Archive for June, 2011

Welcome to www.combinedfamilies.com 
The purpose of this site is to educate and inform visitors about “living-in-step.”  Its goal is to offer insight into how step-relationships work in families where there is no legal tie between at least one adult and one child in the family. 
While everyone seems to be familiar the workings of the nuclear family, wherein a first marriage couple has the opportunity to develop mutual ties to their mutual children, few seem to understand the dynamics underlying family structures that have no other choice but to be built on the basis of at least one preexisting parent-child relationship. 
Known under a variety of labels, such as:  “blended,” “combined,” “remarried” or “step,” the families these couples’ unions form not only lack a societally recognized name, they all contain at least one step-relationship. Differences in the way  these families form create differences in the way they function.  It is these differences that “LIVING-IN-STEP” seeks to explore:

A family tree with many branches can be confusing to children of any age

This point was brought home to me when I found myself at a luncheon, seated next to Nina, a woman who probably knew more about “living in step” than almost anyone I had previously met. Her father had been married six times, and her mother twice.

Although Nina was the only child born to her parents’ union, she eventually found herself interconnected to a multitude of people through a multiplicity of relationships — such as step- and half-siblings, some of whom were older, and some younger.  Their influences seemed very present in her life.

As Nina appeared willing to discuss her family in more detail, I grabbed a piece of paper and started drawing a genogram, or family map. Genograms are simple devices drawn with squares for males and circles for females, and lines to indicate relationships.  When faced with the task of trying to understand complex family relationships, those simple notations can be of great help in sorting through the complexities of a person’s life.

Armed with the information Nina provided, a map of her parents’ movement from one form of family to another began to take shape. By the time Nina’s parents met, her father had already fathered five children by two previous wives.

Nina was the product of her mother’s first and father’s third marriage. She was her mother’s first and her father’s sixth child. Can you imagine young Nina trying to figure out who she was—and what place she held in her father’s life? It would be hard to imagine any child being expected to sort through such a tangle of family relationships, but that was a simple part of Nina’s life as compared to that which followed. Her parents divorced and eventually remarried other partners.

The remarriage of Nina’s father took him out of town, leaving Nina and her mother to live together in a one-parent family for a long time. All that changed, however, when Nina’s mother remarried a man with three children. In an instant, Nina went from being an only child to one of the gang. To further complicate matters, Nina had now become a member of a household with three part-time resident step-siblings of a different faith.

Faced with so many changes in family structure and composition I wondered whether Nina had been able to develop a sense of family, so I ventured the question: “Who’s in your family?”

Nina paused and then said thoughtfully: “actually, I have four families.” As she proceeded to identify the people who belong to each, I drew lines around them on the genogram that lay on the table before us. The results were surprising:

Selected from more than a dozen and a half biological and step-relatives, Nina had chosen to identify as her first family her mother, stepfather and just one of her stepfather’s children. While she had been raised with all three of her stepfather’s children, two of them made it into the next tier… Nina’s “second” family.

Nina defined her ties to her second family as looser than ties to the first. Instead of saying, “I didn’t care too much for my stepfather’s younger children,” she chose to split these two children off from her basic definition of family.

As Nina moved to define members of her third family, she skipped over five half-siblings that had been born to her father from two different wives. Evidently, Nina had neither the opportunity nor the desire to get to know these half-siblings better. Blood-related or not, they were not included as members of any of her families, as Nina included in her third family only her father and a daughter born to him in his fifth marriage.

While this last half-sister had made it into Nina’s third family, the place occupied by the child’s mother was on the lowest rung of Nina’s family tree – in her fourth family. The fact that her half-sister’s mother had made it into Nina’s definition of family at all seemed quite an accomplishment.  She was the only stepmother to gain a place on Nina’s family tree.

As I think about the many ways children have of making heads or tails of their family lives, 45-year-old Nina’s response to  “Who’s in your family?” seemed confirmation of some of the hijinks young minds are put through in trying to make sense of who they are in the context of the families with whom they find themselves living. For example, Nina did not answer: “I was raised in a house with my stepfather’s three children, but I always felt closest to his oldest son.” Then again, Nina did not say that she developed an attachment to her half-sister by her father’s fifth wife – whose mother was not too bad as a stepmother.

