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July 8, 2008 / C H Thompson

Reconstituted or blended family

One form of family diversity which moves away from traditional notions of the family is the step-family now more commonly known as the reconstituted or blended family.

Allan & Crow (2001) research found ‘seven out of ten families with dependent children may be described as married-couple families these do not all conform to the stereotype of the ‘normal’ family as some are step-families or reconstituted families. Step-families with dependent children account for 7% of all families and there is evidence of an increase in the proportion of step-families in recent years’ (p289).

divorceCarol Smart, co-author of  The Changing Experience of Childhood, has conducted research with many children whose families have broken up. In half the cases, at least one parent had found another partner. ‘It didn’t mean the adults always got on terribly well, but where it worked, the children felt they had two homes.’ But these homes were subtly different from the ones that had preceded them (and not only because they were, one hopes, happier).

‘Where there was still frequent contact with the biological parent,’ Smart found, ‘it was impossible for the step-parent to become a substitute mother or father. They tended to assume instead a non-authoritarian, non-disciplinarian, companionship role. A new etiquette is emerging.

Dorit Braun of Parentline Plus says that blended families often take 10 years to bed down completely. But it’s certainly true that the step role – sometimes a sort of uncle, father, big brother – is shifting and uncertain. And discipline is the most fraught and visible example of the unease.

As one of the people I interviewed said, ‘It’s all tied up with will they like you or not?’ The advice (for what it’s worth, when children are being really infuriating) is to let the biological parent do the disciplining and, if she’s not there, to say, ‘I don’t think your mother would like you to do that.’

Bedell 2002 also found there are plenty of other difficulties that intact families don’t have. How do you handle birthdays? What do you all do at Christmas? When there are competing rituals – stockings or pillowcases – whose do you jettison?

How is everyone going to react when there’s a new baby who really is a child of this family? It may look like a good idea to the adults for children to split their time 50-50, but should children really be spending their evenings shuttling between homes in cars, ending up miles away from their friends?

And then there are the different values. One house is inevitably stricter than the other. There are different rules about bedtimes, homework, eating meals together. And it’s tedious, especially if your house happens to be the stricter one – although by the time your children get to be teenagers, there may be benefits to their having seen that there’s more than one way of doing things.

Peter Eldrid of Parentline Plus cautions that, ‘It’s important not to assume that every difficulty you face is to do with being a stepfamily. All families have upheavals.’

Fact file on blended/reconstituted family’s

  • 10% of all British children lives with one birth parent and a step parent
  • Over 50% of children who live in two different households take a positive view of their ‘divided lives’
  • 6% of all families with children are step families
  • Two fifths of all marriages are re-marriages
  • 25% of children have experienced their parents’ divorce. Over 50% of them will find themselves members of a stepfamily when their mothers and fathers go on to find new partners.

The above extract came from an Observer article by Geraldine Bedell (2002)

Return to understanding family diversity

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