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.

The Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmum

31 10 2008

This article originally appeared in Image Parenting magazine, in Ireland

When I turned 30, I had a fantastic career and a lovely flat. A perfect life filled with friends, holidays, yoga, and dinners out. When I returned home after a day’s work, the television remote control was right where I left it. The dishes in the sink were mine. The shoes in the middle of the living room belonged to the lovely man I was dating. Yes, he had kids. Three of them, but I hadn’t met them yet. I was just having a wonderful time dating a man who just happened to be divorced.

When I decided to marry him, life changed, to put it mildly. Suddenly, there were dirty socks on the kitchen counter top. There were toys wedged between the sofa cushions and plates of half-eaten food left on bookshelves.

As women continue to marry later in life-often after they’ve established their professional careers and their own well-run busy social lives-more and more are meeting grooms who come with ready-made families. Yet, despite this, nowhere could I find advice to help figure out what was going on in my own home. Why could I no longer recognize myself or my kitchen? Why did I keep crying in the laundry room? What had happened to my lovely world? The answers weren’t clear so to figure out how to transform myself from single girl to stepmum, I talked to as many stepmothers, stepfamily researchers, and marriage and family professionals as I could find. Eventually, I discovered a simple truth: the skills I’d developed as a career girl were exactly what I needed to become a stepmum. Here’s what I learned:

Gain Market Intelligence
Women who are aware of the particular dynamics of stepfamilies are much more prepared to deal with the challenges. Kay Christie, 56, is stepmother to four children who were between the ages of 18 and 27 when she married their dad in 1996. She took a four-day class to learn how stepfamilies are different from first families. “Without it I would have given up. At least then I knew there were cycles a stepfamily goes through. I learned that the couple bond has to be preserved and take priority.” 

Analyze the Existing Structure
Most of the research done on stepfamilies shows that when a new stepmother enters a family and demands sweeping changes, chaos ensues. At the beginning, while everyone’s getting to know one another, it is important to sit back and observe how things work, essentially to honor how they have chosen to live before you came along. 

“Stepparents need to be respectful and observant,” says Patti Kelly Criswell, a clinical social worker who often works with children in stepfamilies. “Instead of saying ‘this is intolerable,’ make suggestions and ask questions: ‘I would like to see the house a little cleaner. How can we live together in harmony?’ If you’re a natural leader, it’s even more important to be really careful in this respect.” Still, it’s important not to feel powerless and voiceless in your own home. That’s where Dad comes in.

Delegate Authority
Dads in new stepfamilies really have to do a lot of work to help the newly formed family succeed. He’s the middle man. He’s the one everyone-the kids, a new stepmother, the ex-wife-are all looking to for guidance. The more you and your spouse can work as a team, the better off everyone will be. In the early days, create a list of house rules together that everyone must live by. The list should include rules the kids already live with. However, you can add a few of your own that are important for you to feel comfortable in the house. Dad then presents this list to the kids, outlining the consequences of not following the rules and explaining that you can enforce them when he’s not home. That way, in the eyes of the children, you clearly have the support of Dad but are not solely to blame for any changes. 

Build Community
Just like any relationship, to build strong bonds, it’s important to spend one-on-one time with each member of the stepfamily. “I was never pushy about acceptance,” says Julie of her four stepchildren, who were ages six, eight, 13, and 15 when she met their dad over seven years ago. “I never had any kind of preconceived notion that I would replace their mother. I figured the relationships would develop the way they would. I’ve always been a kid person and I play a lot so that made it easier. We played and had fun and I didn’t put pressure on the relationships.” 

Create a Structure of Support
Stepmothers often report feeling like outsiders in their own homes. Allison remembers how awful she felt when she became a stepmother to three teens. “In the beginning, they made a point of not including me. They’d tell inside jokes, have family discussions about their holidays together. There were times at the dinner table when literally not one person would address me, not even my husband. Even though I was taking up a chair, I didn’t exist.” 

Women like Allison who have rocky beginnings but end up happy stepmothers are usually adept at surrounding themselves with people, a career, and hobbies that make them feel good.

Kay, the stepmother of four now grown-up children, reports on the things she did to stay balanced through the difficult years. “You have to do something to keep your sanity. I wrote in a journal to relieve the stress and a friend of mine, another stepmother, and I talked every couple of days at length. I have always been a person who exercises so I was going to my fitness classes or walking. When I knew the boys were coming home for two to three weeks, I would schedule a massage weekly.”

Working women say that keeping their careers when they join their new stepfamily helps them maintain a sense of identity during a sometimes traumatic transition period. Lauren and her husband Tom have been married for 25 years. Tom had full custody of his three young boys when they met and the couple later had three more children together. Right from the beginning, Lauren knew she had to continue to pursue her desire to be a doctor. “I needed my career for my own ego, identity, and self-worth,” she says.

Interview the Participants
Keep in mind that kids whose parents are divorced or who have lived through the death of a parent are often wounded. They are likely to be experiencing grief, fear and anger because their lives have changed in a way they have no control over, so go easy on them and try to see things from their point of view. Allison struggled with her relationships with her three teenage stepchildren in the early years of her marriage. “Since I had never had children of my own, I was looking forward to the experience. Little did I know it would be full of landmines, that when kids have no room to vent their anger and hurt and can’t really rail at their parents, you become the target.” 

Eventually, she understood that the kids, and even her husband, were working through old divorce wounds. “I had to be the adult and remember that sometimes their reactions were coming through a huge filter of hurt. I couldn’t be tied to the outcome. I went at them consistently with kindness and no attachment to their reaction, and eventually they came around. But I couldn’t give up; you can’t give up.”

Tend Your Relationship
Ultimately, no matter what a new stepmother does to build a bond with her stepkids, it is her marital relationship that is the most important. Divorce rates for remarriages are higher than first marriages so to maintain the health and longevity of the relationship, a new couple must make their union a priority.

Kay and her spouse made sure they created many happy memories together. “My husband was always good at making time for us to go away. In the early years of our marriage it was about once a month. We do it quarterly now and it has helped bond us and keep the romance alive.”

Career girls-turned-stepmums know that juggling a job, a marriage, and stepkids can be a challenge. But they’re also brilliant at setting goals, building camaraderie and solving problems with creativity and passion-exactly what it takes to build a successful stepfamily.

Jacquelyn B. Fletcher is a stepmum of three, mum of one, and the author of A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom (HarperCollins 2007).