No, instead of including all of the important people in her life in her definition of “family,” Nina chose to break up the whole concept of family into four pieces. Even as a 45-year-old divorced mother of two children, she continued to rank her family in pieces, with the best piece as her first family, and the least worthy piece as her fourth.

Where Nina got stuck in her thinking, who knows? Using a construction analogy, let us assume that parents’ divorces, periods of single parenting and subsequent remarriages provide the framework for their children’s development. With so much building and dismantling of children’s basic family frameworks, there are all too many opportunities for nails to be left sticking out and for children to get stuck.

For Nina, there were so many opportunities for her to get hung up in figuring out family relationships, it would be sheer folly to guess where she got caught.  But the reason why Nina’s story continues to intrigue me is this: If a 45-year-old woman was still so unable to complete her own family picture, what was the picture of family life was she drawing for her own children?




This article was previously published.


As summertime approaches, old and new custody agreements between separated and divorced parents kick into gear, and the fates of the children involved in those agreements start playing out across the land.  Whether traveling by air, sea or land, little children as well as big ones are forced to begin their travels between their moms’ and dads’ houses at designated points in time—obliged to meet the terms of contracts in which most have had no say.

What bothers many children even more than these burdensome travel requirements is the fact that they feel doomed to repeat their sojourns over the course of their minority; for very young children, these travels can persist over the span of many years.  And, don’t for a moment think that parents’ lives stand still over such long periods of time, because they don’t.

While numbers of divorced parents do not marry again, it is not uncommon for one or both parents of children of divorce to remarry, or to enter into some kind of “living together” arrangement.  Their parents’ extra-curricular activities add a slew of concerns for children of divorce and remarriage to think about as they make their seasonal trek between their parents’ houses.  Not only do these children have to concern themselves with questions about what has been going on in the household they will be joining…while they have been absent, they worry about what’s going to happen to the parent with whom they have been living, e.g., Will that parent be all right once the child has left?

About to be forced into a situation where they feel they have a foot in each parent’s household, children often feel a mixture of both anticipation and dread as their worries about what the future might hold in store for them once they arrive at their “Go To” parent’s household mingle with concerns about that which could possibly go wrong in the household of the parent they are about to leave, or have already left behind.

Travel between their parents’ houses can be a very anxious time for children, and parents need to do all that is within their power to reduce these tensions for children.

When children and parents are out of touch for long periods of time, anxieties about what lies in store for them can extend far beyond children’s natural abilities to cope.  Children’s worries about what awaits them at their nonresidential parents’ houses can produce tension-filled times on both ends of children’s journeys, as well as while they are en route.  That is why what traveling children seem to need most, both before they leave their residential parents’ homes, as well as after they arrive at their nonresidential parents’ homes, is “quiet time.”

As “quiet time” is essential for children who sojourn between their parents’ houses, it is possible that this “quiet” or “down time” could work out to be one of the best presents parents on both ends of children’s journeys could give—both to themselves, and to the children who have just taken the long, or not-so-long-distance trip from “the known,” into “the unknown.”

There are, of course, a variety of ways in which parents can lessen their children’s concerns about travel between their separate houses throughout the year.  For example, the more current nonresidential children and parents are when it comes to keeping up with each others activities and interests—even though they live apart, the more assured all of these individuals are likely to feel about their own unique capacities to lighten the burden of feeling strange and unfamiliar with one another when “moving day,” their time for coming together, finally arrives.

When both nonresidential parents and children have been doing their part in keeping up their relationship over the periods of time they are not able to live together, the only thing these individuals will need to do when their branch of the family tree is finally reassembled is to start building on that which they already know about one another.

Smart families seize this opportunity to start writing a new chapter in their collective family history, but they see to it, as well, that the first page in this new chapter of their family history starts with arriving children being allowed time to “settle down” and “settle in” before setting off on the adventure of beginning to get to know their “Go To” families—for however long a period of time they will actually be present in their households with them.

The ideas offered in this article are as good for a day or a weekend as they are for a couple of months.  Know your child, know your children, and if you love them, give them some “down time,” before, during, and after a move between their parents’ houses.  Everyone will benefit!  Good Luck!

Speaking of Summertime…


A version of this article was published in a parenting magazine in 1997.

