'The fear of every step-parent is that they really are a monster'
'The fear of every step-parent is that they really are a monster'
Stepfamilies are fast becoming the norm - but we still have no idea how to make them work, writes Yvonne Roberts
Annette Mogg has courage in that she is prepared to break the ultimate taboo and talk about living in a stepfamily - honestly. Her son was two when she married Alan, a widower and the father of a boy of eight and two teenage girls. The girls are long gone and the sons are still at home, but eager to leave. The desire for flight, sadly, is common to many stepchildren.
"It was difficult from the word go," says Mogg, a health visitor from Wimborne in Dorset. "If I could rewind the video, I would certainly do things differently. I was too strict on my stepchildren because it's easier to be hard if you're not emotionally involved. They would probably agree they were hard on me too."
Other people's expectations didn't help. "People would say, 'Do they call you mum?' The answer was, no they didn't. It would have made me feel quite warm if they had. We paid privately to see a counsellor with one daughter and, if anything, it made it worse. Both girls left at 18 under a bit of a cloud."
Mogg's son has clashed frequently with his stepfather; recently because he wanted to take the family first- aid box to Glastonbury. "Alan said what if he wanted something from the box. He humiliated my son in front of his friends. We talked about it later and Alan said that I always take my son's side."
As well as seeking counselling for one of the girls, the family went to see a counsellor about the depression experienced by Mogg's son. "That didn't help much. As a health visitor, I run courses for parents of teenagers and my husband attended one of those but that didn't help either ...
"Even at the age of two, my son reacted as if this was the start of something not quite right. I still feel guilt. I feel I let my son down. I chose the right man for me, but not for him. Our parenting styles are so different, it's driven a huge wedge between us and I feel sad that that has impacted on our children. Perhaps once the boys have left, we'll be able to return to what brought us together 13 years ago."
Mogg isn't the wicked witch of fairy tales. She is an ordinary person who happened to fall in love with a man who already had children. It happens all the time - yet stepfamilies are barely visible in the landscape of popular culture. We already have at least half a million stepfamilies caring for 2.5 million stepchildren - a figure that excludes the multitude of cohabiting stepfamilies. At least half of remarriages involving children will also end in divorce and one in four step families break down in the first year.
It's estimated that if current trends continue, by 2010, divorce, separation and repartnering will the norm. If all this is tough for the adults, it can be diabolical for the children. But apart from the occasional tormented storyline in the soaps, there's no Stepfamily Fortunes or a stepdad stirring in the Oxo cube on the telly. Everybody knows somebody who's a stepchild or stepparent; my father had a stepmother; I've been a step-parent; my partner is a stepfather. In spite of increasing numbers, we appear reluctant to confront why so many of these families are failing - and what can be done to ease the attrition.
We fail, in part, because step-families strain under the weight of trying to masquerade as biological families - instead of acknowledging that we are living with other people's children. In Step-Parenting, Brenda Maddox's wise and witty book published 30 years ago, she talks of the fallout that comes from uniting "families with a past". Maddox was 28 when she married her husband. His wife had committed suicide leaving a girl of five and a boy of eight. "The clarity of family life was absent," she wrote. "We did not know what we were aiming at."
Peaceful coexistence, love and laughter might be respectable goals - hard enough at times when there are blood ties that bind (adolescence comes to mind) - but sometimes a dark alchemy takes hold in even the sanest and previously most stable individuals when they become part of "reconstituted" families.
Children, even the youngest, become adults, and grown-ups react like babies. All parenting consists of an element of anarchy. Everything is going swimmingly then, suddenly, a button is pushed which connects to a parent's childhood experience - and the resulting volcanic reaction can take both child and adult by surprise.
Add to that the emotions that sometimes (although not always) fester in a non-biological set up - anger, loss, jealousy, resentment, guilt, hatred - then stir that in with two adults who may have diametrically opposed views on what constitutes good behaviour ... and all this happens under the pretence that everything is all right because to confess otherwise is to reveal what every stepparent fears most: that he or she truly is a monster.
Parentline Plus, the national charity offering help and information to families, publishes a report today which analyses recent research including the results of 14,500 calls from stepfamilies to its helpline. The report reveals high levels of depression and anxiety. Other research tells us that a stepfamily in which there is limited yo-yoing between households has a better chance of success. (One teenager I know came for the weekend to discover his stepbrother had been given his room and he was on the sofa.) A new baby can also help to bond the family unit. We know that blue-collar stepdads are much more involved in childcare than white-collar, while lack of cash, space and respite obviously adds to the stress.
Some problems, given time, can be fixed, others can't. A stepchild may want the one thing that a stepparent is unable to provide - unconditional love. Maddox quotes a stepfather who profoundly regretted that he hadn't involved himself more in his stepson's childhood. "I should have hidden better the lack of love," he said - raising the question, does a stepparent have a moral responsibility to lie?
Parentline Plus is calling for more sensitivity on the part of professionals - teachers, health visitors, GPs - in their approach to stepfamilies. Mogg was helped by reading leaflets but she also believes that counselling should be far more easily available for stepchildren to access themselves.
The truth is that "love will find a way" is a daft piece of blind optimism that has probably mortally wounded more families than we care to acknowledge. The abusive stepfather and the hateful stepmother are also a strong part of our mythology. Perhaps it's time we also cultivated fables about stepparents who try their best and, on a modest scale, do achieve miracles. Fables we can believe in, while also conducting a grown-up public debate about the challenges and hurdles - especially for the many children who prematurely leave the family home either of their own volition or because a stepparent has thrown them out .
I know one family in which a never-married man in his 30s moved in with a woman who had a son and a daughter with a severe heart problem and behavioural difficulties. Working as a team, several years on, the family is as solid as a rock.