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The Bond Of The Blood

By Harald Breiding-Buss

When parents re-marry, blood proves thicker than water for the children. At least that’s what new New Zealand Research indicates: No matter how resourceful, kind and skilled a step-parent is, the kids know their “real” mums and dads.

For a feminist researcher like Dr Robin Fleming, to say that biological parentage plays a bigger role for children than the love or resources any step-parent can give is remarkable.

But in a paper presented to the conference on children’s rights to two parents in Wellington in October this year she did just that:

“However well a child gets on with his or her step-parent, and however much that adult can offer in terms of things such as help with the computer, or hunting weekends, they are less likely to have a personal stake in whether the child suceeds or fails than is the natural parent, and the child is less likely to want to strive to please them.”

In other words, fatherhood (and motherhood) is much more than just the provision of a “role model” or even a mentor of the same gender. Fleming uses the phrase “parent feeling” to describe this difference:

“[Parent Feeling] involves not only such things as love and tolerance of the children, but an engagement with them, a feeling of being involved in those things the child experiences, pain or happiness, success or failure, of having responsibility for the well being and the future of the child.”

Her proof? The “Families of Remarriages Project”, where a team of researchers examined life in “blended” families, a term Fleming does not like much. “I now avoid these terms as they imply a rebuilding of the second family on the same lines of the first.

I have concluded that these are in fact families of a different kind.”

There are structural differences like money flow and time constraints that in themselves make life very different from families where both biological parents live together with their children. As the “tides of access visits ebbed and flowed” a couple sometimes goes from having four or more children around on one day, to being by themselves the next.

Finances sometimes have to be stretched to provide a bedroom for children who may only come for a couple of days every fortnight, and one or both partners may either be recipient of or liable for child support, impacting heavily on family finances.

Where child support was received it was not normally treated like any other income item in the family budget, but rather specifically earmarked for expenditure for the children, child support was paid for.

Mothers in particular were quite adamant to stress that their partners are not providing financially for children that are not theirs, and there was a tendency for either partner to provide for his own children.

But perhaps most significantly, the relationship between children and step-parent only came close to that between children and natural parent in cases where the step-parent had been around from a very young age.

But “even those who were quite young were very clear who their natural parents were, and it was their natural parents they looked to for love and guidance, and to whom they gave the right to discipline and control.”

This applied even in cases where the natural parent had gone away or spent little time with them. Fleming: “Even a loving step-parent was set aside when a natural parent comes on the scene.”

And although most parents in the study acknowledged this as counterproductive, they nevertheless favoured their own children over those of their partners.

Most of these families had a rule to treat all children equally, but “parents were often more tolerant of their own children’s behaviour than they were of their partners’. It was common too for each partner to perceive the other’s children as being very demanding of their parent, and of that parent as being too lenient towards the children.”

The children rarely called their stepparents “mum” or “dad”, but instead referred to “dad’s wife” or “mum’s boyfriend”. Stepparents themselves described themselves more as “friends” of the children rather than parents.

Most commonly those children saw themselves as members of two households – their mum’s and their dad’s – rather than believing they had gained a new mum or dad in their stepparent. “[The children] were therefore in close touch with both their parents even though in some examples the parents barely communicated with each other.”

This is in stark contrast to government policies which acknowledge only one household as the “family” of that child after separation – with repercussions for child support, benefits and Family Law.

As Massey University lecturer Stuart Birks criticised in a paper on the same conference: “Family Law can’t seem to get beyond the concept of the household.” He advocates to use terms like “two home children” rather than “one parent families”.

There is no way of saying how many parental remarriage families exist, as the New Zealand Census counts every household with a man, a woman and one or more custodial children as a “two parent family”, regardless of their origin.

Fleming’s research suggests, however, that there is a substantial difference between the two. In her discussion she used the phrase “social capital”, a term which tries to include community networks, voluntary work (including parenting) and other non-paid aspects of everyday life in defining a Society’s richness, rather than just economic indicators such as Gross Domestic Product.

Given her findings on the relationship between step-parents and children she argues that step-parents can offer less “social capital” to step-children than a natural parent, even if they have more resources at their disposal.

Next: The New Man

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