Fact: I’m a rare breed. No, this isn’t a reference to the fact I have been the main carer for the children in my family for over a decade. It’s a reference to my status as a stepchild, a reality bought home to me by a superb podcast called You’re Not My Mum.
Okay, the world is full of stepchildren so I’ll have to expand on this point. You won’t be surprised to hear this BBC commissioned podcast is focused on the experiences of stepmothers. It’s presented by stepmum Katie Harrison and I was so enamoured with it that I listened to all five episodes that are presently available in one day. It was fascinating to hear what these stepmums had to say about their families.
They discussed the challenges of being accepted as stepmums and how relationships with biological parents work. One point to come up was an a universal dislike of the phrase “blended family.”
Despite having been a stepson since my age was in single figures (keep this in mind, it’s relevant), it had never occurred to me the phrase “blended” was contentious. The general objection being that it implies everything in the family unit runs smoothly and with no complications, placing stepmum under huge pressure (keep this in mind too, it’s also relevant!).
In addition, there was discussion about the kind of subjects affecting stepfamilies that can go under the radar, access to IVF treatment being one of them. It transpires that depending where you live, a woman can be denied IVF if she is a stepmum because there are already children in the relationship.
One comment that Harrison made, however, was like a laser guided missile to my inner being. During an early episode, she happened to remark that once upon a time, stepmums were seen as positive, a good influence on a family. Prior to divorce being made accessible to all men and women courtesy of the 1969 Divorce Reform Act, stepfamilies were generally only created when a parent had died. Whether a stepmum or stepdad entered the family, there was no rival for the children’s affection or any of the complications that come with being divorced.
I’ll be entirely honest, I think that is a slight oversimplification. This superb Financial Times article written by stepchild and stepmum Emma Jacobs shines a light on the origins of the word stepmother and historically it did not have the happiest or entirely positive connotations. It is also important to stress divorce did happen, simply not in large numbers (It is interesting to note there was a surge in divorces immediately after Wold War II for instance). Nonetheless, I felt Harrison had raised a really interesting point and it was certainly one that rang true with me. It got me thinking about my experiences as a stepchild. It made me realise that I am, basically, a lab rat. Why so? Well, the reality is there are few British-born stepchildren of my age and it’s all because of the 1969 Divorce Reform Act.
That Act of law allowed men and women to get divorced after two years of separation. In 1962, 29,000 divorces were granted in England and Wales. A decade later, just after the 1969 Divorce reform Act came into effect, that number had rocketed up to 119,000. The figures have remained well above 100K ever since (with the exception of 2018).
Where do I fit into all this? My mother remarried when I was very young. As I said above my age was still in single figures. As a result, I gained a stepfather in the early 1980s. Give or take a year or three, divorce had only been popular for a decade before she remarried. Stepchildren with my life experience are, therefore, quite thin on the ground.
I don’t recall any other stepchildren at the two primary schools I attended. I can laugh about it now, but I have vivid memories of taking my fiends into a quiet cone of the playground and informing them I was a “tug of love” child, a ludicrously inaccurate statement but one I thought applied to me on the grounds my parents were divorced! As for secondary school, I can only recall three stepchildren I knew of. It was a lonely time because so few people had experience of divorce and remarriage. Until I heard Harrison’s words on the You’re Not My Mum podcast, it had never occurred to me that my experiences were rare because I became a stepchild at a time when it was uncommon. I have grown up with that status and gone on to have my own family and there are not many stepchildren who can say that. Most are, to use a blunt phrase, still on the production line or just beginning to have kids of their own.
The child-centric approach to family life that has become the norm was not really a thing when I was a kid and I don’t think anyone knew what to do with a kid like me. I have to say, my stepfather had no issue with me being a stepkid and I had no issue with being a stepkid. Any negativity or misunderstandings always came from outside the family unit.
I have made the point several times on this blog that I feel stepfamilies are very misunderstood which is why I am so glad podcasts like You’re Not My Mum are being produced. I decided to get more vocal about my experiences a few years ago when I was asked by a broadcast journalist for my thoughts on a ham-fisted public relations campaign dreamed up by a leisure company. The company had carried out a highly questionable survey, the results of which showed that most people thought the word “stepfamily” is outdated and shouldn’t be used.
