I was just a toddler when my parents divorced. I knew back then as I recall today, I recognized that I only had one mother and one father. Divorce was still fairly common back in the 1960’s through the 1970’s but what often was not really talked about was “step parenting.”
While definitely one of the most popular examples of a “step parent” situation, the television show never really emphasized the roles, though clearly all six children called the parents “mom” and “dad”. I make this observation, because while we know that the father was a widower, the status of the mother’s prior spouse (her full name was Carol Tyler Martin Brady – Martin was her former married name) was never addressed. She was supposed to have been divorced, but because of the times, divorce was too risky to talk about. Yes, it was too risky to talk about divorce, but in the meantime, over on another network, a bigoted male cheauvenist pig by the name of Archie Bunker was bringing in huge ratings for “All In The Family.”
The most blatant reference though, and creating the biggest stereotype, came from Walt Disney’s “Cinderella” fairy tale. In every version of this story, Cinderella is treated poorly by a “wicked” stepmother (and step sisters also, but that is another post).
Step parenting is not a bad thing in concept really. But it is a challenge from all aspects, the child, each spouse, and of course, the “step”. Undoubtedly, my children will some day find themselves dealing with a “step parent.” But just as my experience as a child of a divorce gives me first hand knowledge of the emotions and pains a child feels through a divorce, I also have first hand experience in dealing with not just one step parent, but two, a step mother and a step father.
When my children were first told of the divorce, they were 8 and 10 years of age. I kept the explanation for their level and most certainly made sure that they would never feel that they were any part of the divorce, especially the cause, because they were not. The explanation was that Mr. & Mrs. Edelman, were no longer going to be husband and wife and that was all. Their mother was going to remain their mother, and I was going to remain their one and only father. It was definitely going to be in different houses, but both would offer them the only love that they had ever known. That would not change.
But of course, my older daughter, always being the inquisitive one, wasted no time in wanting to talk about “step parents”. She was aware that I had both a step mother and a step father. And so my explanation went as followed. That a step parent is “one step away from being the legal parent”. The step parent takes on the responsibility of helping the other parents, and I emphasize all parents involved in the child’s life. Some may try to pull the role to that of simply financially supporting the child, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Of course, there are rules and boundaries that will exist between step parent and step child and these must be recognized and respected for the relationship to not only work, but to grow.
A step parent who takes the “heavy handed” approach risks negative response from a child who will have no problem saying, “you’re not my real parent”. And the hostility between will begin to grow. But a step parent who understands and respects that the child has the right to love and cherish their legal parent, will have a lifetime of respect from that child.
As I mentioned earlier, “parent” is a title that a child uses to distinguished familial structure. And clearly, while a step parent may be introduced as a step parent, I do not believe I ever called either of my “steps” step mom or step dad to their face. I called both by their first name. Neither was my legal parent, and just as I assured my daughters that their mother was going to remain their mother, and I their father, I was not going to refer to either other than by their first names.
The Brady Bunch creates a very interesting scenario however. Because while I will strongly state, that my children will only call me their father, I say this because I will NEVER surrender my parental rights. I will be their only father. Mike Brady was a widower when he married Carol. And when he married Carol, he made it clear to all of his sons, that she was not going to replace their deceased mother. But this was a complete absence of the mother. The mother was never going to exist again. So, if the boys decided that they wanted to call Carol “mom”, I was okay with that. But when a parent still exists, the child should still call their legal parent either “mom” or “dad”, and no one else. This was never addressed for the daughters and Carol because of the network refusing to acknowledge the divorce. I am certain, that if the television show would have been shown today, the issue of whether the boys would call her Carol or “mom.”
As my soon to be ex and I will most likely move on in our lives, our daughters will most likely face this situation one day. And while we will both remain their parents, we owe our daughters to respect their rights to be able to call the only parents they know, by the only title they have ever known, “Mom” and “Dad.” Sure, questions will come as I have already been asked what it was like having a step parent, did I like them, etc. But both of us as parents need to make sure that if there is any “step” involved, that the rights and expectations of the legal parents are not undermined. All “parents” involved need to remain on the same page, otherwise risk being put between each other by the child, which is bad enough when a child does it between two parents, let alone three, or four. And just as it is critical for a parent not to belittle the former spouse, so it goes with the “step parent.”
Our daughters have only one mother, and one father. And that is the way it will be forever. But as the Brady’s pointed out, step parents can also be a good thing.