Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Gender Dynamics in Stepfamilies: Adult Stepchildren's Views

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Gender Dynamics in Stepfamilies: Adult Stepchildren's Views

Article excerpt

This project explores gender relations in stepfamilies from the vantage point of adult stepchildren who acquired stepparents during childhood. Drawing from 2 rounds of interviews with 15 adult stepchildren systematically selected from the 1997 wave of the University of Southern California Longitudinal Study of Generations, 5 themes of gender dynamics in these families were identified. These were as follows: the persistence of traditional gender practices in the parenting and stepparenting of children, stepmothers as kinkeepers, the renegotiation of relationships with biological fathers once children reached adulthood, parents and stepparents as relationship gatekeepers, and gendered patterns in investment toward biological children and stepchildren. The results provided strong evidence that relationships in these stepfamilies were significantly affected by gendered social practices.

Key Words: gender, intergenerational relations, stepfamilies.

Gender scholarship has broadened conceptualizations of family life in the United States. Departing from the culturally glorified ideal of the nuclear family, gender scholars have made visible myriad types of family structure connections. These include chosen families (Weston, 1991), postmodern families, divorce-extended families (Stacey, 1991, 1996), fictive kin (Chatters & Jayakody, 1995), and other mothers (Collins, 1990). In their studies of gay and lesbian, workingclass, and African American families, these authors have highlighted how families have either broken away from historically prescribed family roles for men and women or adapted to deficient supports by creating fluid kinship networks, often disproportionately made up of women. This scholarship has gone far to expose the socially constructed and gendered nature of family life. Yet, gender scholars have not yet done much to examine the specific practices that construct stepfamily relationships. Because the norms of physical custody of children after parental breakup and of parenting in general are heavily gendered (Mason, 1998), we could expect that interaction and relationships formed with stepmothers and stepfathers would be gendered, too. Studying the relations that emerge among stepchildren, their biological parents, and their stepparents can provide a distinctive vantage point for exploring gendered social practices in the stepfamily structure.

Gender research has evolved away from a focus on static differences that are seen as immutable to practices that change over time and are linked to particular cultural, socioeconomic, political, and historical contexts (Connell, 1987; Gillis, 1996; Stacey, 1991; Walker, 1999). For instance, instead of perceiving the physical custody of children as inherently appropriate for mothers, we can recognize it as a gendered convention that has arisen out of practices of mothering (Connell). Categories that emerge from social practice allow differentiation among women and among men (not just across these categories) to become visible and reveal change over time and internal contradiction, rather than assuming that men and women will always be different in predetermined ways (Connell). Applied to family life, a practice-focused gender theory fits well with an examination of the social construction of stepfamily relationships and current patterns related to them. This study attends to social practices and human agency, areas that are of current interest in both anthropological and sociological kinship research (Gubrium & Holstein, 1990; Stone, 2000).

Scholarship on gendered practices in stepfamilies has focused primarily on the experiences of coresidential stepfathers. Because custody of children after divorce or separation is currently skewed toward mothers, it follows that for heterosexual couples, stepfathers are more likely than are stepmothers to live with their minor-age stepchildren. According to recent estimates, approximately 86% of minor-age stepchildren live predominantly with their mothers and stepfathers (Mason, 1998). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.