Stepfamilies are becoming increasingly com mon in contemporary developed societies, with the vast majority (in heterosexual families) comprising a stepfather who has partnered and formed a (married or cohabiting) house hold with a biological mother and her resident children. The rise in stepfather households, however, occurs in an institutional context where legislation in many countries has shifted towards the view that bringing up children, and financial responsibility for them, primarily and unchangeably rests with biological parents. In contrast, and despite their prevalence, the institutional position of stepfathers is largely one of invisibility, or at least ambiguity, with few defined rights and responsibilities.
Stepfamilies are usually considered to involve particularly complex family forms and relationships. Work that has developed typologies of different forms of stepfamilies, focusing on gender of the stepparent, marital status, step and biological children’s residence and access patterns, and so on, draws attention to the diversity of stepfamilies. As a body of literature, however, the evidence on the implications of this diversity, in terms of stepchildren’s development and relationships between stepfathers and stepchildren, is equivocal. Further, a continuous theme of work on the topic is that there is normative uncertainty around the practice of stepfathering, focusing on how much of a father figure stepfathers can, are, or should be. This is especially the case because stepfathers now often have to negotiate their practice alongside the involvement of a nonresident father. In this respect, issues of context, including gendered expectations of fatherhood in general over time and social class, are coming increasingly to the fore.
One key preoccupation of studies is the effect of stepfathers on children’s behavior and attainment. This usually draws on survey data, and has largely been conducted within the psychological and therapeutic fields, drawing on clinical inventories or family systems theories, as well as cohort based social studies. Family structure is examined in relation to the outcomes for children’s psychological adjustment, educational achievement, ‘‘transition’’ points such as leaving school and home, sexual activity and parenthood, and involvement in criminal activity. The age of the child when a stepfather enters the household and the child’s gender in relation to the stepfather are often highlighted as factors. The evidence, however, provides equivocal messages. For example, boys are said to be especially affected negatively by having stepfathers, but there are also problematic issues of sexuality in stepfathering girls in early adolescence (for assessments of the literature, see Gorell Barnes et al. 1998; Hughes 1991). Another inconclusive facet is the issue of whether or not stepfathers are more likely than biological fathers to abuse their stepchildren (Daly & Wilson 1998).
Overall, the relationship between stepfathers and their stepchildren is seen as a difficult one to manage, primarily because it is built on a third person, the mother. On the one hand, step father–stepchild relationships are characterized as ones of conflicting loyalty. Stepfathers are said to be subject to resentment and jealousy about the time and attention children require impinging on their own time and relationship with their partner, as well as on the part of the children over sharing their mother (Robinson & Smith 1993). On the other hand, there is also some evidence that stepfathers can understand their coupledom with the children’s mother as a foundation for building relationships with their stepchildren (McCarthy et al. 2003). The mother’s involvement in facilitating the mode of stepfathering practice, and the stepchildren’s own perceptions and reactions, are also issues here.
Another potential cause of conflict of loyalties relates to the fact that many stepfathers have their own biological children, either from a previous relationship and with whom they have contact, or in their stepfamily household from their current relationship. Again, the evidence is contradictory, with some concluding that step fathers feel more commitment to their biological children and others concluding that having their own biological children enhances stepfathers’ ability to take on a fathering identity in relation to their stepchildren (Marsiglio 1995).
This leads into another key preoccupation of the literature: the extent to which stepfathers are father figures to their stepchildren. In turn, this raises issues of the historically situated constitution of fathering. Lack of clarity in quite what stepfathering consists of is often related to a shift towards a less clear formulation of norms concerning fathering in general, in particular whether or not it is ascribed and status bound or achieved and socially constructed. Ascribed fatherhood is rooted in the biological tie and its accompanying social status as a father, which in itself is seen to constitute the essence of fatherhood. Within this status, fathering practice is related to the gendered division of labor between married parents wherein fathers are breadwinners, disciplinarians, and emotionally distanced, and mothers are nurturing carers. In contrast, fathering as an achieved relationship is rooted in what are considered to be new expectations that fathers should actively engage with their children as physically and emotionally involved carers. The emphasis has shifted from fatherhood as an institutional status to fathering as an engaged relational form; a transition from ascribed to achieved.