Summertime seems to be the favorite time for families to move.  Kids are out of school, the weather is usually, but not always, inviting, and local residents are likely to be out and about, willing to meet and greet those families who have chosen to transplant themselves into their neighborhoods.

That’s when a major source of problem can arise for people “living-in-step.” What problem ?  INTRODUCTIONS!

Explaining step-relationships is never easy, but what would you have done if you were the newly combined family who were recently presented with a welcome (something like this) in their neighborhood bulletin:

“Let’s everyone welcome James and June Brady to the neighborhood.  They’ve moved into the house at _______________.   The couple’s nine year old son, Tim Brady, will be in third grade when school starts up again, while his younger sister, Kimberly, has high hopes for starting kindergarten at that time.  Let’s be sure to give our new neighbors a call at __________, and let them know we’re glad they’re here.”

Friendly!  Nice!  Who could ask for a better welcome?  The only problem is, Tim’s last name is Anderson, and Kimberly is not his sister; she’s his stepsister.  The family’s problem now is: How, after being given such a rousing welcome, will they identify themselves when their new neighbors come calling?  Will the couple tell their new neighbors they are a combined family–one formed as the result of putting together two previously one-parent families?  Or, will they opt to do something else?

Given the extreme hospitality of the write-up this family received in the local bulletin, we can only wonder about the couple’s willingness to rectify the error that was made in such seemingly good faith.  Wouldn’t it be easier to let people carry one with their misperceptions–and never correct the error?  The dilemma for couples is that the temptation to go along with the fiction, that they are what they appear to be, is powerful.  After all, who needs to know their business?

Pretending to be an intact family may appear the way to go for the family that has been mistaken as intact, but as people come to know family members better, it becomes harder and harder to keep up the pretense–and nigh on impossible to rectify the error.  The problem with pretending is that family members look like liars if they are found out.  Who would believe anything they said after that?

The hard truth of this matter is that if this couple does not clarify the local bulletin’s error now, the whole family may wind up living a lie.

Going with the story would lead all sorts of well-meaning neighbors to make all kinds of unintentional mistakes, such as somebody asking June about Kimberly’s early childhood development, when, being new to this family, June has no idea what childhood illnesses Kimberly has or hasn’t had–nor is it likely she would know when the child walked or talked or was potty trained.  These are not things couples are likely to discuss when they are courting and planning a wedding.

These are, however, the stepping stones to ever-bigger lies, to cover other mistakes family members might make along the way in “explaining themselves” to the neighborhood.

So, why don’t people come right out and identify themselves as “living in step”?  Certainly, part of the reason has to lie in the negative stereotypes that have become associated with the word “step.”  It’s hard to find brand new families willing to take on the sigma of “step” and identify themselves as a “step” family.   Why take the chance of starting out in a one-down position?  If family members look like a nuclear family, why not play, “Let’s Pretend.”

Pretending is what gets so many families into trouble.  It can take years for stepparents and stepchildren to form solid bonds.  And, while it may be easier for some children to accept the idea that they are getting instant brothers or sisters, the minute their parents say, “I do,” how long will it take them until they “feel” like they are related?  Some stepsiblings never get to that point.  And if you think stepbrothers and stepsisters have problems with each other, the problems surrounding stepparent-stepchild relationships often assume Olympic proportions.

It’s hard enough to get to know other people well, let alone get to know people well enough to live with them on an intimate basis.  For most people who are new to living in step, they might just as well take in a stranger as each other.  Indeed, as families are just formed, what are most of these individuals to one another, but strangers.  Their task is to build bonds of love where only “step-ties” exist.  This is a huge and often burdensome undertaking.

Certainly, as families just come together, it is up to them to identify themselves as being new to their current living situation.  Once they do, they’ll find that, by and large, stepparents won’t be expected to be mothers and fathers to their stepchildren.  People understand, more than they may care to admit, that it takes time for stepparents to get to know the children who have become members of their families by virtue of their remarriages.

Children too won’t have to be stressed by responding to relative strangers (their stepparents or stepsiblings) “as if” they were parents or siblings.  Relations can get strained enough between strangers living together in ways only family members have previously been allowed to live.  Pretending adds strains that are unneeded, and tensions that are unnecessary.

As to reporting to you what this family chose to do, I believe they chose to correct the error that had been made with each individual family they met, rather than having the local bulletin correct their error.

