Stepfamilies and step parents: a delicate arrangement

Family|May 7th 2014

Stepfamilies are a delicate arrangement. For them to come into being, children usually have to be physically separated from a biological parent. While this may come as a relief to some children, who have witnessed abuse or even violence in their former family unit, that is relatively rare and for most it is an event associated with sadness and loss from which the child may never recover. At the same time they may struggle to accept a relative stranger as a step “parent ” at all, whatever the good intentions of the adults.

Given such an unhappy start, once set up under the same roof Mum or Dad’s new partner has an uncertain role. Are they there to actually play parent or are they simply there to be their partner’s new significant other? Should they discipline their step children when they misbehave or is that strictly the preserve of the biological parent? If they are there to play a parent role, how much of a parent should they be? How easy is it to take on a new set of children and live under the same roof together?

In many cases, the children’s other biological parent will still be on the scene and they may rightly or wrongly resent the step parent, seeing them as usurpers getting in the way of their relationship with their own children. He or she may may spoil them rotten, to compensate for not being there as much as before, but not thinking or caring about the impact on the other children in the new household. Unhappy children may feel much their same about their own relationship with their other parent and bitterly resent the intrusion of someone else. Older children especially may object to being disciplined by someone who is essentially  a stranger.

A stepfather, meanwhile, may himself secretly resent having to look after another man’s children, contributing to their cost of living whilst access to his own is restricted. It’s not those children he wants messing up the house it’s his own. He may even feel increasingly guilty as time goes by, wondering what’s happening to his children whilst putting up as best he can with the new arrangements. Do those guilty feelings subside or do they form the basis for a future split? A mother may also feel she has to choose between her children and her new spouse- and usually the children win every time, knowing even at a young age that Mum can be manipulated if she feels guilty about the split, irrespective of all the justifications that seemed so right at the time. Children have a tendency to say what they think the parents wants to hear, and versions may differ depending on which parent is hearing it.

A difficult situation whichever way you look at it. That is not to suggest, of course, that every step family is riven by turmoil. Far from it; many do run smoothly and despite the ups and downs, can generally be happy affairs. The step parents may start as unfamiliar figures of suspicion to the children, but as the years roll by bonds can form. If the children have a difficult or even non-existent relationship with their actual, absent parent, bonding with a kind step parent who is part of their daily lives is the most natural thing in the world. But…it’s a tough ask and even the best laid plans can be based on hopes that never materialise. Like it or not others cannot be manipulated into feeling the same as you do.

So for me, seeing what I’ve seen over so many years, it can easily be argued that the step children- step parent relationship is built on sand. If separation or divorce intervenes, true, the step parent will be entitled to contact with the children he or she once willingly accepted and financially maintained when they all lived together, but how many do ? Blood is still thicker than water. In many cases, the step parent – step child relationship will simply dissolve along with the marriage following divorce. The person that brought them together – the children’s mother or father – is gone. It can be a recipe for great unhappiness for the children. Again.

It’s not easy being a stepparent. As a lawyer and after watching these scenarios play out in their various forms for over 30years, I’m afraid I take the view that step parents go where even angels fear to tread.

Photo by eirasinn via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence

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  1. JamesB says:

    Thanks for writing this.

    My children live with my ex and her fiance. One point you have missed out, which I struggle with, is that these are my children, not his, they are very well brought-up and nice children, and he goes around with her and them as if he contributed. He did nothing, but come in after all the hard work was done and smile as if he did something. A bit like a politician turning up at the signing of an agreement that has nothing to do with them (I can think of numerous examples of this).
    Yes, I sat through many nights with my son on my knee rubbing his back, the other guy didn’t.

    To be specific, they weren’t there when the children were in nappies and had colic for over a year, and the wife had Post natal depression and there was no money. Playing happy families with a family which isn’t yours is pushing your luck.

    Recently they have taken to holidaying abroad while I have the children. I do not slag him off. I remember recently being at hospital for my son with my ex and he turned up and was awkward.

