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 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.