Stepfathering is not necessarily captured in this idea of a transition from ascribed to achieved fathering because both concepts are underpinned by the biological tie. For this reason, researchers often make a distinction between biological and social fathering, with stepfathers falling into the latter category in that they act as fathers in the social sense. This does not tell us about the content of social fathering, however. For example, the practice of step fathering may work towards ascribed fatherhood in all but biology.
There are two main strands of work attempting to throw light on this issue, using different methodologies but both working within a constructionist approach to stepfathering practice. The first and dominant strand comprises sur vey data. This can examine stepfathers’ identity and the extent to which they seek and maintain ‘‘affinity’’ with their stepchildren, with the evidence here equivocal again. On the one hand, nonresident fathers are said to impinge on step fathers’ ability to take on a fathering identity, in that they have the ascribed breadwinner and authority role undermined by the nonresident fathers’ input. On the other hand, there is also evidence that stepfathers can take on a father identity alongside the biological father rather than feeling in competition with or undermined by them (Marsiglio 2004). Survey data is also used to assess stepfathers’ behavior, focusing on patterns of parental employment, family activities, and practical involvement in childcare and child rearing. Here shifts over time can be detected, from a social practice akin to ascribed fatherhood towards one that represents more involved achieved fathering (Ferri & Smith 1998).
The second strand is relatively small, but comprises grounded qualitative studies that provide a valuable insight into the subjective aspects of stepfathering. A feature of this work is the extent to which stepfathers feel their step children to be ‘‘their own.’’ Some research, taking a developmental approach, attempts to posit ‘‘timescales’’ governing stepfathers’ integration into, and involvement in, their stepchildren’s lives, but again the evidence for a distinct pat tern is contradictory, and in some views the search for it is misplaced (Gorell Barnes et al. 1998). More interpretive work attempts to draw out the images and factors informing stepfathers’ orientation towards their stepchildren. In this respect, several studies across different national contexts indicate that working class stepfathers are more concerned with a social practice in which they can feel and act the same as biological fathers, while middle class stepfathers are more likely to place an emphasis on the primacy of biological fatherhood, meaning that they cannot take on a full fathering role (Edwards et al. 2002). The interplay between economic and material circumstances, and culture over time, may well be an issue here, and is one that deserves further attention, including in relation to ethnicity.
- Burgoyne, J. & Clark, D. (1984) Making A Go Of It: A Study of Stepfamilies in Sheffield. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.
- Daly, M. & Wilson, M. (1998) The Truth About Cinderella: A Darwinian View of Parental Love. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.
- Edwards, R., Back-Wiklund, M., Bak, M., & Ribbens, McCarthy, J. (2002) Step-fathering: Comparing Policy and Everyday Experience in Britain and Sweden. Sociological Research Online 7(1). socresonline.org.uk/7/1/edwards.html.
- Ferri, E. & Smith, K. (1998) Step Parenting in the 1990s. Family Policy Studies Centre, London.
- Gorell Barnes, G., Thompson, P., Daniel, G., & Burchardt, N. (1998) Growing Up in Stepfamilies. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
- Hughes, C. (1991) Steparents: Wicked or Wonderful? An In-depth Study of Stepparenthood. Avebury Press, Aldershot.
- Ihinger-Tallman, M. & Pasley, K. (Eds.) (1994) Stepparenting: Issues in Theory, Research and Practice. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.
- McCarthy, J. R., Edwards, R., & Gillies, V. (2003) Making Families: Moral Tales of Parenting and Step Parenting. Sociology Press, Durham.
- Marsiglio, W. (1995) Stepfathers with Minor Children Living at Home: Parenting Perceptions and Relationship Quality. In: Marsiglio, W. (Ed.), Fatherhood: Contemporary Theory, Research and Social Policy. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, pp. 211-29.
- Marsiglio, W. (2004) Stepdads: Stories of Love, Hope and Repair. Rowman & Littlefield, Boulder.
- Robinson, M. & Smith, D. (1993) Step By Step. Harvester Wheatsheaf, Hemel Hempstead.