    I hope and think that my children know that blood is always thicker than water as you say. I do also hope that it doesn’t make them sad and try my best that it doesn’t.

    I have also seen this from the other side. The relationship didn’t work out because the children wouldn’t even speak to me, even though the mother was nice.

    I try to build the relationship with the step parent, but it makes no sense to my heart even though to my head it should work.

    I do disagree with Marilyn’s summary and conclusion. I think it can work, although I resent supporting my ex’s new partner, I do, and the children are ok with him. If the children are well brought up with respect and discipline and the nrp is too then it can be workable. From my three first hand experiences of this subject I think you stand about a 50% chance.

    My advice to blokes dating a single mum. Don’t just look at the single mum, but see if the children are nice also. If so, then I would say go for it and work towards the ex not breaking your face for stealing his family by giving him some respect and credit also.

  2. JamesB says:

    My children are ok and ok with me and ok with him, and now I am older I don’t feel the need to compete with him (the step parent) physically or monetarily as much anymore also.

  3. JamesB says:

    The comment about the face breaking was excessive. I have not known that happen although, unfortunately, I have heard of current and past partners arguing.

    It is better that your children get on with your ex’s new partner, for them, and therefore for you also as what is good for the children as the court says is best. That said as Dad I should have rights to see them frequently and unrestricted also, but that is another subject, one which we have done a lot of the time.

    I have heard of a court restricting access as father was undermining new partner. A sad and difficult case, however, I think the judge was probably right as parents can be wrong. It is wrong to slag off the step-parent for no good reason, so I don’t and advise others not to.

  4. JamesB says:

    They will grow up one day and will be closer to me than to him. He can’t take that from me, so, good luck to him and thanks to him for his support in bringing them up.

  5. JamesB says:

    His support and helping towards bringing them up.

  6. JamesB says:

    When my kids told me she had met someone else I told them to try and get on with him. It is better for all if they do.

  7. Nearly one in ten children live in a stepfamily, ONS reports - Marilyn Stowe Blog says:

    […] one in ten children lived with a step family in 2011 according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics […]

  8. yvie says:

    Has anyone counted the ‘ undeclared ‘ step families. Benefits are more generous to lone parents apparently.

  9. Jennifer says:

    As a step child myself I think you are looking at from a very clinical aspect which is far removed. The fact is we as society have become child centric beyond necessary. Yes it is unsettling as a child but most enter into a relationship knowing the situation and take their time before making those steps to become a blended family. The child will come around and have to accept the new rules of what is acceptable and what is not! For such a short window in time children are dependant emotionally on parents before they go out independently and make their own way socially. They are not breakable and children should not manipulate the situation to get their own way.

    It is sad if there is any truth that people from broken relationships are putting their lives on hold for fear it might upset the kids!

