President's Message #6, Spring 1999
by Dr. Marjorie Engel
These days, it seems that some reporter, tv commentator, or researcher is always spouting off about the failure of children to thrive in stepfamilies. I'm sure we have had our share of failures, but only our share. Our successes don't get picked up by the media or therapists/authors whose work world is families with on-going, seemingly intractable struggles. The plain and simple fact is that all too often the work of successful stepfamilies is blatantly ignored.
Of course, successful stepfamilies grapple with every issue in the books. We know this from members of SAA's chapter groups who share both frustrations and ideas for resolving family problems. Our board members know this because we share our personal stories with each other via e-mail and during off-duty periods over professional training and board meeting weekends. I know this from fielding questions submitted on the Stepmom movie website. Stepfamily members are seldom asking for ways to "get even" or to "get out;" they are always searching for ideas that may make teetering relationships better.
A dominant underlying theme is the collision of nature versus nurture. Adults are trying to figure out exactly what makes a child "ours." Is it the genetic material we contribute or the sweat equity? Does the name "mother" and "father" belong to every adult who merely begets a child or does it take love and caretaking and guidance to make a "mom" and "dad"? The law of affinity may go deeper than blood but, for the most part, the law of the United States is on the side of biology when it comes to custody/visitation after a divorce or inheritance by steprelatives.
Not so many years ago, parents had a lot of children. These days, children have a lot of parents. In a world where we have been socially and legally conditioned to think that there can be only one mother and one father, what's a stepparent to do? Too little and the stepparent is considered "cold and aloof." Too much and the stepparent is "trying to take over." Sometimes the adults in two households build loyalty traps and their children obligingly become caught in them. Books tell us we learned all we need to know in kindergarten — but sometimes it seems that we didn't learn how to share our children.
My mail includes questions from children who want to know why their moms or dads are trying to turn them against their stepparents. They don't understand why a stepparent feels threatened when they want to spend alone time with mom or dad or why a biological parent winces when they receive a hug from a stepparent. One young man asked whether it was really necessary for his stepmother to file a petition to adopt him when his biological mother is still alive. He elaborated, "I think not but my father and herself [sic] want to do that."
A stepmom told me about her primary key to success. From her perspective, when she married a man with children, she was also volunteering to help care for her best friend's offspring. To her, that meant the usual care-taking jobs such as meal preparation, helping with homework, cheering at successes, wiping tears when hurtful things happened, hauling boxes up multiple flights of college dorm stairs, and myriad other activities that arose "on her watch." The concept of volunteering to help care for the children meant that she supported her best friend in rearing his children through bad times and good times.
By using the analogy of her best friend's children and "helping," this stepparent has no expectation that the children will call her "mommy" or that she alone will make major decisions about their health, education, or general welfare. She does, however, feel free to set appropriate boundaries around the way she is personally treated by the children — i.e., "Ask if you can borrow my sweater; don't just take it!" This mind-set allows her to enjoy her stepchildren (most of the time) and to share their lives. It also assures the absentee parents that the stepparent is not attempting to be a replacement parent; rather, that this is another responsible parent with whom to share child rearing responsibilities and pleasures.
What makes a child "ours?" Sometimes it's DNA but it's always care and empathy. Who do the children "belong to?" The whole adult extended family — when they can make it work. Children know who their parents are; we should too.
Dr. Marjorie Engel is president of the Stepfamily Association of America