The Doctor Is In: Susan D. Stewart (Part One)

12 11 2008

Susan Stewart 2Susan D. Stewart is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Iowa State University who studies non-traditional families. Her book, Brave New Stepfamilies, is a compilation of the current data about stepfamilies and a call-to-action to researchers who leave out the many types of stepfamilies that exist when they conduct studies.

Consider these two quotes from Brave New Stepfamilies: “This book contends that prevailing definitions of stepfamilies dramatically underestimate their prevalence and that if researchers included in their definition of stepfamilies all of the diverse forms, it is likely that the majority of Americans have or will have the experience of living in a stepfamily.”

“Most Americans are living in or will live in family forms that are considered abnormal by the dominant culture.”

Stewart is also a stepdaughter and a divorced mom who has contemplated remarriage herself. This interview will be posted in two parts.

Could you talk a little bit about your interest in working on stepfamilies?

Probably some of my motivation for getting involved in stepfamily research was my own background. My parents divorced when I was 8 and then my dad, pretty soon after became involved with a woman and they lived together for over 10 years before they got married. My dad lived with her and her children. Meanwhile, my mom remained single and we lived with her primarily. And so I felt like I didn’t really know what that was. I thought of myself as being in a single-parent family, but at the same time I had a relationship with this woman and her kids whom I see on holidays and it just didn’t seem that there was any kind of place for that family dynamic.

And then my dad and his wife did get married and so now they would be considered more of a traditional stepfamily, but all the kids were grown up by the time they got married all the kids were adults. So they are family but they didn’t fit neatly into the categories of stepfamily that I’d seen in the literature. It is usually couples who get remarried when their kids are younger and they live in the house. That was the only research that I saw. There are very few studies of any other type. And then my mom, after 30 years of being single, just remarried two years ago. Now I have this person that’s her husband in my life. I really like him and we get along well but I am an adult and they are both nearing retirement age. I’m not really sure what to call him. Meanwhile, my dad has been remarried for over 20 years and so that relationship has changed over time but what I was seeing in the literature was the same old definition of what a stepfamily is with none of this complexity reflected.

That’s why I wanted to write Brave New Stepfamilies and point out the few studies that have looked at stepfamily development over time, stepfamilies that are formed later on in the life course, and stepfamilies that start with co-habitation. That led to other ideas about gay and lesbian couples who form a type of stepfamily, racial and ethnic diversity in stepfamilies, and non-marital childbearing and how that affects stepfamilies because those would be first-married families but the child isn’t the biological child of one of the parents and so what is that? How does that fit in?

Did you find that families felt abnormal if they don’t fit the mold? I believe that does something to the psyche of the individuals even when it’s likely that alternative family structures are the majority. I’ve talked to so many people who feel shameful when asked to describe their family.

Exactly. It seems so wrong, when we still hold up this very traditional notion of a family-a nuclear family with a mom and a dad and the kids and it’s intact. Usually the dad is the main breadwinner and we still think the ideal type is with the mom staying home and taking care of the children, especially when they’re little. But looking at the numbers, those families only represent 7 percent of all households in the United States. So a tiny, tiny portion of Americans live that way. If you take out the breadwinner, homemaker piece, because most women work today, you’re still only talking about 1 in 4 families or households with married couples who have children under the age of 18. And so it’s incredible that we still grasp on to this notion when most people are living in other ways.

It’s not necessarily that people are getting divorced in higher numbers then they were. The divorce rate has been pretty stable for the last 20 years or so but it’s that people are delaying marriage later and later. We see co-habitation replacing some of the delay in marriage. People are living together, not getting married right away. They are delaying having kids, so there is much, much more diversity and we don’t really talk about it.

I was just divorced a little over a year ago myself and I’m from New York state and know a lot of divorced people and my parents are divorced. I had no idea how I would feel. I never thought I would feel that bad. But I really felt stigmatized, ashamed, and embarrassed. It seemed like people avoided me or didn’t know what to say to me or were uncomfortable. Some sociologists have talked about how the stigma about non-traditional families has declined so much that we shouldn’t really worry about it, but I disagree. My experience is that the stigma is alive and well. And in fact in more conservative religions there’s been a real backlash again non-traditional families. There’s a real focus on returning to the traditional model because that’s best. And more and more Americans are involved in new religions, evangelical-type religions that are more conservative in their orientation. When I have done research with my students on attitudes and perceptions of non-traditional families, divorce, and non-marital childbearing, there is a strong religious component. If people have strong feelings about it, it’s because of their faith.

When we’ve interviewed family members and friends about their attitudes, it seems like suddenly the people who are in the baby boom generation are more open and progressive than some younger people today. Other writers have been talking about this return, a re-stigmatization of divorce. Back when I was growing up there were shows on TV about single moms like One Day at a Time and Alice and it was more positive. Today I don’t really see much movement even though the numbers say different. I think that’s bad for people. It’s troubling because so many people then who aren’t living in the traditional model, especially kids, might feel bad. For instance, my preschool cannot grasp the idea that they need to give us two copies of the calendar. I have to remind them every time.

From a purely demographic prospective you would think we would be much farther along. But the United States is different than a lot of European countries where people are much more accepting and they have much more progressive ideas of family life-co-habitation rates are higher, divorce rates are higher, marriage rates are lower, fertility rates are lower. Yet we are supposed to be the world leaders. We are supposedly the leader of all the industrialized countries and yet we seem really backward in many ways.

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