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