When we think of family, we usually think of Mum, Dad and 2.5 children. That pretty much describes your typical nuclear family and it is the model or standard by which we tend to judge all other types of families. I always want to add “apple pie” to the Mum and Dad bit, because I think it is very much a North American concept of family. We have adopted this idea and largely have not questioned it. In older societies, the extended family can play just as significant a role as Mum and Dad. Many factors have contributed to the development of the family over the centuries including industrialization, work patterns, unionization, labour law, war, education, travel, health, hygiene, life expectancies, childbirth, contraception, divorce and technology to name but some. Our concept of children and childhood, for example, is completely different to the concept of children in the middle ages. The idea of childhood as a virtually separate state of being is a modern notion. Nowadays there are many varieties of families. We have to try and understand the implications of this for all of us. We need to try and evolve new standards of evaluation, broaden our concept of family, to ensure the health and wellbeing of those who are vulnerable in our communities and most importantly so we can stay up to date with the realities of peoples ‘ lives and design our organisations and systems to reflect that.
In Ireland, where legal separation and divorce are such relatively new jurisdictions, we are only now beginning to focus on the supports needed to transition families through these life changing events. In my lifetime, and I am not vastly ancient, I have seen our society introduce contraception and divorce. I have seen our society go from one in which the Roman Catholic Church dominated not just our religious lives, but our social, family, political and work lives to becoming a marginalised church. I have seen our schools gradually dragged kicking into the world of non- denominational education and the Roman Catholic Church lose its iron control on education in Ireland. I have lived as a young adult without mobile phones, the internet and all the other pieces of technology that our young now take for granted. As a child when we went on holidays, we went to another part of the country, we did not go abroad. Some people ventured to England. As a child I grew up without a television, we got our first when I was about 11. A brave new world indeed! In the last 15 years we have gone from being a white Irish nation to being multicultural almost overnight. I don’t know of any country in Europe, except perhaps those in the Eastern European block, who have experienced the vast level of social change in a very short space of time that we have in Ireland in the last 30-40 years.
All these changes have enormous implications for us and bring with them whole new quandaries and dilemmas for us to explore and research . To some extent that is an underlying theme of many of my articles. One major social change that flows from the introduction of divorce is the issue of step families and the related concept of “blended families”. We all grew up reading fairy stories in which the wicked stepmother was a well known character. It is almost impossible to even say the word stepmother without having an image of snow white. One did not hear so much about step fathers. Perhaps that was because so many women died in childbirth so it was more commonplace for there to be stepmothers. I am not so sure about that as poor widows featured quite a bit in those stories and there were an extraordinary number of orphans, that is children without either parent. Given the lousy press of stepmothers in children’s literature we would have to ask how much that informs any discussion we can meaningfully have on stepfamilies and more importantly how it affects children whose families are moving into that category?
So what kind of problems arise for step parents themselves as opposed to how others mainly biological parents and children feel about them? The biggest problem is undoubtedly in the area of decision making. Step parents often feel that they are powerless in their own homes and that they are not consulted about things that affect them directly. There is no doubt that access arrangements for example made by biological parents to facilitate each other, or by a court order, can directly impact on a step parent’s life as can biological children not subject to their control in any way, coming to stay for holiday breaks or overnights. Equally financial decisions made by biological parents can impact on the step parent. These are difficulties, there is no doubt about that. Some of them simply go with the territory but they can be greatly exacerbated by a biological parent who fails to communicate with his/her spouse, fails to exercise discipline and set limits for his/her children at home and fails to instil respect into them for other people. Many biological parents suffer from a great deal of guilt after a divorce and as a direct result can cut their children far too much slack. This is turn can cause huge problems in the home where the step parent has no disciplinary function but at the same time has to live with uncorrected bad behaviour and outright disrespect. Envisaging these problems before you get married is important and discussing your mutual expectations. Going into the marriage with realistic expectations is probably half the battle. If the biological parents have working agreements when you come into the picture, you are probably going to have to accommodate those rather than actively attempt to change them and this applies to visits and money.