  10. Joseph Goldberg says:

    …Father’s Day, What Father’s Day ? ……..
    How Parental Alienation Effects Father’s Today
    ……………..By Joseph Goldberg, 2012…………………
    This is an important article for Grandfathers as
    well as for fathers.
    I am spoofing the title of this article from a good
    friend of mine, Chaim Steinberger. He wrote a very
    insightful and brilliant journal article on Parental
    Alienation that he called, “ Father, What Father ? “
    I decided to write about this holiday because many
    father’s will be hurting when it arrives. They won’t
    be getting to see their child or receive a call or any
    cards or any other acknowledgement because their
    children are alienated and that means come Sunday
    they’ll be rejected for very unjustified reasons.
    For some dad’s who will be waiting to see their kid
    because a court order forces them to go, don’t be
    surprised when they show up- only to tell you they
    don’t want to be with you or only to say,” I hate
    you “… don’t expect them to change,,, that’s why its
    called a parental alienation dynamic.
    I am writing my article just for fathers and for
    grandfathers, but the rest of you will hopefully
    also appreciate the message.
    You know the old saying, “ Silence is deafening. “
    Well it’s deafening for a reason, and as another old
    saying goes, “ Everything happens for a reason. “
    Even though you may not be getting their affection
    on Sunday, it doesn’t mean your child isn’t at least
    thinking of you, and because they are alienated and
    unable to express to you that you’re not forgotten …
    and that they do love you, let me be the first one to
    remind you of that fact. Your kids do love you, and
    you’re not forgotten because Sunday, is also a very
    painful holiday reminder for them.
    It’s painful to them to be without you because every-
    where they go and see a father with his son or, with
    his daughter; laughing, hugging, or kissing, smiling
    at each other, going out to lunch together, to dinners
    or a movie, driving together, talking on a cell phone,
    texting, meeting up somewhere, it reminds them
    that it’s also not them being with you.
    Every time they turn on their TV that day, flip open
    their computer, listen to the radio, they will hear
    that it’s Father’s Day, and every time they pass by
    a store there will be an item for sale saying it’s
    Father’s Day, and they didn’t get you your present.
    They didn’t get to say, “ you’re my dad “ and then
    the words, `” I love you. “ They’ll try and block it
    out but how do you block out the sky, the ground
    below…. how do you erase the touch on your skin
    or what you feel deep in your bones ? It’s a psycho-
    logical skeleton.
    Denial is a fixated condition for alienated
    children, so is breathing. Memories of love for
    father are never really erased they’re just
    buried below the surface and those memories
    will resurface on this Sunday, Father’s Day.
    Take comfort in the fact that your picture may
    not be in a frame next to their bed or on the wall
    in their mom’s house, but they are not deleted
    from their memory. It is also hard to ignore
    mother trying to pretend how much better off
    they are without you, while the look on her face
    also reminds them she can’t be the father they’re
    missing out on today.
    No matter what stepfather tries to take your
    place after you got replaced, displaced and
    erased, nothing is ever going to hold back their
    feelings of loss because they’re connected to
    their father when they see themselves in a
    mirror. Some likeness of you is something in
    their DNA that they can see in their own face.
    Not only are there painful memories there
    are probably more than a few good ones.
    Like the time you took them to a show, or
    watched them at a school performance,
    or played some game with them, played
    with your pet, took them to visit your
    parents, cooked a meal for them, these
    memories are also resurfacing around them.
    Imagine how it must feel for them to watch
    their friends getting together with their dads
    and how they have to explain or avoid talk-
    ing about you not being around on Father’s
    Day. Imagine anyone else trying to act as a
    substitute for the father they are missing in
    their lives and never saying,
    “ Why don’t you call your dad today ? “
    How is their behaviour going to be memorial-
    ized in the future ?
    Father’s Day, is something I feel long after my
    own father has passed away. You don’t have
    to actually be around to be remembered and
    to be loved. I don’t need to feel bad about the
    father’s day I am not spending with him this
    Sunday, I will be thinking about all the good
    times with my dad and I know that your child-
    ren might want you to believe that they don’t
    love you back, but that’s just denial talking.
    You’re as much a part of their life as you
    have ever been ( even more so ) and not
    because of being present, but because
    of being absent. Believe it because we
    know from all the social science research
    that this is truly how alienated children
    are feeling.
    I feel my father is with me now even though
    he passed more than 15 years ago. I was
    alienated from him by a mother that
    extinguished him from my life, but not
    forever. We made up for all the lost time
    and years of alienation that was stolen from
    us both.
    In the Jewish religion when a loved parent
    dies we say prayers, Kaddish, and we light a
    candle in memory of the parent. Perhaps as
    a way to remember that you are still a
    parent you should light a candle and keep
    it burning all day, on Father’s Day.
    Say a prayer of love, memorialize your
    feelings of loss and perhaps to help be
    forgiving so anger does not take over
    the better part of judgment in your life.
    As a targeted, rejected parent remember the
    good parts of the person you are and remain
    and strive to lift yourself up, don’t let any-
    thing change that belief in your-self because
    sometimes all we have is ourselves to believe
    in, and in truth that’s the one person whose
    opinion counts.

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