Why Stepparenting Will Never Be The New Black

I am a parent and a stepparent.  I am a Child & Family Therapist.  These personal and professional experiences have shaped my perspective and my story, on what it means to be a stepparent in New Zealand.      

When I was little, I dreamt I would become a vet, a ballerina, a mother [like every day].  I did not dream of becoming a stepparent.  An alternative title for this article could include the phrase "heart-slamming", as this is how I have personally experienced stepparenting to feel.   

According to Jan Pryor, the adjunct professor of Victoria University’s Roy McKenzie Studies of Families Centre, one in three marriages in NZ are now second marriages, with about one in 10 families now either a stepfamily or a blended one.  Despite these statistics, New Zealand does not possess a single agency or network dedicated to providing education, advocacy, research, or family therapy to stepfamilies.   

I started specialising in working with stepparents because the "advice" online and the support available for stepparents is outrageously inadequate and patronising. 

The absence of good advice likely stems from stepparenting's inherently stigmatised status.  The identity of the stepparent is entirely invisible across society, institutions, and legislation- it is an identity without a language.  If there is no language, then we cannot talk about it, and thus it reinforces its illicit nature.  Stepparents are at the bottom of the social food chain.  They are bottom-feeders to be seen and not heard.  Stepparents are "studied" like a pesky foreign flea (according to some research, children who have stepparents are more likely to have "negative life outcomes" compared to children in "first-marriage families").  Unsurprisingly, many stepparents feel disempowered, frustrated, and devastated.  Such experiences are often due to the perceptions and treatment of others, and perceptions of self.    

A recent examination of Facebook's support groups for stepparents revealed that these themes are remarkably consistent in their recurrence.  Here are just some of the difficulties experienced with being a stepparent:

-Being despised by or ignored by your stepchild's other parent

-Being a silent witness to various forms of inappropriate behaviour and abuse by the other parent, towards their children 

-Enduring the behavioural, psychological, and emotional issues experienced by the children while they come to terms with your presence, and the toll this takes on your energy, testing the strength of your relationship with others in your life - not least of all, your relationship with your partner  

-Building a relationship with your partner in the context of their journey of being a parent

-Building a relationship with your partner in the context of parenting a child together who is not your child together

-Loving and caring for children by way of unseen and unacknowledged financial contribution (i.e. paying for the child to live and thrive)

-Emotionally contributing to the children with unnoticed or invalidated nurturing

-Logistical input (i.e. taking the children to appointments, taking care of the children when your partner is busy or sick etc.), as well as invisible logistical and lifestyle sacrifices

-The absence of legal rights

-The absence of institutional, social, and relational support.

If being a parent is a thankless task, being a stepparent (if done with integrity) is equal to being a saint.  

Being a stepparent can mean signing up for a lot of heart slamming.

"Your cooking is not as good as my mummy's."

The sentiment she expressed felt unsettling because

1) She was right; my cooking is terrible. 

2) She was right; nothing I ever did was ever going to be as good as her mummy.  

Stepparenting will give you balls of steel.

Stepparents are to the family what affairs are to a marriage; the statistics are high, we know it's happening, but no one talks about it.  Parenting is something done in public (i.e. it's an industry).  Stepparenting happens in private, behind closed doors.  Even the name "stepparent" makes me feel reprehensible.  Indeed the only discourse we have about stepparents are the ones of the "evil stepmother".  What are the discourses about stepfathers?  I don't know of any, which suggests, perhaps, it is even more difficult.  Is being a stepdad even more marginalised/ stigmatised?  

In over 15 years of doing therapy I can't say I can recall a client who said they had a fantastic and close relationship with their stepparent.  Unfortunately, for the most part, I only hear bad things about stepparents.  I wonder perhaps whether this is because institutions, societies, and families, set stepparents up to fail, because they ignore the role of the stepparent, seeing it primarily as something a bit taboo... the human symbol of a "failed" marriage and, even worse, of a "failed" family.  

Maybe some of these "mean" and "cold" stepparents were initially just regular people who felt ostracised and entirely out of their depth?

Indeed there are folks out there who successfully manage to navigate these complex relational arrangements with ease and grace, and both children and adults experience much joy and happiness.  There are others however who do struggle.  I understand this because being a stepparent can feel like being "the other woman" from a legislative, societal, relational, and emotional perspective.  Stepparenting will never be the new black because unlike an illicit marital affair, peeling wet Cruskits smooshed into the crevices of the couch is just not as sexy.   

What to do if you're a stepparent and you're struggling

Yes!  You are right: you cannot improve the behaviour of the child's other parent (unless of course, they want to come to therapy with you), but you can change your response, and how your relationship with your partner operates.  What needs to occur is for the partner, who is the parent, to acknowledge and advocate for your role as a co-parent to the children, the children's other parent, and with other family members such as grandparents. 

By acknowledging your role as a co-parent, your partner puts you (the stepparent) into a leadership role with them.  Taking such action anchors your relationship with your partner and the family, and establishes boundaries around your role.  If your partner is unable to do this, the result is that you will be without authority.  Without authority, you, your role in the family, and in your romantic relationship will suffer profoundly.   

Successful boundary establishment results in smoother communication, consistent teaching messages*, and the unravelling of financial complexities.  When a couple can successfully establish boundaries, they are better placed to navigate behavioural and emotional issues. 

What you can do if you know someone who is a stepparent

-Ask them how they are

-Ask them how the children are

-Ask them about something funny or meaningful they did with the children lately

-Ask them how you can support them

-Be there for them

-Be kind.


*As distinct from disciplining a child

Serafin Dillon