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

12 11 2008

Susan StewartSusan D. Stewart is a sociologist at Iowa State University and the author of Brave New Stepfamilies. The is part two of our interview.

How do you conduct your research?

My research involves secondary data analysis. So these days there are numerous nationally representative data sets of children and families that contain all kinds of information about family living arrangements, measures of well-being for children and adults, depression, juvenile delinquency, and academic achievement. It costs millions of dollars to put those together so it’s very high-quality data. My research has mostly been analyzing data and looking for patterns. I’ve done a lot of work on non-resident parents-parents without custody of their kids-visitation patterns, and child support. Now I’m contemplating collecting my own data because I’ve found that states are mandating joint custody. They have just passed a law in Iowa that assumes joint custody and so what this means is that if a couple gets divorced it means if both spouses want custody of their child then they get shared custody. In other words you would have to prove that your spouse is mentally ill or a drug addict or abusive in court. It used to be the courts were much more in favor of one spouse getting custody and the other having visiting rights. I think a lot of this is motivated by the men’s movements with Alec Baldwin leading the charge. Conservative men who are feeling like they don’t have control over their children and their families. The worry is that men will choose shared custody to get out of paying child support. I get no child support even though I only make two-thirds of what my ex-husband makes because apparently judges don’t like to quibble over small amounts. It’s a worrisome trend.

Why this relates to my research is because most of the national data sets are based on this model of custodial parent, non-custodial parent. Parents today are increasingly both custodial and non-custodial. One weekend a resident parent, the next weekend a non-resident parent because we switch back and forth every week. I think it’s horrible. I hate it. I don’t think it’s good for my child. The effects of it are not known. Any studies that have been conducted on joint custody have shown that kids do better than kids raised by single parents. Yes, but a decade or two ago, the kids in joint custody were a very select group of children. The parents got a long and chose this and cooperated. But this is now being forced on people. I had no choice. My ex-husband wanted to have custody of our daughter too, and he is not so flawed that anybody would say no. I think more and more states are moving toward this model. And it’s good in some ways. It’s not good for kids to not be involved with their dad. But I’m not sure for the general population that this should be mandated. I don’t know what the effects are going to be.

And so I want to study this and it would involve collecting my own data because the studies out there right now either put children in categories of resident, non-resident in situations where it’s really much more of a shared arrangement. We just don’t have the numbers to accurately study. That’s what I’m working on. Of course, it’s partly motivated by my own experience.

These non-traditional family structures are here to stay. What do you think stepfamilies, cohabitating couples with kids, and gay and lesbian couples need in order to be successful?

Trying to fit yourself into the traditional model never works. I think the biggest mistake new stepparents make is to try to operate as a traditional parent. Usually what happens is, especially with discipline, they do the discipline before the relationship has really developed. And so that sets up a bad dynamic because you need the love, the emotional connection in order for the child to respect the discipline and monitoring by the stepparent. I feel like there should be more of a backing off for everybody. Be patient and allow time for relationships to develop.

When I was contemplating getting remarried, he became way too involved with my daughter too soon and then the relationship didn’t work out. And stepfamilies do have higher rates of dissolution than traditional families. Then we are left with a child who says, “Where is the stepdad?” Well it didn’t work out. But really it was not even a year relationship. I do think that a big problem is we have the Dr. Laura view on divorce, which is people who get divorced should be punished which means they should not be dating. You should be in this self-imposed exile for your sins. You’re never supposed to bring your child around any partners. You’re never supposed to have your boyfriends or girlfriends sleep over. Basically you’re supposed to live like a monk for the next two years, which is how long people think it takes get through a divorce. I don’t agree with that. I think people move in and out of children’s lives a lot. They make new friends. So it’s not that you shouldn’t have new people in their lives, but just don’t get them too involved too soon.

And the stepparent should not get too involved. I think a lot of men do this. They want to take care of a woman and her children and be the head of household, be the disciplinarian. That’s how men are trained to be, and I think that can be bad especially if the children are really involved with their dad. For stepmoms, I think the biggest mistake there is that women are more in charge of taking care of children in the house and they put the new stepmom in that role unfairly so she is stuck with a lot of yucky routine jobs taking care of the house and the children. When that relationship should also be given time to develop. I think stepmoms have it particularly bad. I said this in my book-it’s the hardest role in a stepfamily because you have all the pressures of being a mom and all the scrutiny of being a stepmom on top of that without any of the support. So you are thrust into this role and you may not have even wanted it. You may have no experience with children, but everyone expects you to be this instantly fabulous mother.