Most of us make ourselves completely miserable by trying to change other people. You will never succeed, you can only change yourself. Recently, I came across a Step Parent Bill of Rights campaign. One of their suggestions is :” People outside the immediate family – including ex-wives/husbands, in laws and adult children cannot make plans that affect my life without my consent.” If this is what you really think, don’t do it, don’t get married to that person with the baggage because your life will be one long misery. In fact, don’t get married at all because this happens in all families. Everyone does things without consulting you all the time and most especially your growing children, their teachers, your relatives, your husband, his relatives and so on and on and on. Ex- wives in particular, will seldom, if ever, consult a step mother and they will do things all the time without consent which affect your life. They will sign their children up for sports, swimming, dance classes and such like without any consultation with you. In that same Bill of Rights there are some useful aims eg: “I will not be solely responsible for housework, chores will be distributed fairly”. That should be true for all families and not just step families. Another one refers to people not violating your private space at home and borrowing or taking your possessions. I heartily concur, this should not happen but even in the best regulated households it happens all the time. Children dress up in your clothes or take your books, sit in your chair, borrow your clothes and so on. However, we don’t want to encourage this behaviour so I think setting this type of ground rule is a good idea.
Role ambiguity is one of the issues that makes step parenting challenging. By definition a step parent is an outsider. All the advice and research indicates that you should proceed slowly and with a great deal of caution. Where possible take time to get to know the children, to formulate realistic expectations, understand the nature of their relationship to the parent you may marrying. In other words, hang back, get to know the situation slowly and insert yourself gently. Researcher Patricia Papernow calls stepparents “Intimate Strangers”. It takes time to forge bonds with people. Don’t expect your stepchildren to fall in love with you overnight and don’t expect to fall in love with them overnight either. Its ok not to feel that you want to lay down your life for your stepchildren. There is no requirement to feel that kind of unconditional love and besides the children in question will probably reject it in any event. It is a myth to think that we will all love one another and feel like family instantly. Remember that biological families are created slowly. You have time to forge those bonds, take it easy. Research now indicates that children will take double their age to settle into the new family arrangements and establish new and healthy bonds. This means that a child of 4 could be 8 before they feel entirely comfortable with their stepparent and the new arrangements. This might seem depressing if you expect to be the new Mum or Dad just like that, but if you are happy to just be a significant adult, there are a wide range of possible roles that you can play, from close Aunt or Uncle, grandparent, teacher to family friend. These roles can be incredibly relevant to children and very important. As the old saying goes “It takes a village to raise a child.”
When we love someone, we want everyone else to love them and guess how often that works out? Too often the biological parent will push the new spouse and children onto a fast track, wanting everything to be ok and pushing for that to happen. Equally sometimes the stepparent will caterpult themselves into the family and set out to prove from day one that he or she is going to be a wonderful addition. Guess how often that works?
It is not at all clear what formal parenting roles, rights, responsibilities and social etiquette should exist between stepparents and their stepchildren. This often causes unexpected conflicts. For the stepchildren, it can be extremely complicated. They may be just adapting to the fact of the divorce when new partner is introduced and then Mum or Dad remarries. The length of time between the divorce and the remarriage will have a big impact on the children and how they react. The amount of time they have been given to get to know the new person before the marriage and to adapt slowly to the idea. The sex of the child also has an impact on how they will react. However, all the research shows that the younger the children are the more likely it is that they will develop a parenting type relationship with the stepparent. Stepparents need to think seriously, however, about role they want in the children’s lives before they get involved. It is not always desirable for either the children or the stepparent that their relationship should be a parental one in the strict definition of that. The children might better benefit from an entirely different type of interaction and in turn the stepparent might feel a lot more fulfilled. The children can feel extremely guilty if they like their new stepparent and conflicted. There can be all sorts of loyalty issues for them. Frequently, one or other spouse will actively or passively dislike the other post separation and divorce. Children can sense this even when nothing is said and it saddens them and causes them conflict. They may then have to spend time with a parent who is actively hurting and experience their pain as well as their own and at the same time see the other parent happily interacting with the new spouse. These are huge issues for young minds to try and sort through.
