President's Message #1, Winter 1997
by Dr. Marjorie Engel
We agreed to have breakfast together prior to our SAA board meeting about a year ago. Just as I was ready to bite into my waffle, Judith told me that when she left office, she and the board wanted me to replace her as president of this exciting organization.
Told her I'd have to think about it. Wouldn't you? I loved my role as Chair of Educational Resources so the question I had to answer was: Could I be of further service to this organization, to you the members, and to the growing numbers of stepfamilies in the United States? I talked to other members of the board and my mentors, Emily and John Visher. Turned to my husband, Steve, and my graduate school committee chairman, Len. Discussed it with my daughters. I thought on it and slept on it and thought on it some more.
Obviously, you know what the answer was. Let me tell you why. I'm a second wife, a mother, a stepmother, and a stepgrandmother. I'm a woman who can relate to many of the issues I've read about while reviewing stepfamily books — the importance of the remarried couple relationship, the dynamics between stepparent and stepchild, and the merging of two sets of children into one household. Oh. And I mustn't forget the Norman Rockwell holidays that we all routinely experience. Okay, the bad news is that not all stepfamily problems have been solved. The good news is that we're reading, writing, and talking about these stepfamily interpersonal relationships and we know we're not alone with any of our situations or feelings.
But, up to this point, the Association focus has been on therapeutic ventures — couple and family counseling with SAA-trained professionals, group sharing through chapter meetings, or self-help with reading/bibliotherapy — in other words, how we as individuals can adapt and change. But the stepfamily picture has another side — and that side is the role that laws, policies, and financial issues play in defining the cohesiveness of stepfamilies. With an educational background in finance as well as law and policy, over the next two years I can offer a public advocacy dimension to SAA.
Today, management of our personal world requires increasing knowledge about the financial impact of our laws and policies. Perhaps nowhere is this more important than in the area of complicated families—a highly private matter with, at the same time, profound social and economic implications. Because of the increase in the number of stepfamilies [formed by the remarriage of at least one of the adult parties], it is likely that new laws and policies will be proposed and adopted. For those with a true interest in all family values, awareness of existing unintended consequences is the first step.
For instance, have you had personal experience with any of the following:
We all know that dated ideas die hard — maybe because they begin so early. Under the influence of Walt Disney's Cinderella, my five-year-old stepgranddaughter queried her mother, "Was Marmee [her name for me] wicked to you?" After being assured that Marmee was usually a loving stepmother, Bridget nodded agreement and continued sorting out her family tree. "Then Beth and Jenny are your stepsisters, right?" Her mother, Wendy, complimented her ability to make these connections — whereupon a puzzled Bridget announced, "But, they're not ugly!" And thereby begins another generation of dealing with the myths and theories of folklore that project negative symbolism on our families. Myths can be dissected, examined, and discarded when found destructive and untrue. Updating our laws and policies is not so simple. The Stepfamily Association must speak up for all stepfamilies and make our collective voices heard.
- Overall, social norms and expectations [many of them appear to be arbitrary] for stepfamilies reflect a cultural lag. The typical model for expectations is the two-parent nuclear family model. Compared to this idealized situation, stepfamilies appear deficient. Furthermore, when laws and policies designed for first marriages are used for stepfamilies, they often produce bizarre results.
- The law is not designed for the best interest of all people and family law assumes a set of realities that do not fit stepfamilies. This is particularly obvious in the intestacy laws (deceased without a will) for class gifts. The law of wills embodies the general assumption that testators don't regard stepfamily relationships as family relationships. The model of assumptions for existing regulations is the first-marriage nuclear family. Perhaps this model should be expanded to incorporate the configurations of today's families.
- Even though clinicians report that financial issues are a primary source of stress in stepfamilies, researchers and financial service companies have paid little attention to this aspect of stepfamily life. The evolution of research about remarriage and money management indicates needed depth and clarification in the legal/financial treatment of stepfamilies.
- The private sector has not yet addressed remarriage and stepfamily needs as separate and distinct from first marriages with respect to banking and credit, various forms of insurance, home sale/purchase, retirement security, medical directives, inheritance, or financial responsibilities to children and extended family members.
So, send us your questions about — and experiences with — the effects of current laws, policies, and financial management on your family. Tell us what works and what doesn't. Contribute stories to the Stepfamilies quarterly. Let us know if you're willing to work on policy awareness and change at the grassroots level. Remember, we're a membership organization. And it reflects you, whom we [your officers and board members] depend on to keep our feet to the fire and our eyes on stepfamily values.
Can we complement our relationship programs with an advocacy role for SAA? Time will tell.
Dr. Marjorie Engel is president of the Stepfamily Association of America