How their decision ultimately works out remains to be seen.  It just occurs to me that they might have met more people who were also living in step had they chosen to change the error in the neighborhood bulletin.

Placing blame when ‘another’ woman

/’another’ man is involved

A version of the following article was previously published in a parenting magazine in 1998.

We have all heard not-too-rosy scenarios involving “the other woman” or “the other man.”  I thought it about time to consider the plight of the other woman or man when she or he actually marries the person with whom she or he was involved—and how these actions are dealt with by the children involved.

Not all that long ago, I met a woman and a child over lunch in a quaint cafe. This woman, let’s call her Connie, was not someone you would readily notice. She was middle-aged and slightly overweight, but the child with her was dressed to kill. No more than four-years-old, this little girl wore a hat, gloves, jewelry and a beautifully smocked dress. The outfit cried out for attention, so I acknowledged how “fancy” and attractive the little girl looked.

These comments—and a few others, such as assuming Connie was the child’s grandmother, and the little girl’s outfit was  special for the day—finally brought corrections:  Connie was the child’s mother, and the child was always sent off to nursery school wearing a dress, hat, party shoes and jewelry. There had to be a story here. There was!

Connie had been married to a husband who abused her, and she finally escaped with her child to a small town nowhere near the one she came from.  She found a job working for the man she eventually wound up marrying.

Although Connie insisted she had left her new husband’s employ long before he divorced his wife, it did not take me long to come to the realization that I was talking to “the other woman.”

With all the fancy trappings for her daughter, and her own fine jewelry, Connie did not look happy. She had moved to escape a husband who abused her, but in the new town to which she had moved, and in which she now lived, she found herself branded as “the other woman,” the reason her husband’s first marriage ended.

Connie admitted that she wasn’t considered good enough by her husband’s family.  She came with baggage: a child and a reputation as a home wrecker. It was apparent why Connie took such pains to make a lady of her daughter. In this upscale community, Connie would probably never be considered one herself.

Another “other woman” I know recently complained of having problems with her husband’s adult children.  Although now in a marriage of many years, her husband’s children remember the pain their father’s decision to divorce their mother caused, and what becomes immediately apparent is: this woman has not been (and may never be)  forgiven for her part in it.

The position of men marrying “the other woman” is often not much better than that of the women.  These men are often astonished to find themselves cut off from their children.

A man who resisted the temptation to divorce his wife for many years wound up carrying on a clandestine affair until he could no longer bear the pain of his double life. Finally, he made the choice to divorce his wife and marry the woman he loved, but he paid a heavy price for his decision.  His children found his actions reprehensible.

When it came time for his children to plan their own weddings, all knew their mother could not tolerate being in the same room with “that woman.”  Faced with not having their mother or not having their father at their weddings, two of his children gave their father the option of coming without his new wife—or not coming at all.

The man couldn’t see why, after working himself to death to give his children everything they needed, the children were ready to forgo their relationship with him because he had had the courage to marry the woman he loved.  For their part, the man’s children let him know that they didn’t want to cause their mother any more pain than their father already had.  They were not ready to sacrifice their relationship with their mother for the desires of their father.  Perhaps they felt he had already satisfied those desires at too great an expense to the family.

The problem here is in placing blame. When a family is broken apart as the result of an affair, it does not matter whether or not the state grants a no-fault divorce. Children will figure out who’s at fault and assign blame accordingly.



In an age where the click of a mouse gains you entrance to the internet superhighway, wouldn’t it be great if one day divorcing couples could enter into a search engine; “figures as to where they are now” in their relationship with one another” + “a request for information regarding the likely effects their current actions would have on their children’s lives at some distant point in the future” and then, with just one more click of the mouse on SEARCH, or GO, receive almost instant valid and reliable feedback regarding the likely impact each couple’s current actions would have on the lives of their children at some specific period of time in the future.

Of course, this kind of information could be made even better were parents to receive a detailed set of directions—either online or in printout form—as to how to go about setting-up, and meeting, specific targets for specific children.

While we may regret that “technology” has not as yet brought us to this point, what soon became clear to me was that the parents of the young woman I chanced to meet at an airport hub could have used the kinds of information such a “Search” might have yielded at the time of their divorce.  Such a “Search” might have provided them with a filter for their decision-making—one through which they could have sifted all of the various options available to them.  Once those were sorted, her parents would have been in a better position to determine which options best suited the needs of their children—with provision made for them to revise their strategies should the options they selected prove less than optimal for the benefit of their children over the course of time.

