Our House: I, Step-Parent

Matthew Freeman is a loving step-parent of three kids. Sometimes, he still struggles to find his place.

Photo by: Matt Niemi

I am a step-parent. And, in case you don’t know, step-parents are evil. Well, step-mothers mostly. But the logic behind the generalization–that the lack of biological connection to a child fuels something between distance and abuse–surely applies to men too.

Let’s review the literature: Most well-known is Cinderella, who’s famously abused as a maid, virtually imprisoned and denied the opportunities her step-sisters are given. Then there’s Snow White, whose step-mother, the queen, is jealous of her beauty and orders her killed. Unbeknownst to the queen, the contract killer lets her go and brings the lungs and liver of a wild boar as “proof” of his deeds. To fully demonstrate her evil, the author has the queen eat the offal she believes belongs to her dead step-daughter (I honestly can’t remember if Disney portrayed this part of the Grimm brothers’ version).

And let’s not forget Hansel and Gretel, cruelly abandoned by their father and his wife, the wicked step-mother. After their capture by an evil witch, Hansel is fattened up for cannibalistic slaughter while Gretel is forced into enslavement. Clearly, step-parents are not only problematic, but if you know one, you should probably just go ahead and call Child Protective Services on them.

Lest you think this trope is confined to fiction, academics have researched the stereotype, including the plain-speaking article from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research: “Are step-parents always evil?”1 Charitably, their findings “call into question the universality of the so-called ‘Cinderella’ effect.”

So why don’t these people just find a nice person to marry who’s unfettered by children? Are they gold-diggers, blocked from their spouse’s fortune by the children who will inherit it? Are they blinded by lust for their new partner and driven to sequester their step-kids for more sexy time?  Or maybe it’s not that sinister- maybe they naively underestimate how easy children are to raise?

And don’t even get me started on the red-headed stepchild metaphor.

The reality of modern America, however, means these smears of the step-family apply to an increasing number of people. The Pew research center reports that 42% of Americans have a step-relative. Blended families are the new normal. It’s amazing to me, given how prevalent this trend is, how few people talk about the joys and struggles of step-parenting. So let me talk about it.

And while I’d love to counter the negative stories pop culture feeds us and present a vision of rainbows and unicorns, there are real challenges to inhabiting this role. A few observations:

  1. Children are amazing. Step-parents have the incredible opportunity to help raise children, with all of the amazing moments that come along with that important task. All the step-parents I know adore their partner’s children and raise them as if they were their own.
  2. Building trust takes time. You have no automatic bond with a step-child the way you do with a biological child. It takes time, and all you can do is offer yourself. You may be rejected; you may not. But you can’t force anything and you have to learn how to grow a thick skin for the moments, days, weeks, months, or years that it takes for a child to trust you, if they ever do.
  3. The struggle is real. When a child declares “You’re not my real dad,” you die a little inside. Even while recognizing the linguistic imprecision of a toddler’s vocabulary, the child’s quest to understand their family structure and your place in it leaves scars. Children raised by two biological parents do not have to learn the word “biological” until science class teaches them. And you, the step-parent, have to learn to contain your emotions lest your reactions harm the child or drive a wedge between you.
  4. Raising someone else’s biological children is a huge responsibility. Raising children is both rewarding and scary. Every parent I know fears mistakes. That fear is increased if you have to worry, not only about your child’s welfare, but also the second-guessing of your parenting choices by the child’s parent–especially the one you’re not in a relationship with. Imagine the common scenario of momentarily turning your back on a child who gets injured. Then imagine that child goes to tell their biological father that it was their step-father who was in charge when she got hurt. That’s not a fun conversation, and when courts get involved to determine who is a fit parent, it can become incredibly nerve-wracking.
  5. Other people minimize your pain. Our culture generally lacks empathy. “At least you have kids,” declare some who are childless against their will. “All parenting is difficult, your struggle’s no different from mine,” declare some parents navigating their own difficult child-rearing moments. Once when posting on Facebook that not having biological children is hard, a friend commented “I disagree, ” and went on to point out how blessed I am to have children at all.

Look folks, life is not a competition. Recognizing someone else’s struggle doesn’t mean your own is negated. Most of us are struggling through this life, experiencing pain in our own unique ways. Getting out the measuring stick to figure out whose situation is worse fuels conflict, strife, and disconnection. When someone tells you they’re having a hard time, try this response: “I’m sorry to hear that. I’m here if you want to talk.”

I don’t regret for a moment my choice to marry a brilliant, talented woman who had three children, all of whom I love. We’ve made fantastic memories together, camping across Canada, skiing in West Virginia, learning to drive, playing board games, doing homework. But it would be a lie to deny the challenges inherent in the step-parenting job. It’s my hope we can move towards a society with more empathy and fewer stereotypes.

  1. Kai P. Willführ & Alain Gagnon, 2011. “Are step-parents always evil? Parental death, remarriage, and child survival in demographically saturated Krummhörn (1720-1859) and expanding Québec (1670-1750),” MPIDR Working Papers WP-2011-007, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany. 
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Matthew Freeman

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