Children and Parental Remarriage

Paper Presented to the Social Policy Forum on Children's Rights and Families, 26 October 2000.

Dr Robin Fleming ©2000

The Families of Remarriage Project

When speaking of families that have been re-created from the parts of families divided by divorce, people tend to refer to "blended families" or "reconstituted families". Having made an in-depth study of such families, I now avoid these terms, as they imply a rebuilding of the second family on the same lines of the first. What my research revealed is that there are a number of structural differences which mean that life in a remarriage family is not going to be identical to life in a first marriage family. I have concluded that these are in fact families of a different kind.

The research I am referring to was undertaken between 1996 and 1998. It examined life in the households of couples who had dependent children from the previous marriages or marriage-like relationships. The study was funded by FRST over two years. It involved collecting in depth case studies of family life and household organisation. Each couple was interviewed both together and separately, using an open ended interview technique. A total of 36 couples were involved. A separate study using the same methodology was made of children's experience of parental remarriage. A total of 33 children from 19 families took part in this study. (Details of the methodology used are available in the research report).

The Main Finding of the Research

As I have indicated, the main finding of the study was that families where there are children from a previous marriage of one or both partners are not the same as first marriage families. There are a number of structural differences which constrain many aspects of household and family life. Three major differences I identified involved money flows, the use of time, and demands on house space.

Money flows

In a first marriage family, for example, it is usual for all the money earned by the couple to be available for the use of their household (and in some cultural groups of their extended family). In a remarriage family, child support arrangements mean that a proportion of the income earned by a family member who is a non-custodial parent goes out of the household. If a family member is a custodial parent, on the other hand, the household income may be enhanced by child support received. Because of the uncertainties surrounding child support arrangements, payments out for children in other households are not always offset by payments in, which means that joint couple income is a poor indicator of the money available to household members.

Time constraints

The family's use of time too is often constrained by arrangements for access visits, which mean that children who live in the household are away on a regular basis, and/or non-custodial children come to visit on a regular basis. Some of the households in the study moved from high occupancy when there were four of more children present, to low occupancy with just the couple at home, as the tides of access visits ebbed and flowed.

House space

The numbers of children coming and going had an impact on the size of the house the couple required. The usual pattern of access visits was for the children to visit their non-custodial parent on alternate weekends and for half the school holidays. When the definition of the weekend was a generous one, this involved the children being with their non-custodial parent for about one third of their time.

House space is needed to cater for the family at it's maximum size. Non-custodial parents want their children to enjoy visiting hem and to feel at home when they come, so it was important to them that they could provide a bedroom, or at least a bed for the children on access visits, and some families had extended themselves financially to ensure they had enough bedroom space.


I have outlined these practical issues of time, space and money to give a context to the constraints under which remarriage families operate. They are constraints that effect the lives of everyone involved, not least the children. I have written about them in more detail elsewhere. However, perhaps the most surprising factor that emerged from my study was the difference between relationships within these households and the expected stereotype of family relationships. It is the relationships between children and their parents' new partners that is the focus of this paper.

There are two factors which make it difficult for an incoming partner of a parent to step into a parental role with the children. First is that children tend to experience their parent's new partner as undermining their own relationship with their parent which makes them disinclined to be accepting, and second, is that in most cases they already have a parent of the same gender as the incoming partner and don't believe they need another.

Children's views of life with a sole parent

Looked at from the children's point of view, having their divorced parent move into a long term relationship with a new partner is an event that causes some ambivalence. For an adult, being a sole parent, and particularly a custodial sole parent, can be a lonely and stressful situation. Having sole charge of the children limits the parent's capacity to earn, while at the same time she or he has the added workload of caring for the children and the home. And, however dearly you love your children, they do not offer the same support and companionship that one expects from an adult partner.

There is a body of research which suggests that children of sole parents do less well in a number of areas than children who have two parents at home (Rogers and Pryor 1998:5). This leads to an assumption that children need and want a second adult in the home, and the cliched expectation that when a mother finds a new partner she is also finding her children a "new father".

We found, however, that children often enjoyed living with just Mum or just Dad. For that time, they had become their parent's confidante, they were special, on equal footing, they were needed

One teenage girl, who I have called Annette, described it this way:

"In some ways I wish I could still be with just Mum because we had a different type of closeness. Like ... she goes up to her room with (her new partner) and they will have a talk, whereas when she used to come home me and her would go up to her room and talk like that. So that's different and the closeness has gone."

Children's ambivalence to the arrival of a parent's new partner. The arrival of a new partner, rather than offering something they needed, took away the intimate status the children had enjoyed. They were "knocked off their perch" as one incoming step-mother expressed it. It is hardly surprising that many children regard the new adult in their lives with ambivalence.

Furthermore, the children are unlikely to think of this new partner as a parent because they already have a Mum and a Dad. Most of the children in our study lived with Mum, but they spent a lot of time with Dad. 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. Even children who had lost a parent through death were hesitant to accept their living parent's new partner as taking over the role of the parent they had lost. The majority of the children in our study viewed family relationships as being established by "blood", not by arrangements such as re-marriage or co-habitation.

Children of separated parents often live in two households

Because of the access arrangements which structured their lives, the majority of the children in my study were members of two family households, their mother's and their fathers. They lived in each either one a third/two thirds basis, or in the case of joint custody on a fifty/fifty basis, and they saw themselves and were seen as members of both households. There were therefore in close touch with both their parents even though in some examples the parents barely communicated with each other.

Even in those cases where the children's natural parent had gone away or spent little time with them, the children often saw them as special, and wanted contact with them. Even a loving step-parent was set aside when a natural parent come on the scene.

Children's relationships with parents' partners

Our study examined the relationship between the children and their parents' new partners. We asked what the step-parents and children called one another, and how they described the relationship to others. In all but a small number of examples both parents and children used Christian names both as terms of address and when referring to one another. The parental terms "Mum" and "Dad" were only used in a minority of examples, and those were cases where the natural parent had gone away, and/or the step parent had been part of the child's household since the child was very young. The terms "step-mother or -father" and "step son-or -daughter" were sometimes used in reference, but some people chose not to use them. Children sometimes talked about step-parents in terms of their relationship to their parent rather than to themselves, for example: "Dad's wife" or "Mum's boyfriend".

When we asked how they would describe the relationship they had with partners' children or parents partners, the most common term used was "friend", sometimes qualified by some suggestion of a parent/child role.

One man, for example, talked about his relationship with the youngest of his new wife's children having a "fathering aspect to it", and others described their similar relationships as being a "male parental person", or a "male parent", terms which allow some social aspects of parenting without claiming the personal relationship implied by "father". It was rare for an adult in this position to claim to be a parent. As one mother said:

"I don't want to be their mother. They've got a mother, and a perfectly good one too in my opinion. I can be their friend."

In their descriptions of their relationships with step-parents, several children reflected a similar blurring of the boundary between friend and parent with comments such as:

"More like a friend than a parent, but a little like a parent"

"Like a friend, I mean she can be a parent if she feels we're doing something wrong ... but really, she can't be our Mum."

On the other hand there were children who rejected any notion of parental authority from their parent's partner.

Step-parents' involvement in parenting

Having established the way these relationships were described, I then examined the extent to which parents' new partners were in fact involved in parenting their children. In order to do this, I developed a four part definition of the tasks involved in parenting children. These are:

Financial support

Financial support in a first marriage family tends to be provided by the man of the couple or by both parents jointly, to all the children in the household. In the remarriage families in my study, there was a tendency for each parent to provide for his or her own children.

In many households this tendency was became blurred when, for example, the male partner was responsible for more of the household expenses because of his greater income. However, with the exception of those with small babies, all the women in the study were earning something, and most of them liked to think that what they earned plus the child support they received from their children's father amounted to the money that was used to support their children. Where relationships between the children and the mother's new partner were strained, it was particularly important for the children's mother to be able to demonstrate that her partner was not supporting her children financially.

Child support was in some cases put into the family's financial pool and drawn on as part of general expenses, but it was more common for it to be earmarked for some of the children's costs such as a contribution to the mortgage, or for their personal expenses for clothes, school, medical services and so on. In the most extreme example, a mother assured me her children went without these things if their father did not pay his child support.

Meeting physical requirements

The housework generated by meeting children's physical requirements was less clearly demarcated. Housework is traditionally women's work and in most cases the woman of the household did the cooking, cleaning and so on whether or not her partner's children were in the home, and there were examples where this extra work was bitterly resented. On the other hand there were some examples where father took over some of the cooking and the transport when his children came to stay.

Supervising, educating and guiding

Supervising, guiding and educating children is perhaps the core task of parenting. It involves not only things such as setting rules for personal safety and encouragement in learning and study, but also more subtle things such as setting standards for behaviour. Much of this guidance and learning happens by example, and occurs at a less than conscious level, and because it is so personal it can be the source of bitter disputes. I recorded examples of arguments between parents and their partners over what the children wore, or whether they turned the lights out when they left the room. The contentious issues of discipline and punishment comes into this aspect of parenting.

