In 1910, the first Father’s Day was celebrated. Today, more than 40% of Americans have at least one step-relative in their family. This new normal in modern families means that many children will send more than one card this Sunday to celebrate the father and stepfather in their lives.
Fatherhood is challenging enough, but a stepfather faces unique challenges. He may not have a life-long history of shared experiences and shared values with his stepchildren, so he needs to make extra effort to create a positive relationship. Although parents generally feel more responsible for their own children than for their stepchildren, and stepchildren feel less responsible for their stepparents than their own parents, many stepfathers and stepchildren have figured out how to reinforce their responsibilities to one another.
In our research on blended families, elder care, and loss, we observed critical ways that stepparents step in, step up, and step alongside their stepchildren that led to working together gracefully as a blended family for many years. The key element to this choreography was that the stepparent took the lead.
Stepfathers who step in to connect to their stepchildren, whatever their age, develop a lifelong relationship, even if the marriage eventually dissolves. Sociologists, such as Vern Bengtson, stress that the key to establishing strong, life-long bonds between generations is “warmth.”
When a father acts in warm and nurturing ways toward his children, the likelihood of on-going, life long relationship is high. This finding may seem like a no-brainer, but putting it into practice can be challenging, especially for a stepfather who may not receive a warm reception from his stepchildren.
Destiny, a manager at a Baton Rouge fast food restaurant, came to our interviews to talk about her ex-stepfather, Albert. When she was a child, he would walk her and her brothers to and from school because they did not live in a safe neighborhood. When she played softball, he rearranged his work schedule to watch her play and escort her home safely. The care he showed her in childhood was returned years later when he became terminally ill. She adjusted her work schedule to spend time with him in the hospital during his final days, even though he and her mother had been divorced for many years. Albert had stepped in for her as a child, so she stepped in for him at the end of his life.
In times of family crisis, a stepparent can be a critical source of support. Jeremy’s mother had issues with substance abuse, which led to her divorce from Paul, his stepfather. His mother’s addiction ultimately led to an overdose and her death. As he sat in shock, waiting for the coroner to arrive at her apartment, Jeremy called his stepfather, Paul, who came right away. Paul helped Jeremy plan his mother’s funeral, sitting next to him during the service, and even helped Jeremy settle her estate. Paul had no legal obligation to step up and help his ex-stepson, but when Jeremy cried out for help, Paul answered.
Dancing gracefully as a blended family requires stepparents who invite a stepchild to walk alongside them, especially when a crisis happens. For those stepfamilies in our research that cared together gracefully, the stepparent took the lead in including the stepchild in caregiving and burial decisions.
Phillip’s parents divorced when he was in elementary school, and his father quickly remarried Cheryl. Decades later, when Phillip’s father was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and his cognitive abilities began to fail, Phillip worried that Cheryl might exclude him from making decisions about his father’s treatment. Cheryl assured him that she would keep him in the loop through text, email, and phone calls. They stood side-by-side in the ER after his father’s death. Cheryl deferred to Phillip in choosing a casket. She invited him to sit next to her during the funeral. The two remained family a year following his father’s death because of their shared experience.
Stepfathers may have to work hard to dance gracefully as a blended family, but when they do, their stepchildren express gratitude. It’s these types of stepfathers who truly deserve those cards.
Rev. Amy Ziettlow is a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and is the former COO of The Hospice of Baton Rouge and Naomi Cahn is a Law Professor at George Washington University. They are the authors of Homeward Bound: Modern Families, Elder Care & Loss (Oxford, 2017).