"Parent Teams" and the Everyday Interactions of Co-Parenting in Stepfamilies

Article excerpt

Family scholars have yet to explore substantially the day-to-day interactions of stepfamily systems. Our focus was on the everyday interactions of parent teams, adults who are coparenting within different stepfamily households, describing the characteristics of their communication. Twenty-two parents, stepparents, and partners (N = 22) kept diaries for two weeks, each time they interacted with an adult in the other household. Results detail the frequency, timing, location, and length of interactions; initiator, channel, and topics; and reasons for interaction. Interactions were short, everyday encounters rather than extended, planned meetings. The majority of the interactions were via telephone, followed by face-to-face and electronic mail. Participants cited convenience and proximity as reasons for choosing these channels. The majority of topics discussed involved issues surrounding the children, involved little conflict, and adults were moderately satisfied with the interactions. Results suggest that these parent teams had achieved a state of equilibrium and developed ways to interact that worked reasonably well.

Stepfamilies involve a plethora of personal relationships that vary considerably in form, structure, and complexity. Scholars across disciplines have examined a variety stepfamily issues, for example, perceptions of stepparent roles (Fine, Coleman, & Ganong, 1998; Fine, Ganong, & Coleman, 1999), the development of stepfamilies (e.g., Baxter, Braithwaite, & Nicholson, 1999; Braithwaite, Olson, Golish, Soukup, & Turman, 2001), conflict (e.g., Burrell, 1995; Cissna, Cox, & Bochner, 1990), dialectical tensions managed by stepparents and stepchildren (Baxter, Braithwaite, Bryant, & Wagner, in press; Braithwaite, Baxter, & Harper, 1998), disclosure and avoidance (Golish, 2000; Golish & Caughlin, 2002), and the post-divorce relationships between ex-spouses (e.g., Ahrons, 1981; Masheter, 1991, 1994). Collectively, this growing body of research confirms the contention of a number of scholars that the stepfamily is a unique family form worthy of study.

Despite the heightened interest in stepfamily development, most research on communication among stepfamily members is relatively recent, and communication scholars are now beginning to study communication in stepfamilies systematically. Cherlin and Furstenberg (1994) argue that stepfamily members must "create a shared conception of how their family is to manage its daily business" (p. 370), yet relatively little is known about how stepfamily members create this shared conception through communication. In this study, we examined the everyday interactions that constitute and sustain co-parental relationships in stepfamily systems, what we labeled "parent teams." Three goals guided the present study.

First, communication and personal relationships scholars call for studies of everyday interaction that both constitute and maintain relationships (e.g. Barnes & Duck 1994; Baxter, 1992; Dainton, 1998; Dainton & Stafford, 1993; Goldsmith & Baxter, 1996). Golish (in press) points to everyday talk as a maintenance tactic central to families, especially stepfamilies, but scholars have not yet studied the content of this talk. The study of everyday interaction is particularly important in stepfamilies, especially among the different adults who interact as they co-parent children.

Second, stepfamilies exist beyond the boundaries of single households (Coleman, Ganong & Fine, 2000) and involve larger webs of individuals in different residences. The need to study stepfamilies as part of a larger system of families and relationships also mirrors researchers' calls to study relationships as embedded in larger social webs (Baxter & Braithwaite, 2002; Duck, 1993; Milardo & Wellman, 1992). It is important to understand the influence that these adults in the different households have on how children are raised. …


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