As both Jana and I had been in transit when we took our brief opportunity to chat on a layover that brought us to the same place at the same time, it was only upon reflection on that brief conversation that I started to think about the long-range impact of parents’ actions on their children…and how great it would be if society could generate some valid and reliable information for parents—on the likely long-range impact of divorce…on their children.  All this, of course, would be pursuant to valid and reliable data on the future life course of each couple’s children—extended out, let us say, from however long it took for both couples to remarry to 25 years into the future—being made accessible and available to every parent who had need of it, etc., etc., etc.

The reason I raise this subject for your consideration at this time is because it was over the Holiday Season at an airport hub that I found myself seated next to a young woman in her late twenties—but this story is not particular to the holidays.  It takes place every day, in transportation hubs all over the world…

What was noteworthy about this meeting was that the young lady I met had been shuttling between her mom’s and dad’s houses for the past 25 years.  For her, this was merely another one of those distance runs she had been making between her parents houses—a continuation of the journey she had been on since she was four.

As we chatted, Jana owned up to something she was having trouble admitting to herself.  While she had found ways to incorporate herself into each of the two very different families her parents’ remarriages had spawned, she was just beginning to realize—and perhaps regret—the high price she had paid in the bargain.  Now almost 30 years of age, Jana talked about never, in all those years, having been able to take “the kind of vacation she wanted to take.”  While her wants might well have taken Jana in other directions, her drive to please her parents kept the young woman from doing anything besides spending any and all of her free time with the families of one or the other of them—despite their being located at opposite ends of one of the United States’ coasts.

Although Jana felt she had little occasion to get to know her stepfather’s three oldest children, they were the only ones to whom Jana did not feel closely connected.  Indeed, it was her ties to all this extended family that kept Jana feeling she lacked room to make a life of her own.

Jana’s brother, Cam, on the other hand, was on the other side of that spectrum of children who see their parents divorce and remarry, and somehow or another cannot find a place for themselves in their parents’ new lives.  Whether children such as Cam find themselves angry and belligerent, or lost and bereft—and any and all things in between, children who are left feeling that they have no place in the lives their parents have made for themselves frequently tend to exclude themselves from both new and old family ties.  These children often “leave home” too early, sometimes willingly, sometimes not.  Of course, as some displaced children gradually come to feel like—and be looked upon as misfits in their parents’ new families, it is not uncommon, therefore, to see children such as these being pushed out, cut-off, discounted, and/or in other ways generally avoided and/or ignored, all as part of the effort some couples make to reshape their new families—in a nuclear family mold.

In comparison to her brother’s seeming inability to make a home with either of his parents, Jana’s early sacrifice of her independence, in exchange for membership in each parent’s new family, seems to have paid dividends.  Jana was indeed a member of both parents’ combined families, complete with step- and half-siblings, in addition to her biological brother, Cam.

All these years later, however, the results of the price Jana had been forced to pay as a preschooler seemed to be showing up in her feeling somewhat trapped by her extended family—almost to the point where Jana worried that her ability to create a meaningful life of her own had been permanently compromised.

While Jana had no trouble admitting that she purposely invested the past quarter of a century in pleasing both her mom and her dad by becoming an accepted member of both of their households, she remained anxious to be relieved of the undue burden she felt the mandate of having to spend every Christmas and summer vacation with one or the other of her parents had imposed on her from childhood.

Now an adult, Jana seemed quite desperate, not only to plan and take her own vacations, but to strike out on her own.  The fact that her parents were aging and not easily able to travel obviously troubled Jana; but her efforts to achieve her ultimate goal, i.e., to establish her independence, seemed to be a source of both pride and conflict for her.  Apparently, Jana had just one month to go before graduating with a professional degree that would at last allow her to relocate to a different city and state.  Once settled, Jana planned to set up residence and invite members of her very large extended family to visit her.

Obviously excited by the prospect of becoming her own person, Jana’s whole demeanor changed when the subject of marriage was introduced.  Perhaps it was the notion that “the special someone” she might find to marry might possibly be a member of a family similar to hers that set Jana’s mind on edge.  Whatever it was, Jana’s last thoughts, called back to me as we raced for our separate planes, were: “If his extended family were anything like mine, we’d have to celebrate holidays on a four-year rotation,” and with that, we waved our farewells.


This article was published in a parenting magazine in 1995:

Dear Taube:


My husband and I have been married for eight years.  He has a son, 12, from a previous marriage.  Even before we had our daughter, now three, my husband’s family always treated his son like he hung the moon.  Out of five grandchildren, this boy is my in-law’s only grandson.

It would be hard to describe in how many ways my stepson is favored by his grand- and even great-grandparents.  Visits, presents, and money flow to this grandson, with little left over for his little half-sister (my daughter), or his first cousins, (my husband’s sister’s kids).

My husband and sister-in-law both recognize what’s going on and are not happy about it, but they have not said anything in order to keep the peace.

I must admit that I have a wonderful stepson.  He’s always been very good, kind, loving and sensitive.  However, when my daughter gets older and starts to notice the difference between how she and her half-brother are treated, I’m going to have to say something to my mother-in-law.

My parents treat my stepson like he’s their own, and my husband’s father has bonded with our daughter, but his mother doesn’t even make any attempt to get to know our daughter.  She says she doesn’t want to push herself on the child.

Please help me on how to handle my discussions with my husband’s family when the time comes.  I feel that it’s getting closer all the time.   I don’t think I’ll be able to keep quiet much longer.

Frustrated with Favoritism




Dear Frustrated with Favoritism:


Thanks for reminding us of an age-old problem with a modern day twist.

The sex of a child, a resemblance to a loved, or despised, spouse, parent, or grandparent, a pleasant, or unpleasant, personality–all of the above give rise to favoritism, or unfavoritism,  in families.

Given the inconstancy of human nature, playing favorites has probably always been a fact of life.  I am as guilty as the next person in choosing one radio station over another because “the one” plays my favorite music.

We all play favorites.  The difference here is that your mother-in-law’s “playing favorites” is likely to have a negative impact on your daughter, and your daughter’s relationship to her half-brother (your stepson).

Your mother-in-law may be totally unaware that her generosity toward her “one” grandson creates tension in her son’s and daughter’s families.  She might be very upset to learn that in favoring one grandchild, she is disfavoring the other four.

What is there to do about the situation?  There’s little doubt that you do need to have a discussion with your mother-in-law.  How you frame that discussion will determine whether or not she can hear what it is you have to say.

From her actions, it seems safe to say your mother-in-law operates on a snapshot picturing one grandson.  But there is a bigger picture she’s missing.  That picture shows her five grandchildren, all of whom have feelings, about her, and about each other.  In order for your mother-in-law to view this bigger picture properly, she will need to see it in a larger frame.

While there are many ways to expand your mother-in-law’s frame of reference, here is one that I think will help you to get what you need to say said:

Ask your mother-in-law if she could give you some uninterrupted time in which to confide some of your feelings about what’s going on in your relationship.  Tell her that you will be happy to grant her the same courtesy in return.

Once she understands that she will be given equal time, she’ll probably consent.  If not, let her know that you have no intention of blaming her about anything.  Tell her you just want to share your feelings with her, and then do just that.

Every sentence you speak needs to deal with a specific feeling.  Staying with your feelings is of the utmost importance.  For example, you could start out with something like:

“Over the years, I’ve noticed that you are very attached to your grandson.  I can understand your attachment because I feel (the boy’s name)  is a ‘good, kind, loving and sensitive’ boy.  I consider myself fortunate to have him as a stepson.”  All of this you have said in your letter.

Stay true to your feelings!  Feeling statements carry no blame or condemnation.

After every three or four “feeling” statements, such as, “I wonder why,” “I suspect,” “I don’t understand,” etc., ask for your mother-in-law’s help.  Ask her to repeat what you’ve said.  The two of you will only be communicating when what your mother-in-law hears is what you mean, and vice versa.

When you are satisfied your mother-in-law has grasped your meaning, you can go on with your feeling statements, such as: “I’m frustrated,” “I resent,” “I’m afraid,” all of which can lead you to other more positive feelings such as, “I want,” “I expect,” “I appreciate,” and “I hope.”

If you stay with your feelings, and give your mother-in-law a chance to voice hers, I believe you will have far fewer frustrations with favoritism.


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