A step up

Family researcher Jennifer Flowerdew
challenges the prevailing view that stepchildren cannot go on to
become good parents. Her own research has shown that the
experiences of stepchildren often equip them with the skills needed
to be an effective step-parent later.

Divorce and repartnering are usually
considered in terms of family dysfunction and breakdown, personal
inadequacy or failure. Influential psychological and sociological
studies conclude that the life chances of children of divorced
parents, in educational, social and psychological terms, are below
average or worse. Further, these children are perceived to be at
risk of reproducing these experiences in their own adult lives.
Rarely are these family transitions perceived to have any positive

grounds for optimism about stepfamilies are further undermined by
popular myths of wicked stepmothers and abusing stepfathers.
Splitting the world into images of absolute good or evil is a
classic way of handling our own fears about ourselves. While we
might not be “ideal” parents, at least we are not as bad as
step-parents. This leaves out of the picture the thousands of
“ordinary” stepfamilies whose successes do not bring them into the
realm of problem-oriented social research.

A more
balanced perspective on the effects of divorce on children is now
emerging, recognising that not all children are adversely affected
in the long term. This approach seeks to identify risk and
resiliency factors in post-divorce family life and how these
operate in the lives of individual children. Findings from my own
in-depth study with 30 parents living in a stepfamily situation
shed light on these processes by showing how 10 parents drew on
childhood experiences of stepfamily life as a resource in living
with their own stepchildren.

parents in stepfamilies confront many issues for which there are
few guidelines. By contrast, those step-parents who are themselves
brought up in stepfamilies have a model to draw on. This provides
them with valuable insights into the difficulties experienced by
their own step-parents and stepchildren. Often this leads to a new
appreciation of the step-relationship, an increased closeness
between step-parents and stepchildren for whom a full shared
history is as significant as a full blood tie when it comes to
defining “close” family. Here is what one stepfather, Martin,

“I was
six when Ken came. I referred to him as my stepdad then. But as the
years have gone on, and I know a bit more now than what I did then,
I refer to him as my dad. I was quite rebellious against him when I
was younger but now I’ve got older, I look back and I see that he
was always there for me. Whereas my biological father was not. And
I do feel guilty of what I used to do, that I was bad. And as a
step-parent yourself, you look at it, and I can see things now in
my stepson that used to be in me. He rebels against things I used
to rebel against. And that’s why I deal with that differently,
because I realise what I used to do.”

Similarly, Lesley, aged 21,
reflects on the changing nature of the relationship between herself
and her stepfather, whom she calls dad:

used to hate dad. I used to slag him off no end and say ‘you’ll
never be my dad’. I really disliked him. How he put up with staying
in that sort of family, I don’t know. Because he came into a family
with three kids that weren’t his, which I think for any man is
extraordinary. But I didn’t sort of think of that until I got to be
about 18. It’s only been in the last three years that I’ve actually
thought: ‘He’s my dad and I love him’.”

Martin, Lesley found that these experiences made her reflect on how
best to approach similar issues with her new partner, specifically
her involvement in helping to bring up his children:

really hard, getting that balance, knowing what to say and when to
say it with other people’s kids… Like Dave says about his two
when they’re playing up: ‘My kids, they’re bloody awful sometimes
aren’t they?’ And like I remember how I was and I say ‘they’re only
kids, Dave, have a bit of patience’.”

striking in these two accounts is their authors’ ease of movement
from the perspective of step-parent to that of stepchild, and back
again. Memories of their own step-childhood elicit a perceptive
reversal of perspective. This leads them to deal with rebellious
behaviour in their own stepchildren differently from how they might
otherwise have done. It allows them to take a long-term view of the
step-relationship, not only in terms of what can be expected from
children, but in terms of the kind of staying power that may be
required of them as parents.

Turning to the two accounts in
this study containing childhood recollections of a stepmother –
taken from interviews with two brothers – it appears that the myth
is substantiated. Roger reports:

remember visiting my biological father and his new partner when I
was four. I did something and his new partner smacked me. That was
it as far as I was concerned. I never went there again.”

Roger’s brother, Martin, paints a
similar picture of his stepmother:

can’t stand her. She wasn’t too bad when I was growing up but since
I’ve had children, I’ve only took them over there once when Katy
was very young. And that last time my stepmother made a big song
and dance because Katy broke something. I said ‘well that’s it, I’m
not going back there again. If that’s the way you feel about it,
I’ll stay away’.”

is odious to Roger and Martin about their stepmother is less the
fact of her step-relationship to them than that she smacks children
on first acquaintance and makes “a big song and dance” when they
break something.

addition to having deeper insights into stepfamily life, those in
the study who grew up in stepfamilies tended to hold strong views
about specific issues, including contact. Here, Joan’s childhood
recollections of her stepfather inform the way she now handles
contact between her children and their non-resident, biological

didn’t know my biological father. I lived with the man I called dad
from the age of five to about 12, when he went. I had slight
contact ’til I was about 15, then I lost contact with him. And I
don’t know why I didn’t see him. There might have been the idea
that because he was my stepfather, the contact wasn’t important.
But I was upset about it. I think that’s why I feel so strongly
that my two ought to see their father.”

Notable here is how the
relationship between step-parent and stepchild is ascribed a status
equal to that between biological parent and child. Joan’s seamless
identification of these two relationships in terms of their
significance for children breaches dominant discourses about
contact which focus on its importance for biological parents and
children. In another case, Steve, aged 51, recalls how losing
contact with his biological father as a young boy is a motivating
factor in getting it right with regard to his stepsons’ contact
with their non-resident biological father:

haven’t had a normal life from the age of eight when I was shoved
in council care. I’ve spent a good 23 years in prison. Loads of
people leave you. So now, for these two, I’ve got to get it

conclusion, while not denying the difficulties associated with some
step-relationships, these more positive testimonies are important.
Those with broadly positive childhood experiences of stepfamily
life have a resource on which to draw in modelling their own
versions of stepfamily life. As Marjorie says of her sons’

“And I
think, well he can’t have done such a bad job as a step-parent
because both Roger and Martin are step-parents themselves now
aren’t they?”

Marjorie’s sons chose step-parenthood before biological parenthood
– with all the difficulties this entails – is evidence not of
inadequacy or failure. Rather it testifies to the stable,
dependable force their stepfather has been in their lives. Unlike
the pernicious “cycle of deprivation” discourse where divorce and
the evils associated with it are handed down, negatively
predetermining each person’s actions and life chances, the concept
of resource implies something which can be used by different
generations of step-parents to help them meet the challenges of
contemporary family life.

Jennifer Flowerdew is research
fellow, Centre for Research on Family, Kinship and Childhood,
department of sociology and social policy, University of


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