Monday, January 28, 2008

One step removed...or not

Every divorce blog out there has been linking to this new study that says divorced people are less likely to be taken care of by their children as they age. I haven't linked to it because I had yet to see anyone saying anything that seemed particularly insightful...until now. Elizabeth Marquardt published an op-ed piece in yesterday's Washington Post on the supposed trend. Here's a short excerpt:

In his study, Temple University's Davey found that aging stepparents were only half as likely as biological parents to receive care from grown children. "Society does not yet have a clear set of expectations for stepchildren's responsibility," he observed.

You can say that again. All stepchildren and stepparents forge a relationship in their own way. Some become deeply attached, some are virtually strangers, many fall somewhere in between. Even when stepchildren and stepparents are close, the deep ambiguity of the relationship can make losing a stepparent to death or divorce a profoundly lonely experience for the child. A friend told me about a colleague who had recently nursed her beloved stepmother, a woman she had grown up with, during a long illness. Even as she mourned her stepmother's death, the woman was mystified and hurt by the lack of support she had received from many friends and co-workers, who'd wondered why she would go out of her way to provide long-term, hands-on care to someone who was "only" a stepmother.

Her story was all too familiar to me. When I was 13, my beloved stepfather took his own life. He and my mother had been divorced for several years, but from the time I was 3 years old until they separated when I was 9, he had been my in-the-home father, a man I'd fallen in love with not long after my mother had. His death was devastating for all of us, but my immense grief, which stretched through my teenage years and into my 20s, was made all the more lonely and isolating because almost no one around me -- friends, teachers, many members of my extended family -- recognized that I'd lost anyone of importance at all.

There are parents who leave, never to be heard from again, who are complete strangers to their natural children. I think we're usually apt to admire children who can overlook years of neglect to care for a parent who falls into this category. By the same token, as Marquardt points out, there are stepparents who hold as deep or deeper a relationship with their stepchildren than do the children's absent natural parent.

Some time ago, I blogged here about the different words we sometimes use to define step relationships. Those words often reveal the different levels of our connectedness to our family members. Until now, no one seemed to be considering this study in light of the varying degrees of connection that children have with their stepfamilies in particular.

No comments: