A new study reveals that stepfathers are often better parents than biological dads. With Father's Day being celebrated in September, it's a good time to reflect on the often undervalued role of being a step-Dad.

With Father's Day just around the corner there will be one group of fathers lucky to get a card or the proverbial pair of socks. There's no doubt that being a stepfather is one of the most undervalued and difficult of familial roles.  

From the slasher movie series, to Hamlet and more recently Pan's Labyrinth, stepfathers are portrayed in film and literature as abusive, cruel and uncaring. Although they fare slightly better than their wicked female counterparts, these stereotypes have been around for centuries and the stigmatisation endures today.  

The prevalent myth about wicked step-parents continues to reinforce the notion that the non-biological father or mother cannot nurture and care for a child as well as the biological parent.  Yet a recently published US study in the Journal of Marriage and Family (August 2008) has found that when it comes to at-risk urban families, stepfathers make slightly better parents than biological dads.

Lawrence Berger from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the lead author of the study, reveals that the greatest difference between stepfathers and married biological ones wasn't in the parenting of the children per se, but the fact that, according to the 2098 women surveyed, the stepfathers were more inclined than natural fathers to share a mother's parenting views, have higher levels of engagement with the children and higher level of cooperation in parenting.   

Berger speculates that this was because men who married women with children might have a greater interest in parenting while married biological fathers may be more inclined to adopt the role of breadwinner.  What it might also signify is a man prepared to take on a huge burden for the woman he loves because there's no doubt that there's a tremendous amount of emotional baggage that comes with the 'package deal' in the form of the ex and his family, not to mention the children. 

Stepfathers may often inherit a full-time family as their new partners are more likely have custody of the kids. Stepfathers, like stepmothers, navigate the boundaries of familial life and socially sanctioned biological rights. Like their biological counterparts they want to support their partner, participate in a meaningful way within the family structure and even assert their values and morals into the mix.
 
As a step-parent myself, it is incredibly heartening to see an affirmation of this role however small. Yet why is it that the stereotype of stepdads as especially abusive has persisted? Canadian researchers Martin Daly and Margo Wilson concluded in their controversial book The Truth About Cinderella that children who live with non-biological fathers were at greater risk of abuse. A finding backed up by psychologist and researcher at Melbourne's Deakin University Greg Tooley, whose own study found that children with a step-parent were at least 17 times more likely to die from intentional violence or accident.  

Yet as critics have pointed out these studies fail to adequately define a step-parent and don't distinguish between stepfathers and other unrelated males such as occasional visiting boyfriends, uncles, grandfathers and even friends of the mother. 

If you're a step-parent, you're part of the most rapidly emerging group of parents worldwide today.  With step families predicted as the family of the 21st century - in Australia alone the figure for blended or step families sits at around 20 per cent - an ever increasing number of non biological carers are investing considerable time and energy into looking after the future generation. 

Yet despite this as things stand in Australia now, a step-parent, residential or otherwise is legally consider a 'stranger' to their stepchildren. They have no legal rights, parental authority or obligations to the stepchildren. They are unable to sign a school permission slip (but often do nonetheless), and cannot legally sign the children into emergency wards of hospitals or authorise medical procedures, even if they are the only parent available. A stepfather or stepmother who raises stepchildren for years has no claim to visitation or custody in the event of divorce but can be required to pay child support for the stepchild.

Steve Martin from Stepfamilies Australia says that while there is great support for biological families who separate, once the parents re-partner, the help is almost non-existent and it is vital to ensure that adequate resources and greater support are made available for those people who are undertaking the sometimes thankless task of bringing up these children. 

So how can we help to make a stepfather's job easier? One step might to debunk the stereotypical generalisation that stepfathers are bad parents and recognise that these men, like their biological counterparts, play a vital and influential role in the lives of their stepchildren. It is also important to remember that being a step-parent does not necessarily mean that they feel less responsibility towards those minors in their care with many investing significant time and money into their stepchildren. Like the many wonderful dads out there, stepfathers too read bedtime stories, help with homework, show up at sporting events, play Monopoly and go to movies, just look at Brad Pitt and Ashton Kutcher!

Step-parents and bioparents are not so different − on the whole they want to provide the same thing: a loving, nurturing and safe environment.  So on this Father's Day, let's think more creatively about men and families and celebrate dads in all their diversity from biological, adoptive and foster dads to grandfathers and, not least, stepfathers.

Dolla S. Merrillees is the author of The Woodcutter's Wife: A Stepmother's Tale. A no-holds-barred account of her transition from carefree single woman to her reluctant role as full time stepmother struggling to bond with her stepson, cope with the off-stage mother and deal with the consequences of the birth of her own child.

 

TIPS FOR STEP-PARENTS

- Teamwork between all parties - biological parents and step-parents 
- Develop realistic expectations, become knowledgeable. Read, find friends who have been in similar families, go to courses   
- If you're really stuck, find a good counsellor who understands stepfamily issues.
- Aim for respect as a basis for being together - not love. Love is a bonus if it happens over time, but can't be demanded. 
Stepfamily Associations provide online resources, support, referrals and counselling -
- Sign the online petition that calls on the Australian Government to prevent the cycle of needless family breakdown by providing support through adequately funded, specialised prevention services.