Are Stepfathers A Threat?
What Really Happens When Steps Show Up
Stepparents are a fact of life for many of the children growing up in the United States over the past decade.According to the 1998 Census, 32 percent of U.S. children were living in situations that didn’t include both biological parents. Of those children, roughly 30 percent are living with a stepparent, according to the National Stepfamily Resource Center (NSRC), a division of Auburn University’s Center for Children, Youth and Families.
In our culture we have such an emphasis on one mother and one father,” said
Francesca Adler-Baeder, director of Auburn’s family center. The traditional family roles are so ingrained in all of us.” Meanwhile, the truth is somewhat divorced from that image.
According to research compiled by the NRSC, one of three Americans is a member of a stepfamily.Further, more than half of Americans today have been, are now or will at some point be in one or more step family situations during their lives.Of these families, the most common type is the one in which children reside in stepfather families or combined stepfather-stepmother families. Even when children have a stepmother, more often than not, she does not live with them full time.
For the many biological fathers who adhere to a traditional model of visitation “ every other weekend and one alternate weekday a month “ this separation can be wrenching.It is often made worse if there is a stepfather in the picture, which often leads to disengagement.”There is a disengaging pattern on the part of biological fathers when their ex-wives remarry,” Adler-Baeder said.
Disengagement can mean anything from diminished visitation, to falling behind on support payments to no visitation at all.Whatever the manifestation, the process is very difficult for the child involved,” said Adler-Baeder.The same phenomenon is not seen with biological mothers, which Adler-Baeder attributes to the fact that biological mothers are more often the primary custodial parent. There is not a context that allows for the same level of disengagement from the mother that we often see in fathers,” said Adler-Baeder.
For Kirk Jacobson, of Ohio, disengaging from his 13-year-old son after his ex-wife remarried seemed like the only reasonable thing. After a great deal of anguish and consultation with my pastor and counselor, I decided that it would be best for (my son) if I backed out of the picture,” Jacobson said.
From the time she remarried, a couple months after the divorce was final, their young son was expected to call her new husband dad.” I found that she was taking our son to everyone and introducing her new ‘husband’ as Donald’s ‘new dad’.She was saying the same to him,” Jacobson said.Although he told his ex-wife he didn’t like it,the practice continued. She even got a counselor to work with Donald to tell him that this was perfectly normal.Unfortunately, there is no limit on the number of counselors who will back up anything the mother wants to do,” Jacobson said.
Ultimately, it was Jacobson’s 13-year-old son’s talk of hurting himself that drove Jacobson to reconsider his part in his son’s life, figuring he was hurting the child more by staying around. This was the toughest decision I have ever made.I am hoping that at some time, he will come around to ask why I left, and I can show him the papers regarding how she asked the court to terminate my parental rights,” Jacobson said.
Although he has no intention of disengaging from his children, Jason Ousley, of Longview, Texas, has had similar issues similar.He and his wife were married for eight years and have two children, now eight and 11.Their divorce was final in December of 2004.Since then his ex-wife lived with and eventually married the children’s stepfather, a man they call Dad.”
They moved in together three months after we separated,” Ousley said. While their stepfather was spending all his time with them, Ousley “ who could not afford a lawyer for the divorce “ was given the standard visitation model. Prior to the divorce, my kids were with me every day,” he said.
It was Ousley who picked them up from school and went to school events. He made their dinners and packed their lunches.After the divorce, his ex-wife moved more than an hour from the town where Ousley worked. My children were devastated by the divorce,” he said.
Soon, they started to adjust, something Ousley attributes to the new man in their lives. My kids look up to him as their hero,” said Ousley, who admits that he often feels like second fiddle to their volunteer firefighter, hero dad.” Every boy wants to be a fireman,” Ousley said. Why wouldn’t my son look up to him like that?”
Ousley especially takes issue with being called his children’s biological dad,” a habit both his children have recently acquired. I went to court over it, but no one seemed to care,” said Ousley. It is just not right.No one would do that without being coerced.”
Adler-Baeder disagreed, saying a number of stepchildren do call their stepparent mom” or dad.” Our children do not have that same idea that there can only be one mom and one dad,” she says. For many children, they have no control over who their mom or dad marries or whether the divorce will happen.But they do have control over naming the people in their families and it is important to let them do so.”
Steve Zelik, father of one 13-year-old girl, has tried to be understanding.But the circumstances surrounding his daughter’s life with her new dad” are very painful for him.His ex and her new husband have even managed to change his daughter’s last name so it matches her stepfather’s.
(My ex’s) husband is a bailiff in the court where my hearing was held.With all the discrimination courts have against fathers, and the fact he had the home field advantage, I don’t even think an attorney could have saved me, said Zelik of the name change hearing. With no attorney, I tried to compromise with (my ex) by letting the name change occur, but hyphenating mine into my daughter’s last name.(My ex) said that I hardly saw my daughter, which is sort of true. I made two trips every year to see my daughter back in Ohio.”
Unfortunately, the judge was not able to hear Zelik’s side — that his ex rarely allowed their daughter to fly to Colorado to see her father and that she made visitation very difficult, expensive and time-consuming for Zelik.
In five years of living in Colorado, I was allowed to fly my daughter out once,” he said.The court granted the name change saying it did not penalize me and allowed her to identify with her close, immediate family,” Zelik said. Indirectly, the child support that I was paying and continue to pay was used to take me to court and change my daughter’s last name to another man’s. It was a slap in the face. Looking back, I should have known better.”
All three men offer the same advice to men who find themselves in similar situations: get a good attorney. Father’s need to find the best attorney they can find,” says Ousley who suggests looking outside of one’s hometown for an attorney.In his experience, an in-town attorney is too closely linked to remain unbiased. Fathers need to find a lawyer who will stand up for them and for their children in court.”
Still, the results cannot always be controlled.And when the result is less than desirable, Adler-Baeder suggested that biological fathers try to see some hope in the situation. In other areas, parents are very welcoming and open to other adults in their child’s life,” she says. People like grandparents, aunts and uncles are all welcome, so maybe that is an easier way to frame it.”
Additionally, Adler-Baeder would encourage both households to focus on the beauty of different influences in a child’s life. They get something different from each parent,” she said. The truth is, a multi-parental model is really what will ultimately be best for the children after a divorce and remarriage.”