Inside Lives – Part 3 of 3

A Child’s Perspective

In the concluding part of this three part series, Claudia MacCurvin gains further insight into the challenges of step-parenting by talking to three individuals about their experiences of having a step-parent.

here is no question in my mind that step-families are becoming increasingly common. Whatever your role within a step-family, it is likely that you will face challenges that are unique to your circumstances and to you as an individual. If you are a child in this situation, the challenges can seem beyond your control and in some instances, evoke feelings of anxiety or confusion. In any event, unexplained or unexpressed feelings can potentially dampen what can be a fruitful and character building experience.

As I continue my exploration of some of the myths and truths that surround step-parenting, I talk to Thomas, Hayley and Ella about their experiences of being a child in this circumstance.

Thomas, 28, has clear memories of “acting up” following his father’s second marriage to Mary. “I was 15 at the time and already struggling academically and socially. I didn’t want or need any further disruptions to what seemed like an already chaotic life. My mum died two years earlier and my sister and I felt it was too soon for dad to marry again. Unlike my sister, flamboyant gifts and shopping sprees did not impress me. From day one I made a conscious decision that I was not going to make it easy for Mary and I set out to make the whole experience as unpleasant as I could. The fact that it created a rift between her and dad was simply a bonus”. Thomas acknowledges that part of his motivation was his sense that his father was betraying his mother and their whole family. “I often felt that dad was being disrespectful to my mother’s memory and to us. When Mary came on the scene, I was still clinging to the hope that dad would never marry again as a way of keeping my mother’s memory alive. I was much like the child who hopes that their parents might get back together one day. The family I remembered and cherished was slowly disintegrating and any change made me anxious and angry, although I am not sure that I appreciated that at the time. When dad finally did remarry, it was like experiencing mum’s death all over again. It was as if he betrayed my mother, us and her memory.”

Hayley, 21, recalls having a different, more optimistic, response to her mother marrying for the first time. “I never knew my father and because of this my relationship with my mother has always been full of resentment and conflict. When she got married, I remember being excited about the possibility of there being someone impartial for me to turn to, given that my mum and older siblings have a much closer relationship. I thought it would mean that we all got equal amounts of attention but it didn’t quite pan out like that”.

Despite her continued efforts to “get him to like me”, Hayley’s relationship with her step-father, Glen, remains distant. “I really tried to have a relationship with Glen. In some ways, I think I felt that Glen belonged to me. I wanted to have the experience of having a father like my siblings and friends at school, and I did whatever I could to get him to notice me and pay me some attention. I would go to him with homework assignments or sit with him while he was watching the soaps just as a way of sharing his space.”

At times, this caused tension between Hayley and her mother who openly chastised Hayley for occupying too much of Glen’s time. “My mother would monitor how much time I spent with Glen despite saying that she was keen for us to get on. I am not sure when this started but she was very vocal about me taking up too much of his time and even suggested that he might leave if he felt pressured by me. When I did spend time with Glen that she had not arranged or instigated, she generally made a big deal of it. It was like I was doing something wrong so I started to spend time with Glen when she was out and then I just ended up feeling guilty.” On reflection, Hayley believes that her mother’s behaviour was partly due to her being insecure. “My mother never really had any kind of secure relationship. Her relationship with her own parents was long distance given that she moved to the UK when she was just 17. As far as I know, she only ever had two serious romantic relationships and they both ended badly. I did not notice it then but she was, and probably still is, hugely insecure. Whatever her reasons, I became conscious of the time that I spent with Glen. I did not want to upset her and I certainly did not want Glen to leave because I had become too much of a burden, so I limited the amount of time I spent with him.”

Thomas remembers his father “forcing” him to spend time with his stepmother. “I was clear in my own mind that I did not want to spend time with Mary and I thought I made it obvious to everyone by ignoring her and generally being rude to her. Dad obviously thought he knew best and just kept pushing. On one occasion, he arranged for Mary to pick me up from football club without telling me and I was horrified to see her waiting for me outside of the school gates. I made a huge scene at school. I told the coach that I did not want to go with her and I made such a fuss that the coach called my dad to ask what he should do. Much to my delight, my sister eventually came along to accompany us home, which totally irritated Mary. I just wanted Mary to disappear, yet dad kept pushing for her to be present in every area of my life and that just made me want to push back even harder.”

Ella, 12, is happy when she is spending quality time with her step-father and would like him to be more available. “I love spending time with Stefan, he is very funny and lots of fun, most of the time. I don’t see my dad much and I thought that Stefan would become a sort of substitute dad because he lives at home with me. Mum works and she is often busy when I get home from school so I thought that I would get more attention from Stefan, but that doesn’t happen that much. I sometimes talk to Stefan about school stuff but he can be quite difficult to talk to, he is quiet and he just doesn’t seem interested in what I am doing. I get the feeling that I am bothering him when I interrupt him.”

A significant change to the foundations of a family can be a worrying time for all concerned, particularly when the change involves a parent moving out and/or some new addition to the family moving in. When this change signifies the prospect of another parent, the emotional challenges for a child can often intensify as the fundamental dynamics of their family realign and adapt to new relationships and parameters. Try as one may, the most careful preparation cannot anticipate the disruption to a child’s internal world and thus inadvertent acting out, or indeed acting up for want of a better term, can and often does reflect the child’s unique perspective. It is therefore important to listen, acknowledge and work with the child’s feelings, as they express them, to empathise and understand their perspective. Having open and honest communication can also help to identify the child’s expectations and set out what is realistic for your individual family.

Common to the experiences of Hayley and Ella was their sense of being responsible for their individual mother’s emotional state. This kind of parent-child role reversal ultimately provokes further anxiety in a child who may already be struggling to come to terms with his/her current situation. Both Hayley and Ella were conscious of their individual mother’s being upset and perhaps insecure respectively and chose to ignore their own feelings as a way of managing the situation.

While it is important for the child to develop a relationship with their step-parent, it is helpful to remember that relationships need time to develop and gentle encouragement is often more effective if the relationship is to be sustained. When in doubt do not be afraid to seek professional help from your GP or a more specialised professional, who is able to be objective about your circumstances and help you to find a resolution that suits your family’s needs. ✿