I also think the finances should be talked about ahead. All of this should be talked about. There is one older study that shows a very tiny proportion of remarried couples actually talk about these things before they get married. They think it will all work out. I think people should talk. How are you going to manage the money? How will decisions be made? Set up some scenarios and see how you would respond and what your partner thinks of that. It’s not very romantic, but it’s a good idea.

What about the biological parents? What advice would you give them?

For women who are the biological parent in the stepfamily I think it’s easy to give up control over your own kids. And I would caution women to not do that. And same thing with biological dads. I would encourage a co-parent relationship between both biological parents. There has to be an acknowledgement that increasingly there’s going to be more of a role of the non-resident parent. And it’s better if everyone can communicate and get along. It’s asking a lot, certainly, but for the kids…I am very mixed about it. I’m a sociologist and parenting is socially constructed so you don’t necessarily have to be a biological parent to be a good parent. But because these relationships are so knew I think the biological parents are really the ones who know their child the best. Whether that’s because they are biologically related or they’ve just spent the most time with their kids. Don’t try to be an instant family. Accept who you are. And that these children are going to grow up with multiple parents which can be really good. What can be better for kids than to have more adults invested and paying attention to them as opposed to less?    

In the book Between Two Worlds, author Elizabeth Marquardt talks about how children are stuck in the middle of their biological parents. And sometimes exes don’t realize the negativity they are passing along to their children. What do you think about that?

I felt really bad today because my husband and I went to a parent-teacher conference where it was revealed that my child doesn’t seem as happy go lucky as the other kids. She’s nervous and sort of lashes out if people want to interrupt her game playing. She gets very anxious about her clothes and weird stuff like that. And as I was sitting there with my ex-husband it wasn’t going well. He was doing a lot of stuff and I was doing a lot of stuff that was really just about us. We probably looked awful to this teacher. She was really good. She said, “I always ask myself, would I be this concerned if the child had two parents who were married or is it that I know that she has to go back and forth between two parents and am I making these issues out to be more than they really are?” It’s really hard. I know better. And my ex-husband should know better. But at the same you have to be careful to not attribute all of your kid’s behaviors to the fact that she’s coming from a broken home. That’s a big mistake. Kids have their personalities. I am a nervous person by nature. So is my ex-husband. Maybe that’s just my daughter’s personality.  

I always bring up this point, too. When you look at our European counterparts in Sweden and France and Germany where they have much more family diversity, if you look at the measurements of well-being over there they do much better than us. Kids raised in Sweden, for example, chances are their parents weren’t married when they were born. Most of the parents in Sweden are co-habitating when they have their first baby and divorce rates are extremely high. Denmark has one of the highest divorce rates in the world, but if you look at all the indicators for children’s well-being, they are doing better than us academically, they have less delinquency, they have lower infant mortality. Pretty much any measure of children’s well-being, they do better than us. I think it has to do with the fact that there is a lot more support there for family diversity.

In Sweden, co-habitating couples receive the same benefits from the government as married couples. There’s national healthcare. There’s paid maternity leave for husbands and wives. There’s subsidized preschool. There’s so much more help for families. In the U.S. you’re just on your own. We consider raising families a very private matter in the United States and it’s a terrible thing. You’ve somehow failed if your children don’t turn out. You have not done your job. We have less support than pretty much any other country like us. I think for people raised in non-traditional families it’s even worse. It’s really a mistake to blame family breakdown for the problems that children have. It’s one of many factors, but maybe if we looked at families differently, took a more broad approach, then we wouldn’t have so many issues with this.

When I talk to stepfamilies it’s easy to see that the whole idea of not feeling supported really affects their self-worth.

Yes. You pass that anxiety along to your kids. You might be a more permissive parent because you feel so guilty, but that’s not good for kids. Or you might go the other way and you worry about how your child is going to be perceived. I think the guilt factor is absolutely huge. And then parents not feeling self-worth pass it down to their kids. My ex-husband thinks that divorce is the worse thing in the world. That it is the greatest tragedy. Well of course our daughter internalizes that. He believes there could be nothing worse than having divorced parents, which I don’t believe. There are many things that are negative in life and this is one. I wouldn’t call it a positive thing necessarily unless there’s a lot of conflict there. The huge weight people put on intact marriage I think is really displaced.

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