A Stepdaughter Speaks

18 11 2008

Note from Jacquelyn: The following essay is about an extremely important part of stepfamily life that few of us talk about until we're in the middle of it-how we will work with our stepchildren as we age. In A Career Girl's Guide to Becoming a Stepmom I talk about how critical it is to do your estate planning for the sake of everyone in your family. But it's not just the money you need to think about, as this poignant essay by Janet shows.

Letter From a Stepdaughter

By Janet

When my father remarried ten years ago at age 74 (six years after my mother died), I didn't think much about becoming a member of a stepfamily. After all, my two siblings and I were in our forties, as were her two children, and we all lived in different states. We met at the wedding, toasted the new couple, had a group picture taken, and that was about the extent of our "family time." While it felt a little strange to see him with someone else after 45 years of marriage to my mother, I was relieved that he had found love and companionship again.

Dad sold the family home in Ohio and moved into his new wife's condo in Florida, which wasn't too far from her daughter's home. Life moved along, with yearly visits back and forth, until the health problems started.

A couple years ago, my father had some kind of surgery on his pancreas, although neither he nor my stepmother have been able to tell us for sure what it involved. (They come from a generation where doctors are revered and never questioned.) Since that surgery, he hasn't had much of an appetite, and when we saw him at my nephew's wedding a couple years ago, he was quite thin and frail and his memory seemed to be slipping. My stepmother wasn't able to attend that family wedding because her then-103-year-old father had come to live with them, and he didn't like being left alone with strangers to care for him. Because of the situation with her father, she also has not accompanied my father when he's flown to Ohio for Christmas the past few years-our family gathers at my sister's home to celebrate the holiday together. She is quite close to her grandson and prefers to celebrate the holidays with her daughter's family. Fair enough.

The "crisis" came last August, when we got a call from my father's neighbors in Florida telling us that he was in the hospital about to have an emergency triple bypass. He had been in for a routine physical and when the stress test results came back, they showed an almost complete blockage of two main arteries. He had been hospitalized immediately. In the meantime, though, my stepmother had left for two-week cruise in the Mediterranean, assisting her daughter, who is a travel agent, with a large tour. My father is not much of a traveler, so she and her daughter often go on trips together. She had made arrangements for two neighbors to check in on my father and her father (now 105) and hadn't mentioned to us (nor to the doctor examining my father) that she was leaving the country. While my siblings and I have no problem with her taking a vacation, we were concerned that she had gone off without letting us know-and that she had left our increasingly frail father to care for her now-105-year-old father.

My sister, who is retired and is battling breast cancer, immediately flew to Florida to be with my father during the surgery, but she was unable to stay more than a few days because of some medical appointments of her own. My brother then took a week off work and flew down to be with my father until our stepmother returned. We had contacted her onboard the ship with the news of the operation and, while we didn't expect her to cut her trip short, we did think it odd that she didn't call my father at the hospital while she was away.

When she returned and we expressed our concern about the way things had been handled, she confessed to being overwhelmed with caregiving, something she had never mentioned before. It appears my father has become increasingly forgetful and is losing his balance, so she doesn't feel she can leave him alone. Yet when her doctor said she needed a break, her daughter whisked her away on the cruise and she didn't protest.

When we spoke to her daughter (whom I have never thought of as a stepsister and hardly know), she was upset about her mother's health and mental state because of all the caregiving. She brought up the fact that we had not flown down to be with him years before for his pancreatic surgery. At the time, though, we had no idea about the severity of the operation, as both my father and stepmother downplay any health concerns.

Now it turns out my father may have vascular dementia, although we won't know until he's fully recovered from the bypass surgery. Although we've encouraged our stepmother to hire a home healthcare worker to assist her so she's not so burdened, she's reluctant to do so because her father is resistant to strangers in the home. Since we live far away and have responsibilities of our own, it is difficult to know what to do at this point. As my sister says, "If he lived near me, I could help him, but they made the decision to get married and live in Florida."

Sometimes when I talk with my father on the phone, he sounds fine. Other times, he sounds confused and unsure of what day it is. I know that my father is not the easiest person to deal with; we have never been close. Since he weighs so little now, for the past few years he's been unable to hold his liquor, which has led to some embarrassing scenes at parties. My stepmother has limited the number of drinks he can have, and we follow her guidelines whenever he's with us. All this to say that I doubt my stepsister has much love for him; she's concerned about her own mother. Her brother lives in another state with his family and doesn't seem to be involved much.

As we continue to deal with my father's decline and my stepmother's denial, I imagine that the day will come when my siblings and stepsiblings will have to make some difficult choices. I worry that our lack of connection and communication will complicate what are already sensitive matters. I think back to when my mother died, and I know it's hard enough dealing with end-of-life decisions when you just have your nuclear family to consider; adding almost-strangers to the mix is a factor that, frankly, I don't welcome. I can only trust that, deep down, we all want what's best for our parents. They made a vow ten years ago to love one another for better or worse, in sickness or in health. They had some good years together, though not as many as my parents had. Now comes the hard part. For all of us.

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?