This post is a spin-off from the previous one. It might make more sense if you read that (and scan some of the comments) first, so you get a context for this.
The earlier post is about Jonathan Sporn and Leann Leutner. They used sperm from an anonymous third-party provider and had a child together, but they weren’t married. Leutner died when the child was about six months old and Sporn isn’t recognized as a legal parent, which means that the child has no legal parents right now.
Someone (I think Kisrita) described him as a step-parent and this sparked both thinking and a conversation that I thought I’d make into a real post, because I think it is an important discussion. The thing is, I don’t think of Sporn as a step-father and this, of course, raises the issue of what we all mean when we use the step-parent formation.
A couple of notes before I begin. First, step-parents have an image problem. What are the words you think of that moderate “step-mother?” Evil? Wicked? That’s certainly the fairy tale casting. I don’t for a minute mean to say this is right, fair or good, but I think it would be silly to ignore the fact that labelling someone a “step” something is not usually raising their status. So when Kisrita identified Sporn as a step-father, it bothered me.
Second, I’m not talking about step-parent as a legal designation here. That might be unusual, given that I am usually on about law. (In truth, I don’t even know whether there is a legal meaning to step-parent.)
So now–what does it mean to be a step-parent? To me I think this is about order. If a person embarks on a relationship with another adult and that adult already has an existing parent/child relationship, then the person may become a step-parent. By contrast, if two adults are in a relationship and then they both form parent/child relationships at the same time–whether via birth or adoption–than neither is a step-parent.
There are other ways to make the same point. A person who is in a parental role in a child’s life from the beginning of the child’s life isn’t a step-parent. (That’s the case with Sporn.) To me, a step-parent is necessarily a person who comes later–who joins the family after there’s already a parent/child relationship.
I’m fairly confident that not everyone would use this definition and perhaps this means we all need to be more careful with language to make sure we are communicating what we mean to be communicating. And I know there are points I haven’t resolved here–but one can’t do everything.
Two final notes: First, even if you do not use the term step-parent as I’ve just laid it out, it seems to me it is sometimes important to distinguish between people who are parents from the beginning of a child’s life and people who come along later on. Which means that if you don’t use step-parent here, it seems to me you need some other name for the category.
Second, in my view a step-parent can still be a legal parent. A step-parent may be a de facto parent–this will depend on the circumstances. (And it brings to mind The Velveteen Rabbit.) And of course, a step parent can complete a step-parent adoption. In either case, the step-parent is then a legal parent. I still think the descriptive term step-parent may be important, though.
As I say, I know my usage won’t be everyone’s. In which case it would be good to explore what other usages there are so we all understand each other.