: They've all got their learner's so there's always a fight for the front seat of the car.

KARL STEFANOVIC: What were your first thoughts about Rohan?

ADRIAN MARSHALL: He didn't try and act like a dad or anything so that's what I liked about that. You know, he wasn't trying to be a new dad.

KARL STEFANOVIC: It's that hands-off approach that the experts recommend. Don't try to be a replacement mum or dad. Better to be a friend. But even the best of step parents can use a helping hand. THERAPIST: What I would like you to do now is get up and grab a pen and think of all the qualities the perfect step-parent, in your mind, should have.

STEPDAD: You need lots of energy, so, running shoes there.

KARL STEFANOVIC: For 25 years, Stepfamilies Australia has been teaching parents how to build new lives from broken homes. STEPMUM 1: Broad shoulders. STEPMUM 2: We agreed, "you parent - and you discipline - your children. I'll discipline my children." STEPMUM 3: Maybe with your own children you might be more direct and say "clean up your mess." I don't talk to Brad's children like that.

KARL STEFANOVIC: And classes like these are growing all the time as more and more divorced parents opt for 50/50 parenting equal shared custody. Rohan and Carolyn's kids spend half their time here and half with their other parent. It can be a difficult routine.

ROHAN McKAIGE: I think a lot of people don't actually realise how hard it is for kids. I mean, as far as the adults go, we live in the house we stay here all the time. The kids pretty much live out of suitcases.

PAT McKAIGE: Probably the biggest hassle would be moving your life from one house to the other. But having like a week at my mum's and a week at my dad's is probably the fairest thing to do.

KARL STEFANOVIC: The Thamms also opted for a 50/50 arrangement with their former partners - a decision Rachel now regrets.

RACHEL THAMM: All the psychological literature of the time - in the '90s - said you know, it's a good arrangement for the children. It is a nightmare!

KARL STEFANOVIC: Brooke and Ashton, Rachel and Mark's own kids, are the only ones who live with them full-time and they reckon they get the best of both worlds.

DAUGHTER: Well, I think I'm lucky because not many people get to have lots of brothers and sisters and also baby rabbits.

RACHEL THAMM: Not yet, not yet! You've got to wait till I'm ready. Does anyone else want to throw balls at me? Come on, Keelin.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Creating shared memories and common interests have proven to help step families survive. The Thamm's family passion for cricket brings them all together.

RACHEL THAMM: It's an arena where I can ask them to do something and I'm not the B, I, T, C, H.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Even here, bonding for Rachel and Cohen isn't going to plan.

RACHEL THAMM: Cohen 'accidentally' hits me with the ball all the time. "Oh! It was my fault that I wasn't looking when you bowling and I had my back to you!"

KARL STEFANOVIC: At times did you wish that she wasn't part of your life?

COHEN THAMM: Oh, yeah. A few times. But yeah, I got over that and figured, well, she's gonna be there for the rest of my life, so I might as well deal with it.

RACHEL THAMM: OK, who wants chicken?

KARL STEFANOVIC: It's one of the myths of step-families that everyone will instantly love each other and live happily ever after. But even Rohan and Carolyn were mindful of the emotional challenges they were facing.

CAROLYN McKAIGE: I thought, I have two of my own children and I love them very much, how could you ever provide another child that type of love and affection? But interestingly enough, you do.

KARL STEFANOVIC: And do you love the boys?

ROHAN McKAIGE: Look, I do. I mean they are part of my family now. I treat them as part of my family. If people ask, how many kids you've got, it's four kids.

KARL STEFANOVIC: 10 years on for Rachel and Mark, they may not be the Brady Bunch, but they are a family. For better or worse, they've stuck together and Rachel may be surprised by just how far they've come.

COHEN THAMM: I see her as like as a second mum because obviously she loves me and stuff and I love her too and stuff.

KARL STEFANOVIC: You do love her?

COHEN THAMM: Oh, yeah, to a degree. Yeah.

KARL STEFANOVIC: As much as you're prepared to admit on national television?

COHEN THAMM: Yeah, pretty much.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Have you told her that?

COHEN THAMM: No, I probably wouldn't.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Do you think he doesn't love you?

RACHEL THAMM: Um, I, yeah, I guess so. I think he still thinks that life would be better if I'd never come into it.

KARL STEFANOVIC: What if I said to you that he told us that he does love you?

RACHEL THAMM: I'd say "Did you get it on film?"


RACHEL THAMM: OK, well you've got me there. I'm very surprised! I guess maybe deep down I always hoped, but, well, there you are, he's never told me.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Must feel nice?

RACHEL THAMM: Yeah, it does, it does.

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