What springs to mind when you hear STEP PARENT?
Is it some evil witch looking character from Cinderella?
A matronly figure from a Hollywood rom-com?
Let’s be honest whatever your first thought is it usually isn’t one filled with love, kindness, sacrifice and thanks - nor is it a man!
We have been brainwashed into thinking step parents are always the harsh discipliners that keep love and care at arm's length.”
Want proof that this is a woman’s issue?
Have a google for step parenting books, the vast majority have titles such as ‘Daddy’s New Girlfriend’, ‘Daddy’s New Wife’, ‘The Other Mother’ - feel free to shake your fist at this!
We all know the statistics around divorce with the rate sitting around 50%. So the question to ask is how many of these married couples have kids and therefore how many of these kids end up in stepfamilies? The answer - around 10% (according to the latest statistics from 2016). I think it is long overdue that we face this fact and start to treat step parents as critical members of our society who at the end of the day have a large impact on the children in their lives. To start with I am banning the word step-parent! From here on out we will call them bonus parents. There is nothing step about them, they are a bonus and if all goes well will be instrumental in raising well-rounded children.
This story is of a personal nature to me and I hope to bring some of my experiences into this story to help relate it to the wider issue of how bonus parents are regarded in society and in the legal system. Up until recently I was a bonus mum to a 10 year old bonus daughter. I have known said bonus kid since she was 5. Mine is not a success story in the typical sense, her dad and I have had ongoing issues with her mum and bonus dad and it has never been the Hollywood version of a blended family. But I know that it can be and I know some of you reading will have wonderful stories about your blended families, mine is not that! I also know there will be many of you even in great blended family dynamics that will relate to the issues we as bonus parents face, the navigation of couple life vs family life if you share custody, the sometimes hurtful and hateful things that our bonus kids say, the questions we face, the heartache for those of us whose relationships do not survive.
Legally bonus parents have very few rights and yet they are paramount to raising children within our community. Separations, as we all know, can and do get messy and children are affected by this. If the biological parents can’t come to an agreed upon parenting agreement they may make the decision to start the process of going to family court for a parenting order. The ideal first and only step on this journey is mediation, bonus parents are not allowed in the mediation. To me this seems very backward. Mediation is an ideal situation to not only save the biological parents money, time, resources and potentially more hard feelings it also provides a usually quick resolution. Bonus parents might have been in the picture for years before this process happens and yet their observations, opinions, relationship with all involved etc is completely ignored in this process. If the matter ends up in court all parties involved can be interviewed for a child impact assessment and a bonus parent can be called as a witness and provide evidence.
Let’s say a judge has awarded full custody to one parent in this court proceeding we have just described above. The bonus parent has been present, testified, given a full interview for the child's impact assessment. Their bonus kid moves full-time into their house, years go by, then the biological parent dies. The bonus parent in their grief of losing their partner is then faced with their bonus kid going back to their other biological parent, who let’s remember does not have custody. Bonus parents have no legal right over this child. Who they love, care for, have provided for and of course formed a bond with. Bonus parents in this time of sheer grief will have to go back to court to fight for their bonus kid, not just for custody, which they are unlikely to get, even just for visitation or contact. Are we as a society ok with this?
Parental alienation is becoming a more prominent feature in the DFV sector and for good reason. Psychologists now believe it has the same emotional impact on children as other forms of emotional abuse and can take years to undo the damage. Parental alienation can and does occur against bonus parents. When my ex-partner and I told my bonus kid we were engaged she started balling her eyes out and told me that I had ruined her family and made her mum and dad separate. She told me that her mum had told her numerous times that I was the reason her family was no longer together. You can imagine the heartache in a time of celebration seeing my bonus kid having a breakdown over false information and her dad having to explain for the remainder of the evening why and how this information couldn’t and wasn’t true. This is parental alienation and there are many examples of this. Unfortunately this form of abuse against a bonus parent is not generally taken very seriously in family court or mediation (partly as bonus parents are not present) and yet it has a rippling and devastating effect not only on the child but on the family dynamics.
I completely understand that no one gets married and has kids thinking about if it doesn't work out. We wouldn’t do it if that was the case but as a community we need to look at the realities for bonus parents and bonus families. As a bonus parent I have said to friends or family, at one time my ex mother in law, I wasn’t expecting (insert situation) to be this hard/hurtful/scary etc and the response has been ‘well you knew what you were getting into’. This is not said to birth parents and yet as we all know no parent knows what they are getting into! It’s not a malice comment or reply, it just isn’t informed and that is the issue. Our community and our society is not educated on the unique challenges faced by bonus parents and yes they are different to the challenges faced by biological parents.
If you are a bonus parent, about to become one or are a biological parent who is having trouble relating to your partner's challenges as a bonus parent I encourage you to reach out to Step Families Australia. A truly sensational organisation who is at the forefront of breaking stigmas and bringing step families aka bonus families into the 21st century.
Bonus parents choose to love, care, nurture and support children who are not biologically theirs. This takes guts, dedication, patience, risk and selflessness. I think it’s time we respected and valued their opinion more, in society and the legal framework.