Back to School

28 10 2008

Florida State University sociologist Kathryn Harker Tillman has published some disturbing information in the Social Science Research journal. She analyzed data from a nationally representative study of 11,000 U.S. adolescents in grades 7 through 12 and found that kids who live with stepsiblings or half-siblings do worse in school than those who live with full siblings only. Not only do these kids have lower grades, they also have more behavioral problems. And boys do slightly worse than girls. Interestingly, if kids have stepsiblings and half-siblings in the house, they fare a bit better than if they have only one or the other.
Tillman goes on to say that grades do not improve with time. “We cannot assume that over time, children will naturally adjust to the new roles and relationships that arise when families are blended,” Tillman said. “This research indicates that the effects of new stepsiblings or half siblings may actually become more negative over time or, at the least, remain consistently negative.”
This is scary stuff, ladies. There’s more. This is from the press release issued by Florida State University about the study: Tillman says: “Part of what makes stepfamily life difficult for young people is the complexity, ambiguity, and stress that come with having nontraditional siblings living in the same home. Stepsiblings who are living together may also engage in, or at least perceive, more competition for parental time, attention, and resources than full siblings.
 In addition to stressful life changes and ambiguous family roles, stepfamily formation leads to the introduction of a new parent-figure who may be less willing or able to invest in a child’s development and academic success. Stepparent-child relationships tend to be more conflict-ridden than relationships with biological parents, and stepparents tend to offer children less parental support, closeness, and supervision. The presence of a stepparent also generally leads to a decline in the amount of attention and supervision children receive from the biological parent with whom they live.  

Furthermore, stepparents generally report feeling less of an obligation to provide financial support for stepchildren’s postsecondary education, and both biological parents and stepparents report actually providing less support for children’s education when they are living in a stepfamily.
Lower social and financial investments may signal to children a lack of parental interest and lower expectations for academic achievement and college attendance. In turn, youth in stepfamilies may be less likely to get academic assistance when needed, less likely to work for higher grades and more likely to act out at school.”

Wow. We live in an age where your education determines everything. Your income, the type of job you’ll be able to get, the neighborhood you live in, your social standing. Education is crucial. It’s a ticket to freedom of choice. If there is one thing I lobby for it’s education.
And yet I have to say when I read this it made me uncomfortable because as a stepparent, I certainly have been less involved with my stepkids’ education than I could be. Of course, there are reasons for that. Their mother is the one who is in charge of their education. I don’t feel like it’s my place to stick my nose in.
Still, could I be more active in making sure they understand the importance of school? Yes. Do I treat their education differently than I will treat my daughter’s when she’s old enough? Yes. Do I help them with their homework? Yes. Will I help pay for them to go to college? Not sure. It depends on our resources. Will I put my daughter through college? Yes. Is this fair? Hell no. Do I feel guilty? Yes. Will I lobby my husband and his ex to teach the kids the importance of going to college and even graduate school? Yes. Do I try to open their minds by teaching them the importance of learning? Yes. But I don’t feel like it’s my place to ride them about school as hard as I will certainly ride my own child.
This study has sparked heated debate among stepfamily professionals as you might imagine. And the emotions are hot in stepfamilies on this topic. It’s a ripe arena for anger and jealousy to brew. In a perfect world, all the kids in our house and the kids’ mom’s house would receive the same kind of education about education. They would have the same opportunities. But it’s not equal. It’s not the same. And that’s part of what makes stepfamily life so complicated.
As the beginning of the school year approaches, I’m going to reassess my approach to my stepchildren’s education. How can I be more involved? How can I make sure they feel supported? How can I pass on to them how important good grades are? What will you do this year to help your stepkids do better in school?

When Stepmothers Attack: Finding harmony in the journey.

28 10 2008


The first time I ever heard a really modern piece of symphony music performed by a full orchestra at Carnegie Hall, I thought, “What the heck is this crap?” I had an impulse to get up and walk out until the noise was over, but I decided I would be tough and stay until the end.

First, I tried to pick out a melody, and failed. Then I strained to understand the words, and couldn’t. Wait…was that the same little three-note riff I’d heard a minute ago? I struggled to find some beauty in the strange piece and, I’ll admit, I was getting a bit frustrated. In fact, at one point, it was so loud and seemingly pointless that I felt attacked by the music. I gritted my teeth and held on. When the final triumphant chord echoed in the acoustically perfect room, tears came to my eyes. The resolution was so beautiful, so right that it sent a ripple of chills through my body. Here was the reason for the noise. This feeling. This relief. This bliss.

I thought about that experience at Carnegie Hall when we made our first-ever stepfamily trip. My husband, three stepchildren and I traveled from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C. for my own stepmother’s 50th birthday party. We stayed with my family and spent downtime just hanging around the house. But I knew what was coming and dreaded it. Soon, we would all get in the car and take a tour of the historic sights. Originally, the thought of schlepping my three stepchildren, at the time ages four, seven and nine, between one monument and the next sounded like a surefire way to blow up what relationships we’d managed to forge thus far.

