Cindrella's Sequel: Stepmothers' Long-Term Relationships with Adult Stepchildren [*]

Article excerpt

BARBARA H. VINICK [**]

SUSAN LANSPERY [***]

INTRODUCTION

This paper is based on reports of 25 women who married men with children from a previous marriage. Its main purpose is to describe, from the women's points of view, what has happened in their relationships with their husbands' children, from initial meeting until the interview last year, a period of time spanning ten to, forty-one years.

In the last fifteen years, an increasing number of publications in the social science and clinical literature have focused on topics relating to stepfamilies, also called blended or reconstituted families. Studies that have explored relations between resident stepchildren and stepparents have focused more often on stepfathers (e.g. Kurdek & Fine, 1991) because the great majority of children in stepfamilies live with their biological mothers and the men they remarried. When stepmothers' roles have been characterized--as research results (Hetherington, 1987), in the clinical literature (Visher & Visher, 1996), and in the popular press (Jones & Schiller, 1992)--the difficulties of quasi-motherhood, generally part-time and in the shadow of the biological mother, have been emphasized. And, of course, the "wicked stepmother" is probably the most prevalent stereotype pertaining to stepfamily life.

But what about the long-term implications of stepfamily experience on intergenerational relationships, when stepchildren have grown up and may have children of their own? In contrast to traditional families, relationships between generations in later-life stepfamilies have remained almost completely unexamined. Some reports from the National Survey of Families and Households, used to present a broad outline of social support in later-life stepfamilies (White, 1994, 1992; Eggebeen, 1992), have shown older stepmothers to be disadvantaged regarding intergenerational support, especially when compared with biological mothers.

This study represents a response to calls for better understanding of family life, beyond that which can be gleaned from survey data (George, 1996; Moen & Forest, 1995). The population of older stepmothers is one whose voices have rarely been heard, and whose interests, attitudes, and behaviors vis-a-vis stepfamily relations have rarely been investigated or documented. How did stepmothers perceive and account for the trajectories of relationships with adult stepchildren? What factors might be linked to relationships that became closer, and those that deteriorated?

METHODS

The stepmothers in the study were recruited on the basis of archival information from the Normative Aging Study, a longitudinal study of aging (Ekerdt, 1987), in which their current husbands are participants. With husbands all aged 60 and over, the women were in their 50s to 80s, with one in her 30s and one aged 45. Ethnically diverse and mostly white, they resided in the Boston area in residences judged modest to luxurious. Eighty percent had some education beyond high school. Averaging 20 years in the current marriage, all but six had been married previously--13 had been divorced and 6 widowed. A third of current marriages were of two divorced spouses; three marriages were of two widowed people; the rest were "mixed"--divorced women with widowed men (5), widowed women with divorced men (3), and first married women with divorced (5) and widowed (1) men. In all, 21 of the 25 marriages involved at least one previously divorced spouse.

In-home conversational interviews, guided by a checklist of topics including some forced-choice items, were designed to capture the complexity and diversity of intergenerational relationships in stepfamilies. Results are based on coding of transcribed interviews, summaries drafted by interviewers, excerpt files of direct quotes, and non-parametric statistical tests to bolster and highlight qualitative material.

RESULTS

Beginnings

Sixteen of the women had married men who had been divorced, and nine had married widowers, a third after courtships of a year or less. …