When step families break up

Should you let them go?
Should you let them go? 

When blended families break up, what happens to the relationship between the step-parent and stepchild? There are no rules for this very modern situation, writes Cosima Marriner.

Jacqueline Simpson* realised she had become a linchpin in her two stepdaughters' lives when the elder girl confided in her a problem she was having at school.

"She didn't want to talk to either of her parents about it," Simpson remembers.

"I suddenly saw there was a role for me to play in the girls' lives that was as important as being a biological parent."

So when Simpson's marriage to the girls' father ended abruptly four years ago, she "didn't consider for a second" ending her relationship with her stepdaughters.

"Why would I end it? I divorced their father, I haven't divorced the girls."

But not everyone in Simpson's life saw it that way. "A few people thought I was hanging onto the past, that the best way for me to move forward was to cut all ties. I just didn't see it that way at all."

Simpson's relationship with her stepdaughters is so strong that both girls (who have different mothers) now live with her and have no contact with their father.

Simpson is just one of many step-parents feeling their way across this new relationship terrain, which comes without a guidebook and contains many pitfalls. There may not be a blood link, a formal family structure or even any legal rights to bind the relationship, but not every step-parent wants to sever ties with their stepchildren just because their marriage to the biological parent is over. And as complicated family structures multiply thanks to high divorce and remarriage rates, families are increasingly having to negotiate this tricky territory themselves.

Nearly one in five Australian families are stepfamilies, according to the Bureau of Statistics. Also known as blended, bonus, patchwork or even emulsified families, they are also more likely to break down: two-thirds of American stepfamilies fail, according to the US Stepfamily Foundation, compared with a third of first marriages.

When stepfamilies do fall apart, there is a tangle of relationships to unravel. Stepchildren and step-parents who struggled to accept each other are likely to breathe a sigh of relief that they need never meet again.

Katie Holmes reportedly fired her stepdaughter, Isabella, from her Holmes & Yang clothes line shortly before she divorced Tom Cruise. Gossip sites claim she wanted to cut ties with the teenager, who had called her "Mom", because Isabella was "Tom's kid".

But those who genuinely bonded during the life of the blended family can be left distraught. They might have spent years forging a relationship - living under the same roof, making school lunches, turning up to parent-teacher interviews, baking elaborate birthday cakes, mopping feverish brows - only to face the prospect of the fragile alliance disintegrating.

Stepfamilies Australia's Daniela Zimmerman estimates that 10 per cent of step-parents want to remain in their stepchildren's lives. "If you can manage at least some sort of contact it is definitely advisable," she says. "For children who are not expecting the contact to be cut off, if you see them one day and not the next, it can be quite traumatising."

But step-parents who don't want to lose touch are at the mercy of the child's wishes - and the biological parents' consent.

"It really depends on the ages of the young people, how far away they live, how mutual the separation is, and what is in the best interests of the child," says Zimmerman, warning parents not to use children as "property to get to the previous partner".

"It is about the child," she adds. "If it is only for the step-parent, that is not good enough. It has to benefit the child and they [must] want it."

Biological parents must also approve any ongoing contact, because step-parents have no legal rights to stepchildren after a marriage breakup. "If your relationship is business-like and friendly, then you've got more likely success," says Lyn Fletcher from Relationships Australia. "If not, then you're up against it with both [biological] mother and father. Of course, there will be resentment and angst."

Becoming a full-time mum to two stepdaughters has been a steep learning curve for Jacqueline Simpson and she feels the weight of responsibility of looking after someone else's biological children. "The scariest thing is the responsibility. It's kind of terrifying, it can be quite stressful. I don't want anything to happen on my watch."

Simpson also worries that she has fewer parenting instincts because she isn't the biological mother. "I don't know what I'm doing, I wouldn't have a bloody clue. I'm hoping to get it right more than I get it wrong."

Stepfamily experts advise step-parents to think of themselves as the friendly aunt or uncle - important, but not replacing the biological parent. Any ongoing contact should be consistent (monthly catch-ups, emails and texts, getting together at special occasions etc), rather than fading out of a stepchild's life after a few years.

But some step-parents resist a stepchild's pleas to keep in touch. Dr Jonathan Toussaint, from the not-for-profit counselling service Interrelate, has seen young boys in particular desperate to maintain contact with their stepfathers. "Boys often have this great big father wound; they desperately need a male figure and male approval in their life to avoid any dysfunction in later years. More often than not it's the child who wants the relationship, and it's up to the dad to step up to the mark."

Yet Toussaint says many men are keen to just move on with their lives, fearful of being entrenched in the conflict of a relationship split. He recounts the story of a 15-year-old boy he is counselling, whose biological father isn't around and whose mum has split up with his stepdad. "He would leave messages on his stepdad's mobile and not hear from him for a month. He remembers the times they used to go to the footy together and he hasn't heard from him - it's heartbreaking. This kid towers over you, but he longs for mateship."

Jacqueline Simpson's younger stepdaughter was so anxious about losing her stepmum that she tried "for years" to get her back together with her father. "I would tell her, 'You and I are still going to be friends. I'm not going anywhere,' " Simpson says.

She adds that she would have been "devastated" if she had lost contact with her two stepdaughters, now aged 13 and 19. Now she is 40, Simpson doubts she will ever have her own offspring. "I realised I wasn't going to have kids of my own, but because I had the girls in my life, it filled that hole."

"My life is so much better for having them in it. It's so much more complicated, it's vastly more expensive, but it's infinitely better. I'm always so happy to see and have them."

* Name has been changed.

From: Sunday Life

I would tell her, 'You and I are still going to be friends. I'm not going anywhere,' ...