I vividly remembered my own first stepfamily trip with my two brothers, dad and my new stepmom. I was sullen and uncooperative. I didn’t want to look at the sights. I couldn’t have cared less about what old fogey did what. While the rest of the family blasted on ahead in the fast-paced, long-legged stride known as the “Fletcher Walk,” I strolled behind at a leisurely pace and pretended I wasn’t with those people. The scowl on my adolescent face showed up in every picture.

And here I was two decades later with stepchildren of my own preparing to see the sights.

I kept trying to get out of going on the tour. “Why don’t you guys go and I’ll stay here and work?” I suggested. They said I could work later. “Hey, it’s a perfect day for a special outing with your dad, don’t you think?” I offered. They didn’t buy it.

“You have to go, Jacque,” my seven-year-old stepdaughter pouted and held on to my hand.

“I’m sitting in your lap!” the four-year-old shouted.

My husband just looked at me. I knew what his look meant. I knew he knew I was trying to chicken out. Blast! I thought. Who are these people? Why aren’t they crabby like I was as a new stepdaughter? Why don’t they treat me like an outcast so I can stay home and read a book in the tub? I succumbed to the peer pressure and got in the car, but a part of me crouched, waiting for the proverbial s&*% to hit the fan.

The eldest, my stepson, was ecstatic. He loves learning about the history of our country. He knows how tall the Washington Monument is and that the original White House burnt down and had to be rebuilt. As we drove around the city, he regaled us with a running commentary about the significant sights punctuated with exclamations as he saw things he’d never seen before in person.

My stepdaughters played in the back seat and occasionally looked out the window. As the day wore on, one of them started getting a bit grumpy, and I could feel my shoulders start crawling up to my ears. Would she throw a tantrum in public? Would she behave like I had? True, she hadn’t hit adolescence yet, but still. I constantly checked the rearview mirror to look at her face. Was she scowling yet? I was looking for any reason to tell my husband, “See! I told you I shouldn’t have come. Turn this car around and take me home!”

Truthfully, I expected them all to hate me, for my life to be miserable. I figured it would be hell for at least the first 20 years. And then maybe, just maybe, we’d all sort of get along. In my stepmom support group when all the other women voiced their fantasies of an instant family, I came down on the opposite side. Though in all other areas of my life I am an optimist, I assumed my life would be horrible as we formed a new stepfamily, and so I worked to sheath myself in armor.

As we approached the Lincoln Memorial, we climbed the steep marble steps and my middle stepdaughter walked ahead without us. It snowed in Washington that weekend, and she was cold. She wanted the camera to take pictures. Could she have a souvenir? And then the mantra began. “Daddy, I want…Daddy, I want…DADDY, I WANT!”

I kept out of the fray, letting her daddy deal with her downward spiral. And though on the outside I looked like a woman enjoying herself, on the inside I was hardening myself against these little creatures. Not just one of them for having a meltdown like any kid does after a long day of sightseeing, but all of them. I felt like this justified my instincts to protect myself from my stepchildren who, truth be told, were open and loving and constantly seeking attention from me.

After taking pictures with the giant statue of Abraham Lincoln, we followed each other down the steep marble steps, slick with slushy snow. Near the bottom, my stepson asked from behind me, “What would happen if I jumped over these steps?”

“You might fall and break a leg,” I said.

“I already jumped over them and I didn’t break a leg,” he replied.

“Oh yeah?” I turned and grabbed him then feigned pushing him over. He yelped and giggled as I tickled him. When I righted him and let him go, he stood very straight with a serious expression on his face. He pretended to hold a microphone in front of his mouth.

“When stepmothers attack,” he intoned in a dramatic voice. “Watch tonight at 8 p.m. to see stepmothers gone bad.”

I howled with laughter and my stepson snickered self-consciously. He’d made a joke and was very proud of himself. I couldn’t stop laughing and had to wipe tears from my eyes as we made our way to the car.

My tired stepdaughter reached out and took my hand. She was still cranky, but she wasn’t doing it to get back at me for marrying her father. Instead, I realized, we are building a foundation for a friendship that will be strong enough to weather the jarring sounds of her teenage years and the dissonant notes of my own bad days.

When we returned to my dad and stepmom’s house everyone had a chance to relax before we dressed for the birthday party. When we all sat together at the dinner table, I looked around at my half-, step-, and full-blooded relatives laughing and chatting and I felt the discord of the day melting into a delicious chord that resonated through my bones. I was beginning to see a pattern emerging from the random notes and realized that perhaps I wouldn’t have to wait until my stepchildren had all left home to feel the payoff for marrying a man with kids. Perhaps I could feel the mini-resolutions along the way and take strength and faith from them.

I raised a glass to my stepmother: “Though we are not related by blood, we are family, bound by our experiences, tears, and laughter. A stepmother is a special thing. Everyone should have one,” I said.

Again I thought about that trip to Carnegie Hall. I realized that stepfamily life is like a piece of complicated, beautiful music written by a genius that only a few listeners ever manage to really appreciate. But those dedicated few who hang on through the discord and look for beauty and meaning within the cacophony – they hear the final triumphant chord when the notes finally all come together, and know the true meaning of harmony.