President's Message #12, Fall 2000
by Dr. Marjorie Engel
There's excited chatter, periodic laughter, and the occasional crash and tinkling sound (closely followed by "oops!") wafting down the hallway that connects the kitchen to my home office. A daughter and a stepdaughter, together with a mutual friend, are busily preparing a quiche brunch for their baby sister's bridal shower tomorrow. The "baby" is 29 years old. (In a recent conversation with other mothers of adult children, someone asked how long we are expected to continue actively parenting our kids. Not sure of the precise answer but it's at least through the age of 38 of that I'm certain because that's the age of our oldest daughter!)
Our grown daughters, who wander in and out as they pass through Boston, have evolving needs for things such as the most recent house key. But many of their needs have remained the same for a long time. A new toothbrush, homemade lemonade, the ingredients for fried potatoes and onions, and parental attention to stories about jobs, friends, house plans for a family room addition, or the inside scoop on the current man-of-the-hour. In fact, for the last 13 years, Steve and I have become so accustomed to having grown children around that we had an epiphany a few weeks ago.
For the past couple of summers, SAA has presented a class on stepfamilies at Chautauqua, New York. This year, Steve and two of our granddaughters, Sigourney (8) and Alexis (6) joined me during the first week in July. We enrolled the girls in a camp-like program at the Chautauqua Boys and Girls Club which brings me to the point of this message. When you are not the biological parents, handling myriad registration papers, teacher/counselor meetings, and medical emergencies is problematic. Because our girls were teens and older when we married, these things were petty much non-issues for our household. It's the grandchildren who give us our school/home experience.
I handled the initial registration by telephone. No problem. They were delighted to accept my credit card number. It was the packet of information forms that created the jolt. The girls call me Marmee, I've been part of their lives since conception, and yet to the school system my status was less than an also-ran I was clearly a non-entity. To begin with, I didn't have the medical information to complete the Health and Emergency form. Yes, I knew about food allergies and asthma medication but "List immunizations and dates" and "Physician's name, address, and phone number"? And "Where can parents be reached?" Even that question made me stop and ponder because the girls weren't going to be with their parents, they were going to be with Steve and me their grandfather and stepgrandmother and we were the responsible parties in a medical emergency. Or, were we? Would the people at Chautauqua think so? Would the emergency room doctors think so?
During a time when children are as likely to be with grandparents, stepgrandparents, and even more likely to be in the care of stepparents, society and its myriad file forms steadfastly ignores this reality. So I dug into my Divorce Decisions Workbook file box and unearthed the FORM-ulaΤ for Medical Permission to Treat Minor Child. My stepdaughter completed the form with medical information including her notarized signature and the girls' medical insurance cards that gave Poppie and Marmee the ability to authorize emergency medical procedures. That's when I realized this type of authorization should be in the hands of all stepparent caretakers and on file in the pediatrician's office if bio moms and dads are truly concerned about the best interests of their child.
Schools probably need a lot more stepparent participation or legal intervention before there will be any significant changes in their routines. In the meantime, there are things that parents and stepparents can do to increase awareness and sensitivity to the stepparent/stepchild relationship.
It is critical that teachers, counselors, and administrators are informed about the student's housing arrangements and a child focus on the part of the parents. Let's go one step further. To provide the best safety net for children's health, education, and general welfare, make sure that all active parents and stepparents are named and included in all school records, verbal information, and written correspondence. A stepparent is an integral partner in the parenting team the child views the stepparent as such and so does at least one (if not both) of the biological parents. Schools need to do a reality check and create forms and communication distribution methods that acknowledge the fact that many of their students have two homes. There is simply no good reason for the local school systems to pit two households against each other by deliberately creating a communication challenge.
P.S. By the way, Alexis waited until she returned home to fall off the monkey bars and break her left arm. Those medical authorization forms were within hours of being critical to her welfare! To receive a copy of the forms I use for Medical Permission to Treat Minor Child and the Duplicate Information Request to Schools, send a stamped self-addressed envelope and small charitable donation to the SAA office and we'll send them to you by return mail.
Dr. Marjorie Engel is president of the Stepfamily Association of America