• With so many families involving stepparents, why are they considered so different? (Getty/Hero Images)
According to Stepfamilies Australia, one in five Australian families is a stepfamily. So why is our culture so slow to recognise the emotional labour of stepparents and acknowledge that non-biological bonds are significant too?
By
Neha Kale

11 Aug 2017 - 3:09 PM  UPDATED 11 Aug 2017 - 3:10 PM

Building a stepfamily was never part of Kara Wright’s life plan. Although the Sunshine Coast native, 42, separated from the father of her two children 12 years ago she hadn’t considered that finding a new partner would mean taking on their family. Until, of course, she met someone with three children of his own.

“I was solo for about five years and then I met my current partner — it was my first experience as a blended family and I’d never thought about what it would be like to have stepchildren before,” she tells SBS. “When I met my partner, his kids were aged three, 12 and 14 and mine were seven and nine. It was quite an age range but I didn’t consider not going ahead with it. We’ve been living in this arrangement for six years.”

Wright, who works as a marketing manager, isn’t alone. According to research from Stepfamilies Australia, a Melbourne-based organisation that provides tools and resources to guide new stepparents through this transition, blended families are Australia’s fastest growing family type. 

Stepparents aren’t granted legal rights in terms of parental responsibilities or duty of care, unless they adopt their stepchildren.

Despite the fact that 300,000 children live with a stepparent in Australia and one in five Australian families is a stepfamily, there’s still a lag when it comes to recognising non-nuclear family structures. Stepparents aren’t granted legal rights in terms of parental responsibilities or duty of care, unless they adopt their stepchildren. The Cultural Context of Stepfamilies, a 2016 publication by Lawrence Ganong and Marilyn Coleman find that this pattern is exacerbated internationally. 

In Singapore, where housing is scarce, policies are geared towards assisting young, unmarried couples, deterring couples from re-partnering and starting new families. A 2012 report from The Oregonian stated that Japan and Malaysia have only started to recognise the legitimacy of blended families. The picture is a little brighter in New Zealand, where stepfamily relationships are institutionalised — stepparents have legal decision-making rights alongside biological parents. 

On July 31, Stepfamilies Australia held National Stepfamilies Day, an event designed to celebrate stepfamilies and raise awareness of the emotional labour often carried out by stepparents.

“[Stepparents] still [attract] a certain amount of prejudice especially when one partner is not happy perhaps because they have not re-partnered and the other is blissfully happy in a new relationship." 

Phoebe Wallish, the organisation’s executive officer, says that part of the challenge is overriding the legacy of narratives such as Snow White and Cinderella that put a negative spin on the experience of stepfamilies. It’s a perception that’s enshrined in the label step itself, which stems from stoep, the Old English word for loss. 

“At Stepfamilies Australia, we want to rewrite these stories,” Wallish says. “[Stepparents] still [attract] a certain amount of prejudice especially when one partner is not happy perhaps because they have not re-partnered and the other is blissfully happy in a new relationship. Relationships are hard work at times. But with the added trauma of separation, it can be fraught with emotions. 

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For Wright, whose partner has children from two previous marriages, adjusting to changes in family dynamics is an ongoing challenge. She also says that deciding whether or not to serve as a mother figure to her two teenage daughters has meant carefully considering her obligations as well as the role she hopes to play in their lives. 

“My youngest daughter is now 14 and I have a step-son who’s now nine and there were some challenges because my daughter was treated like the older child and wasn’t the youngest anymore,” she says.

“[My partner] has children from two marriages so we’re dealing with three families as well as my children’s dad. When the two older girls go back to their mum, it’s just them and when they come back to us, there are five kids so it’s a huge adjustment. Because my stepdaughters are 12 and 14, I decided that I wouldn’t be their mother figure, just a role model, someone who they could lean on when they needed me. I’m not the person who disciplines [them].” 

“Stepparents are stepping into a role that’s extremely difficult,” Wallish adds. “They may have a set of values that are alien to their stepchildren so right from the beginning it’s a bargaining process to establish mutual respect. It’s also important to embrace difference and support all kinds of vulnerable families.”

Wright says that although cultural perceptions have been slow to shift, the payoffs can be powerful.

“I have three more humans in my life who may not have been in my life before,” she says. “We’ve hopefully [formed] a community of parents who want the best for them and look out for them. And we’re all raising them together.”

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @Neha_Kale and Instagram @nehakale. 

Lead image: Getty/Hero Images

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