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Meet the step-parents | Financial Times

Meet the step-parents | Financial Times

November 04
18:37 2018

Underneath children’s quirks, malapropisms and kooky interests, they can harbour intense desires for conformism. You can tell by their round-eyed requests for the trading cards trending in the playground (“Lego not Star Wars”), or their insistence on “no kisses” at the school gates, just like their friends.

I remember it in myself at eight years old when my parents informed me of their impending divorce. There was upset, of course, but also pure horror at the prospect of being the oddball. “I will be the only one in my class with separated parents,” I protested, reeling off the names of friends whose parents were happily together.

Little did I know that my family was one step ahead. Within a few years, nearly every one of those friends followed suit. So in the end, I got my way. I fitted in after all.

With the arrival of my stepdad, I had a new embarrassment: of riches. I was awash in parents: two at home and one (my dad) a 10-minute drive away. Over the years, my two dads formed their own yin and yang. My dad was good for books, politics and literature; my stepdad, a DIY whizz, got me through my physics GCSE and driving test. If anything were to happen to my mum, it was easy to imagine my dad offering to move back to the family house.

Family life had its ups and downs but I look back positively on my two complementary dads — even if it led at times to awkward interactions, such as the teachers who assumed my father was my grandfather when he accompanied my mum and stepdad to parents’ evening.

In any case, if you become more empathetic towards your parents when you become a parent yourself, you are doubly so when you become a step-parent. So I discovered eight years ago when I joined the step-parenting ranks. In 2011, in the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics, 11.3 per cent of couples with kids had stepchildren. In the US, 10-20 per cent of children live in stepfamilies. (Data collection, especially through questionnaires such as the census, is difficult because they rely on how people perceive their family relationships, says the ONS. They may not identify with a statistical definition of a stepfamily.) The legal definition of a step-parent is rooted in marriage, although many would take it to include a committed relationship. In my own case, I am engaged and share a mortgage and bank accounts with my partner.

“Step-relationships are not a given but they can be good,” says Patricia Papernow, a psychologist and director of the US’s Institute for Stepfamily Education. “Step-parents can provide a new perspective and new influences.” In her own family, her husband taught his stepdaughter, her daughter, how to drive, bringing a calmness to the experience that she herself had lacked — “He wasn’t so reactive,” she says.

Unlike becoming a biological parent, there was no fanfare heralding my new role; no flowers, no balloons. My stepdaughter, then four years old, didn’t receive knitted gifts from well-wishers. What a difference it was, 18 months later, when I gave birth to my son, primed by parenting classes and local meetups for fellow mums and dads.

The gestation of my stepchild was so different to that of my baby. In place of a swelling belly and prenatal scans were play dates where we edged our way gingerly towards a relationship. Yet there were similarities. In both motherhood and stepmotherhood have come sharp reminders that I am the grown-up. In A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, Rachel Cusk recounts the response of friends when she describes the desperate misery of her daughter’s crying — something that could just as easily apply to a step-parent. “Oh dear, they say. Poor baby. They do not mean me.”

© Oscar Bolton Green

To help strengthen our alliance, I bought my stepdaughter storybooks featuring families that came in varieties other than nuclear. It made me recall how frustrated I was as a stepchild in the 1980s at the dearth of stories about families like mine in fiction, on TV (aside from the saccharine Brady Bunch) and at the cinema.

There were plenty of stepmothers — famously in Cinderella, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel. But these were wicked women; they never did the muddle-along stuff of parenting: making packed lunches, ferrying kids to sports events, buying birthday presents. Such archetypes were misogynistic, absolving biological fathers of any guilt. The fairy tales didn’t reveal a universal truth but were creations of their time, according to Marina Warner, an author who has explored fairy tales and myths.

“Women’s dependence on men made them compete against one another for the breadwinner’s favour. It set sister against sister and the older generation against the younger,” she wrote in The New York Times. “When women frequently died young, often in childbirth, the new wife strove on behalf of her own children against her predecessor’s offspring. In England before the Norman conquest, there are numerous examples of second wives scheming to oust earlier heirs, even to the point of murdering them.” And so followed fictitious stepmothers banishing their stepchildren to the cellar or the dark, dark woods, or even arranging their murder.

Yet you take what you can get. There were so few depictions of stepdads that I seized on whatever I could find — even if they were murderers, as in The Stepfather, the 1980s slasher movie in which a polite suburban psychopath finds a single mother, moves into her home, murders the family, then changes his identity before setting after fresh prey. As a teen, I feasted on the blood-spattered thrills.