Twenty three of the of the couples in the study had children from both their previous relationships, and one things that emerged strongly was that parents, even without meaning to, favour their own children. Although equal treatment of all the children was an agreed rule in most families, parents were often more tolerant of their own children's behaviour than they were of their partners'. Some of the couples recognised that this was a natural tendency that had to be curbed for the good of the family, but others explained their feelings by blaming their partner's children for behaving badly or not coming up to scratch. 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.

Personal support and love

This leads to the last of the parenting tasks, giving children the love and personal support they need to grow up confident and self assured. Love is not a feeling that can be turned on at will. It is either there or it is not, and many of the people in the study confided to me that they found it very difficult to feel warmly towards their new partner's children. Sometimes there was one child with whom they had particular problems.

A woman I called Prue described this situation with some anguish:

"I feel there is an expectation others have, and also I've put on myself because (my partner) seems much closer my son ..than I find I am with (his daughter). (There is an expectation that there will be love) ...especially on women, because women are seen as the great nurturers of the world, and because I've got a child already I'm a mother so therefore I should be motherly to all children, whether they are my chosen own or not."

Even when they felt warmly towards their partner's children parents felt quite differently towards their own children. After examining the way people talked about this difference, I was able to define what I call the "parent feeling" which 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. This engagement can lead to deep anger and disappointment if things went wrong. It involves a sense of identification with the child, a feeling that what the child does reflects on oneself.

Even step-parents who got on well with their step-children still did not reflect this kind of personal engagement. They related to the children as friends, often loving friends. They had learned to love the children because of qualities their admired, and because of the compatibility between them. They had earned the respect of the children and were in a position to offer advice and even set limits. But, just as a close friendship can be broken by events, this step-relationship depended on the ongoing mutual respect of adult and child and could break down if the two fell apart. There were examples of parent's partners who had been genuinely fond of a child becoming hurt and hostile when the child concerned became a difficult adolescent.

If adults found it difficult to find in themselves a parental feeling towards their partner's children, the children did not offer their parents' partners the same love and respect they gave their parents. They rarely accepted that a step-parent had the right to exert authority over them. Even where they had a great deal in common and felt a genuine liking for them, the children recognised the lack of parental engagement and commitment the step-parents had.

Here are two comments from teenage children which sum up the difference with considerable insight:

A teenager called Peter said that his parents' expectation of him were "reasonably high" but that their partners: "Don't really comment. They'll say 'well done' if I do well in a test but they won't say 'I want you to do well'".

Lizzy, who was fifteen said:

"It was like a joint thing, like two parents, well they made me so they wanted to spend an equal amount of time with me. But like (my step-Mum) it's like there's no connection there that makes ... me want to turn out really good, or want her to be proud of me."

The implication of this I think can be discussed in terms of Coleman's theories of social capital. Social capital is a term that is bandied about a great deal in the political context these days. Coleman's analysis predates this rather loose use of the term and takes it back to the personal input children need from parents to make the most of their opportunities. An adult's resources are available to children through their continuing engagement with them, so the absence of a parent is defined as a structural deficiency in family social capital (Coleman 1988:S111).

It can be argued ,therefore, that a parent who is closely engaged with a child will offer greater social capital that a parent's partner who is likely to have a less intense engagement. 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 succeeds or fails than is the natural parent, and the child is less likely to want to strive to please them. The "social capital" they can offer that child is therefore less.


To conclude, what this study revealed is that the parent-child relationship at the turn of the twentieth and twenty first centuries is not perceived as a social role but as a personal relationship with a biological base. A parent's new partner should not therefore be looked on as a substitute parent, and is unlikely to achieve a good relationship with the children if he or she tries to exert parental authority and discipline without first earning the child's liking and respect.

Parents have an inbuilt tendency to favour their own children. Even when they strive to be fair, they are likely to be less tolerant of step-children than of their own.

Whether parent's partners and their children get on well depends on personal compatibility and mutual goodwill. Liking cannot be forced even with the best of goodwill.

Even when they get on well with the children and feel a genuine love towards them, parents' partners are unlikely to have the same deep inner commitment and sense of identification with the children as their natural parents.


James S. Coleman, "Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital". American Journal of Sociology, 1988.

Robin Fleming and Toni Atkinson, Families of a Different Kind, Families of Remarriage Project, 1999.

Bryan Rodgers and Jan Pryor, Divorce and Separation: The Outcomes for Children, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1998.

A copy of the full report of the research reported in this paper is available from the author, Dr Robin Fleming, 83 Greenhill Road, RD 1, Waikanae, or email to

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