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How Supportive Are Stepparents?

The role of stepparents in children’s lives during young and middle adulthood
Source: DGLimages

As the result of a rise in divorce and repartnering, an increasing proportion of the adult population has experienced stepparents entering their lives. Although most research has focused on children living in stepfamilies, stepparents might also have a role in the life of adult children who have left the parental household. In the process of establishing a career, entering the housing market, and raising young children, adult children might need to call upon their parents and, potentially, stepparents for help.

Kirsten van Houdt (University of Amsterdam), Matthijs Kalmijn (University of Amsterdam and Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute) and Katya Ivanova (Tilburg University) studied support transfers made by stepparents to adult stepchildren (aged 25 to 45) using the Ouders en Kinderen in Nederland data (OKiN; Parents and Children in the Netherlands). In this survey, respondents reported about all financial support, practical support in and around the house, support with childcare, and advice they received from their (step)parents during the last year.

A comparison of all parent figures within each respondent reveals large differences between mothers and fathers: Even taking into account that children most commonly lived in the household of their biological mother after their parents divorced, adult children received more support from their stepfather than from their biological father. For mothers, the difference is reversed: Respondents received more support from their biological mother than from their stepmother. When comparing stepmothers between children, that is, in different family contexts, it shows that if the child’s biological mother has deceased, stepmothers provide more support than if she is still alive. Among stepfathers, there is no such difference: Stepfathers’ support transfers seem unaffected by whether the biological father is alive or not. These findings suggest that, in terms of parental support, the mother role is more ‘exclusive’ than the father role. The role of the stepmother is subordinate to the biological mother’s and if the biological mother is deceased, the stepmother seems to take a step forward.

It is important to consider that parental support is often provided by parental couples rather than individually, such as taking care of grandchildren together or making money transfers from a joint bank account. Both stepfathers and stepmothers provide more support if their partner (i.e., the child’s biological parent) is still alive than if they are widowed. This illustrates that biological parents facilitate the involvement of their partner. At the same time, it suggests that once the tie to their stepchild is lost (i.e., the partner dies), the stepparent’s role becomes more ambiguous.

Overall, this study shows that although stepparents might make significant contributions, their involvement, especially stepmothers’, depends on the presence of the child’s biological parents –  the biological mother in particular. Clearly, the dynamics involved in having multiple parent figures and parental households, such as negotiating parental roles and conflicting loyalties, should not be considered specific to young stepfamilies as they continue beyond children’s transition to adulthood.

Author(s) of the original publication: 
Kirsten van Houdt