IS STEPPARENTING DIFFERENT?
By Erica De'Ath*
STEPFAMILIES, Summer 1993
Bringing up someone else's child, and that is what it means to be a full time stepparent, can be a challenging, rewarding, stimulating, and exhausting occupation. It is different in many ways from being the natural parent of the child. No matter how close your relationship is, you do not have the biological link and unquestioning commitment which many natural parents describe as their ability to love their child "right or wrong, no matter what they do.
Without this biological link it can be extremely difficult to tolerate, let alone like, a stepchild who is being particularly tiresome, and coping with recalcitrant teenagers can be a nightmare. Being a stepparent is also different from being a foster or adoptive parent. In the latter two cases both partners have come to a joint decision before the child arrives and as it is a joint decision they can generally face troubled times and difficulties together. As a stepparent you may feel that you are out on a limb at times, excluded from the biological link that your partner has with the children and because of this, unable to play a full parental role.
Clearly a great many stepparents do have warm and loving relationship with their stepchildren and a strong commitment to them. A stepfamily is different, however, and this is frequently not recognized or acknowledged by others, with the result that problems may arise quite unnecessarily. Being aware of these differences can help you understand and accept some of the particular problems of stepfamily life.
Differences in family life
Stepfamilies tend to be thought of and often judged against what we think the ideal family does and looks like. The natural family is what everyone might want to have - mother and father together with their children, all happy and healthy! Unfortunately, life doesn't always work out that way and a great many children spend some part of their time with only one parent. Whatever the reason for being a single parent there is often a feeling that family life might be easier if shared with a new partner.
Intruder or rescuer
Unfortunately, stepparents seem to have had rather a bad image, with stories about the "wicked stepmothers" of Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, or Snow White, or the "wicked stepfather" of David Copperfield. Many stepfamilies are, therefore, trapped between two conflicting images - the wicked intruder into the "old" family, and the rescuer who will help build a "flew" family.
Some differences can be seen right away, just as you might notice differences in families where there are adopted or foster children. There may be three or even more children all with birthdays too close for one another, for instance, or the ages of the parents and children might be quite impossible in a natural family. For example, a stepmother may be only a few years older than the eldest child and a stepgrandmother could be the same age as her stepgrandchildren.
The day-to-day family life may be very different for the stepfamily as well, especially if the stepparent has never been a parent before. Unless, or until they have a child of their own the stepparent may have no experience of all the different stages children go through.
Differences and difficulties in family relationships
The immediate difference is that marriage and becoming a stepparent happen at the same time. There is never a time when the couple is not aware of children, indeed the children come before their own courtship and marriage. The decision to remarry can have a profound effect on the relationship of other family members. If both parents remarry partners who have children it can mean very different roles in the two stepfamilies - eldest in one stepfamily and youngest in the other or it may mean losing their specialness as the only boy or girl in the family.
Difficulty in accepting a new parent
Where a family has spent some time as a one parent family it may be difficult for children to accept a new person. Children who have become used to their mother taking all the responsibility may resent it when decisions always have to await the agreement of their stepfather. A father may have been proud of his children's ability to shop, cook and look after themselves and may not understand why they resent decisions on what to do, to eat, or to wear being made by their stepmother. It is often hard for grandparents to adjust to a remarriage, especially if their own child was the parent who died or who has left the family. It is also difficult for grandparents who have played a crucial role in looking after the children and helping the family to keep going. They will realize their relationship has changed, may be afraid of being left out, and unclear about how to cope with any stepgrandchildren.
Coping with demands of others
All families may have times when they feel that others - whether friends or relations - make unnecessary and irritating demands on them. A stepfamily, however, may have to cope with even more people, which can make it very difficult for them to plan something without having to ask others first. This often happens after a divorce when the parent who does not have day-to-day care of the children (non-custodial parent) needs to be included in all plans for holiday arrangements to be sure that dates don't clash. In stepfamilies where both parents have children, and some of their own as well, getting everyone together for a holiday or getting everyone away so you can have a quiet weekend alone may take a lot of planning.
Christmas, birthdays, school plays, weddings, christenings, and other family occasions often need much thought and planning. For some stepfamilies these events may become a battleground. If there are four sets of grandparents it may be hard to visit them all over Christmas or see them in the summer holidays. In stepfamilies where everyone gets on well together it may mean someone has to be disappointed. Fortunately many schools are becoming more understanding of the needs of stepfamilies and will often try to ensure that there are four tickets for the school play so that both parents and stepparents can attend.
Dealing with insecurities
The presence of children and the history of a previous relationship or marriage are also an important difference. A stepparent may be anxious that he or she can never be as good as the previous partner. Parents may fear that their children will forget their absent natural parent, or that they will reject their new stepparent. These feelings can make the new marriage more difficult than a first marriage where there is no such history and a wide open future to create in your own way. Not being sure of your value and worth is not helped by the law, which may give stepparents duties, responsibilities, and obligations towards their stepchildren, but no rights or authority over them. A stepmother would be expected to take all steps necessary to ensure the safety and welfare of her stepchild, but if she has to take him to the hospital she has no authority to consent to medical treatment (although in practice there is considerable flexibility especially in an emergency.)
Recognizing that stepfamilies are indeed different is the first step in achieving harmonious stepfamily relationships.
* This article was excerpted from Stepparenting, by Erica De'Ath (Family Doctor Publications, 1988).