Edwards, Margareta Bäck-Wiklund, Maren Bak and Jane
Ribben McCarthy (2002) 'Step-Fathering: Comparing
Policy and Everyday Experience in Britain and Sweden'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 1, <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/7/1/edwards.html>
To cite articles published in Sociological Research Online, please reference the above information and include paragraph numbers if necessary
Received: 12/2/2002 Accepted: 13/5/2002 Published: 31/5/2002
It is the distinction between the social and biological aspects of parenting which underlies the normative vacuum in present-day society concerning the actual roles which step-parents are to play. This is particularly evident in respect of the less clear formulation of the role of fathers generally. (Ferri and Smith 1998, p.12)
… it would not be correct to see a simply historical transition from the institutional to the relational in terms of fathering. Rather, as recent debates about the duties of fatherhood make plain, there are various mixes of the two (Morgan 1998, p.7)
As we will explore in this paper, these various mixes may work differently for biological and step-fathers, and between different social classes.
As far as I'm concerned Dawn is my life, and the two girls, and that's it … I think and feel of [my step-daughters] as mine, not as nothing else. They're part of a unit and that's it, and I feel of 'em as me own, take 'em in as me own, and that's just it, nothing other. Alright I know they've got their own dad and that, but they're still - if you don't take them as your children you might as well not start. (emphasis is Trevor's)
I tell [one of my step-daughters] off and I'll explain to her why I've told her off or why I've grounded  her, and it isn't because I don't love her, because I don't want her, it's because I do … In the past where Dawn has grounded 'em they've kept on and on and on, they've had their own way, in the end she'd let them go out. But now, because I back Dawn up, hundred per cent, she says something, I back her up.
Jordan is not my own but I mean she is my own if you know what I mean. I would do anything for Jordan, anything. I'd lay in that road and let a lorry run over me for Jordan, I would. No, I would, yeah, I mean I love her that much you know.
We were very, very conscious of being fair. It's easy to be unfair because you always want to spoil your own children. It's very easy to give something to your children and not to your partner's children … And it is difficult when Lynn's ex-husband takes [his children] off and there's always the chance that he'd give them something and my children would not get it … You can't say to him don't spoil the children because they are his children … But when they're with us as a family we're fair.
I don't think of myself as a father to [my step-children] … They're not related to me in any way. But they are still part of the family that I live in … I do things with them just the same as I do with my children. I watch TV with them just the same as I do with [mine]. But I'm not their father … Because you can't replace a true dad or a true mum. You can't.
I think it's really important that he had a good relationship with his dad but, you know, I do find - he gets into this thing where he says 'dad, er, Pete'. So in some ways I wish I'd been, I mean it's selfish really, not so sensitive to [his biological father] and been more sensitive to myself and said 'look, you can call me dad' … But, you know, I also do think it's important that he doesn't have a confusion in his mind who his dad is. Whatever people say, I think there's a strong genetic tie.
You get just as angry and just as happy with all three … Even if you don't have other children of your own, you bloody well have the same responsibility as if the child was yours. You must have that as a guiding principle.
It was fun [with Chris] from the beginning. He was three years old then … It was like other families. A lot of fun that first summer … It is different [fathering them] because there is so much age difference, you do different things with them. When Tom was very small I felt it was unfair to Chris that Tom takes up more time. But what I am, I am [Chris'] father, I think, that's what I think.
I am some kind of generalised adult. When I try to act [in relation to my step-children] it just doesn't work, so I just stay put and leave it to my wife. And after all, they do have a father very close by. To sum up my role as a father, I am here, I am an adult, I have children, and I have Jonas. Of course, I stand up for them in different situations and I care for them, but more so when [my wife] is not around.
I am not a father but I feel accepted, I think I have responsibility. I have tried not to push myself on them. They have another family history before … It is obvious, it is difficult to approach a child without taking over something from somebody else, taking something from the father they already have.
I have without doubt been a good, if you like, provider for both of [my step-children]. They've both enjoyed things that they otherwise couldn't have done in a material sense … So when I said to you just now, although I didn't come into the situation as a step-father, I have in fact fulfilled a role of some kind, it's mostly financial. (Frank - British middle class)
I'd already said, when I first met Eva, there's something that we'll never argue about, that is money. It'll always work out. It's not worth speculating too much about money. Nobody remembers 100 crowns a thousand years from now … We have to see what [the children] need and then make the decisions that are necessary. If [my step-daughter] needs a bike, can we solve this with [her biological father]? He's unemployed at the moment, so [my wife] and I have to find the solution. If she needs a bike, then we buy her a bicycle. That's the way I see it. (Klaus – Swedish working class)
2 In this article we address the step-fathers' perspectives only, and do not focus on the children involved. For the Swedish sample, these are developed in Larsson-Sjöberg (2000), and for the British sample in Ribbens McCarthy et al. (2002).
3 Length of time did not prove to be a important pattern in how the step-fathers made sense of their relationship to their dependent step-children (indeed, searches for 'logical timescales' governing the development of step-family relationships are misplaced - Gorell Barnes et al. 1998, p.271). However, we indicate length of relationship where appropriate in our discussion of their understandings. Nevertheless, step-fathers themselves could see time as an issue; indeed, some spoke about slowly 'developing' a relationship with their step-children. Importantly, however, they did not all envisage the sort of relationship that they were aiming for in the same way, as we elaborate.
4 Nevertheless, some of the indications find support in other British work. In particular, Ferri and Smith's (1998) survey finding of high step-father involvement in parenting their step-children is based on a majority working-class sample. Additionally, Maclean and Eekelaar (1997) found that where step-couples were cohabiting (a more working class pattern), the biological fathers were more likely to reduce contact with their children once the mother had repartnered. See also our discussion of Le Gall and Martin (1997) in the conclusion.
5We do not mean to imply any evaluation as to which step-fathering practice is 'best'. Rather, we are pointing out that such differences exist, and that working class practices in particular are largely invisible in social policy.
6'Grounding' refers to not letting a child go out (i.e. like an aircraft, they are not allowed to 'fly' but must remain on the 'ground').
7A point demonstrated by Harris (1983) in challenging the functionalist Parsonian 'fit' between families and the societies in which they are located.
8Our thanks to an anonymous referees of a previous version of this paper for pointing this out to us. See also note 6. Here, again, we are not implying any valourisation of one point of view by using the language of 'conventional' or 'progressive', but rather that the emphasis on biology overlooks contemporary concerns with achieved, involved fathering.
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