In the most famous children's story of all time, Cinderella is bullied and harassed by her ugly step-sisters. Her evil step-mother makes her life a misery. They do all they can to seduce the handsome prince away from her.
The message is very clear. They do these things because they are her stepmother and stepsisters. In normal families everyone loves each other. Step-families are full of jealousy, resentment and anger.
Why are we so down on step-families? Sure, there are inevitable tensions because of the unequal emotional position of different children, but some ordinary families can also be more like war zones than love-ins. Stepparents sometimes treat their partner’s children very badly, but biological parents can do appalling things too. There’s a higher level of child abuse in step-families, but it’s not clear whether it’s caused by being part of a step-family. Broader economic and social factors may explain both the broken family relationships and the child abuse.
Around 10 per cent of Australian families are step-families like Cinderella’s. Many more Australians have stepfathers, stepmothers, stepbrothers and stepsisters that they don’t actually live with. I’m one of them. As my parents separated and re-married I’ve had stepparents. I’ve also divorced and remarried, so my two older children have a stepmother and two little half-sisters. They’re part of our family, but they’re only in our home part of the time.
Fortunately, my older children’s relationship with their stepmother and sisters is very different from Cinderella’s. When their little sister arrived two years ago I must confess I was a bit nervous. Would they resent this new competitor for my time and affection?
In fact they’ve adored her from the beginning, and the feeling is mutual. She’s quite accustomed to her dad being absent for several days, but when her brother and sister leave after a weekend visit, there are torrents of tears. My older children are already forming a similar attachment to her little sister, who arrived five weeks ago.
I really don’t know whether I’m entitled to claim any credit for this. Sometimes being the connecting point in a step-family feels a bit like being the piece of rope in a tug-of-war. Balancing the various demands for attention and affection can be extremely difficult.
It helps that my wife, Andrea, is very understanding and perceptive. Neither of the children have ever questioned her legitimacy or authority. I’ve lived in fear of a “you’re not my mum” confrontation but it’s never happened.
Running a step-family involves practical challenges too. You need additional space in your house if extra children are sleeping over regularly. You need children’s things to entertain them. You have to take them to the movies and the football. The time and money required puts pressure on your obligations to the rest of your family. As I’m a high income earner I’m lucky that I can handle this without too much drama. Thousands of Australian step-families aren’t quite so fortunate.
The Step-Family Association of Victoria has just released a series of tip-sheets to help people in step-families deal with these emotional and practical challenges. The association is the only fully established organisation of its kind in Australia, and it runs on the proverbial smell of an oily rag. With hundreds of thousands of Australian families battling to handle real problems, it’s amazing they get so little assistance and support. The Federal Government’s reforms to child support and family law are a major step forward, and the association does great work on limited resources, but a lot more could be done.
Not all step-family stories are like Cinderella, but they’re usually not like the Brady Bunch either. Step-families are common these days. Many are doing it a little tougher than the rest of the community. Shouldn’t we be making a bigger effort to ensure they get the recognition and support they deserve?
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