Depending on the age of the child their reactions to the new arrangements will be very different. Children who are young adults will probably not want a new parent. Teenagers in any family tend to be busy throwing off their biological parents and are unlikely to embrace the idea of another one. Younger children will undoubtedly adapt much better than older children and bond more easily. Surprisingly the age of greatest resistance to the stepparent is 9-15 years but again, that is more the idea of stepparent as parent, than the idea of stepparent as concerned adult. For young girls whose Fathers have remarried it can be very hard to see Dad in love with someone. Young girls flirt with their Dads as part of their socialisation and monopolise them but if Dad is distracted and in love then it can seem like a great loss to them. Dads need to be aware of that. It is important to remember too, that for the children the remarriage can be the loss of a dream, the dream that Mum and Dad will get back together.
The children’s attitude to the stepparent will be directly affected by the quality of the relationship they have with their biological Mum and Dad. The better their relationship and the more secure the child is the less likely they will be to feel guilt and conflict if they relate to the stepparent. We know from the research that has been done on attachment, a subject close to my heart since I have an adopted daughter, that children form their strongest attachments early in life ie the first two years. From those attachments children will feel a pervasive sense of security. The lack of that sense of security can have very serious consequences for children and is called “attachment disorder”. Attachments are somewhat reduced after the pre-school years. Knowing this, we need to look with a more flexible eye on the role of a stepparent both from what is actually possible and what is desirable.
If we compare stepfamilies to nuclear families, they will be found wanting. We need to evaluate from a different base. Susan Gamache, psychologist points out that “While adults in step families often view their experience of the stepfamily in terms of the nuclear model, children will often construct their relationship with their step parent in ways that are beyond the nuclear family model” She argues that the term “psychological parenthood” is a term better adapted to the new family situations in that it is independent of family and biology. Some stepparents function as psychological parents and, as I said previously, that is usually dependent on the age of the child, the degree of involvement of the biological parents, and the length of time over which the relationship has developed and others function as acquaintances, relative strangers. Between those two extremes, there lies a wide range of relationships that includes greater or lesser degrees of parenting. The use of the concept of psychological parenting does allow us a way of assessing the relationships that is more flexible and adaptable, allows for the wide range of the relationships possible without the unfairness inherent in the comparison with nuclear family. We now live in a world where relationships have to be negotiated rather than taken for granted. Husbands can no longer assume that they will be bread winners and their wives will stay at home or that their wives will give up their careers and relocate wherever life takes them. These things have to be negotiated even down to whether we have children or we don’t. Things our parents took for granted about their relationships can no longer be taken for granted and similarly the relationships between parents and children. Children are being raised in a variety of family structures and no one size fits all. If the children are old enough, they need to be part of the discussion about the new family. Children who have spent a long time living with just one parent will often have developed ways of co-existing that will not easily adapt to the arrival of another party. Having family meetings is a great way of exploring these sorts of things and involving the children in the discussion. Relationships with their biological parents need to be supported. Step family life challenges us to learn to communicate with our current and former partner in a way that is extremely challenging. Happily help is at hand. Facilitating such discussion by employing the services of a collaborative team or co-mediators would be a wonderful way to move forward, hopefully, to create a parenting team if that is what the children need or else to establish the parameters of each adult’s role. As in all relationships empathy, respect, a non-judgemental attitude and being open to change will go a very long way.
In some ways the ambiguity of the step parent and child relationship allows for great freedom as it is uninstitutionalized , however, that freedom does come at a price and stepfamilies are “interesting” carrying the same meaning as the old saying “May you live in interesting times”.
At the time of writing the legal rights of stepparents in Ireland and quite limited. The Law Reform Commission has formulated proposals to ensure greater legal rights however, at the time of writing these are not in force. A biological parent can appoint his or her partner/spouse to be a testamentary guardian to act in their stead in the event of their death and in that context, as a guardian such person would have legal standing before the court. Equally one could mount an application under Section 11 of the Guardianship of Infants Act seeking visitation rights in the event of a breakdown in the step family relationship but it is hard to envisage that application being successful unless the relationship was close and of long duration.