But there was something else there too. When you are starved of stories about people like you, you can find something that resonates in even the trashiest of schlockers. There was the threat of an interloping adult but there was also one line that rang particularly true — the stepdaughter’s response to her mother’s demand that she obey her stepfather. “He’s not my father.”

Which stepchild has not lobbed that into an argument? Not even in a full-on fight, but as a response to a polite request to pick up wet towels, shoes from the stairs, jammy knives from the kitchen table. I probably delivered the line at least 20 million times myself. After the first 1,000, you don’t have to put any effort into it. It is automatic, like rolling your eyes.

The cultural landscape has slowly improved since those days. Susin Nielsen is the author of the novel We Are All Made of Molecules, which tells the story of adolescents thrown together when their single mum and dad decide to live together. She says she had always wanted to write about a stepfamily due to her own background — when her mother remarried, she acquired four step-siblings. “I wanted the parents to both be likeable, decent people. It’s important for young people to see themselves and their situations reflected back at them in books, at the very least so they don’t feel so alone. Of course, it’s [also] important to read a lot of books about characters who are nothing like yourself. I’ve heard many non-white [young adult fiction] authors talk about how there were no books featuring kids like them when they were growing up.” Nielsen is hopeful that the situation is changing.

The language around stepfamilies hardly glistens with glamour and positivity. Jonathan Dent, senior assistant editor for the Oxford English Dictionary, says that the use of step, which originally meant “deprived of a parent”, is historically rooted, like the fairy tales, in death. “The establishment of a second marriage after divorce is a relatively recent phenomenon, and the main sense covered in the earliest versions of the OED entry for stepfather, published in 1916, is defined only as ‘a man who has married one’s mother after one’s father’s death.’”

It wasn’t until the appearance of the second edition in 1989, he says, that the words “or divorce” were added, and to the parallel definition of stepmother. Given this relatively recent shift, he says, it is unsurprising — especially since the depiction of step-relatives (especially stepmothers) in myth and fairy tale is often negative — that new ways of describing the relationships within “blended” families are being suggested and tested.

The label “blended families” — which puts one in mind of a smoothie — has itself been criticised for creating unrealistic expectations. Wednesday Martin, the author of Stepmonster (2009), says: “When we use the term ‘blended’, we are basically on some level asking kids to give up their history and their past, by asking them to ‘blend’ rather than honour their other parents, their history, and asking step-parents to do something kids will rightfully resent.”

Names make a difference. I have hung back to hear how my stepdaughter describes me to new friends, as her dad’s partner — or as her stepmum. Using the word “bonus” instead of step has been another attempt to rebrand step-parenting, says Dent. It emerged in 1990s Usenet newsgroups devoted to fertility and parenting issues. Yet this word is also fraught: the reality of family life is unlikely to live up to its unambiguously positive connotations, he points out. “A self-identified bonus dad might be regarded as a cruel stepfather by his stepchildren or their biological father.”

© Oscar Bolton Green

In my family, the nomenclature has become even more complicated. In my twenties, my mum and stepdad divorced and our family reconfigured again. My stepdad had a son, now almost 17. I describe my stepdad as my stepdad, even though technically he isn’t. (My mum remarried this year.) But my stepdad has been a constant in my life for decades.

If you were to meet his son, I might variously introduce him as my half-brother, stepbrother, stepdad’s son. There are little mental shuffles you have to do in your head, before you raise these significant people in conversation with strangers. Am I going to see this person again? Do they really want to hear the precise detail of our relationship? But at a recent family event, I was slack-jawed with disappointment when a distant relative introduced my stepdad’s son but skipped me altogether because they didn’t know how to describe the relationship.

Marilyn Coleman, a sociologist who looks at stepfamilies in the US, says that when relationships are normalised, there are names for them. “Things that matter to us have many labels. Eskimos have many labels for snow, for example. When relationships are not considered normal or important, then no label or term is commonly accepted . . . What is the term for your ex-husband’s new wife? There is no term.”

In their place, people come up with their own names. One woman, for example, refers to her father’s stepsons from a previous marriage as her quarter-brothers. Some, such as my six-year-old son, like to keep it simple. The other night, I asked him how he describes his half-sister. He looked at me agog. “My sister, of course.” Then he ran off to play.

Emma Jacobs is an FT features writer

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