I was incredulous at this suggestion and my response took the journalist by surprise. I have lived in a stepfamily most of my life and I am a stepson. It’s what I am, full stop. Suggesting I should not refer to myself as having a stepfamily or, by extension, being a stepchild was offensive. It’s asking me to remove part of my identity and expunge my history.
A former journalist myself, I did some digging around to find out more about this survey. I discovered who had commissioned it and also discovered that stepchildren were a cohort asked to participate…but to my horror, only stepchildren under the age of 18.
This, to me, revealed a crass lack of understanding about stepfamily life. You don’t stop becoming a stepchild as soon as you hit 18. More to the point, it’s when a stepchild hits milestones as an adult that their step status can bubble to the surface: Who should sit at the top table when you get married, what should your children call their stepgrandparents, having to explain your atypical family to your children, having to explain to your children why you don’t get invited to certain family events, the impact on inheritance etc.
The survey, by the way, never saw the light of day. I made contact with the leisure company’s PR team and told them exactly what I thought of it. I don’t quite know what happened, but I assume it was saved in a never to-be-reopened folder called: “Nice ideas that were poorly thought out.”
Getting back to the point made by Harrison, I found being a stepchild tough as a kid. The challenges do not disappear as an adult. There are very few people of my age with a lifetime’s experience of being a stepchild. Our stories are not told or heard because we are few and far between. Stepchildren of my generation were encouraged to bury or ignore the fact. For many people our background was just a bit. . . awkward.
Not, I must stress again, within my family unit. Some of the experiences I have had with extended family members or those outside of my family, however, have left a sour taste.
I am delighted to see stepfamilies operate very differently to when I was young. When I was a kid, divorced kids always lived with mum and got to see dad every few weeks (not for me: half my family lived overseas so contact was minimal). These days co-parenting is the norm which comes with challenges, but when parents do pull it off, it seems – as an outsider looking in – to be much healthier for all involved.
That said, one element of stepfamily life has not changed: Stepfathers and stepsons are one of the most ignored and overlooked populations in society. You’re Not My Mum is great and I think Harrison has produced a brilliant podcast, but, to state the obvious, it’s focused on mums. One episode focusing on stepdads is in the pipeline and I look forward to listening to it, but this is typical of the stepfather / stepson experience: We’re an afterthought, a nice to have and often we’re little more.
If the BBC doesn’t commission a complimentary series of podcasts exploring the lives of stepfathers (and ideally stepsons) it will be falling into the trap I have seen other major media companies stumble into. Twice I have seen national newspapers produce major features promising to lift the lid on stepfamily life, only to fail massively by speaking solely to female steprelatives.
It’s the age-old issue I have faced many a time as a stay at home dad in addition to as a stepson: Women are expected to “do” family while men are expected to go out and earn for the family. Stepmums therefore get a lot of the attention and thanks to fairytales, one or two Disney cartoons and a few horror films, have to tolerate the most dreadful stereotypes.
Men, meanwhile, are raised to be less emotional. Stepmums and stepdaughters may have more vocal and possibly fraught relationships, but maybe that’s healthier than the “bottle up your feelings” approach men can be encouraged to take (an approach I was encouraged to adopt)?
You’re Not My Mum is a brilliant podcast and I’d encourage anyone to listen (here’s a link to its BBC Sounds page) In fact, Harrison has introduced me to a new phrase: “step curious.” I love that Idea and I hope more people become step curious! We definitely need more step curiosity in the world. I also love the idea this podcast has made me realise my experiences of stepfamily life, while not unique, were and continue to be pioneering (even if I say so myself). What I do want to see, however, is more discussion about the role of stepfathers and stepsons as you hear very little about us.
I shall conclude with that well known quote from Oscar Wilde: “If there’s one thing worse than being talked about, it’s not being talked about.” I can think of no better way to describe the experience of male steprelatives.