What’s A Step-Parent, Anyway?

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.







30 responses to “What’s A Step-Parent, Anyway?

  1. “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. ”

    Why is this important?

    • Good question, and it has made me think that I should have emphasized the conditional “sometimes” a bit more. That said, I have a few thoughts:

      If the second person comes along after the child has some conscious memory, then it seems to me it will often (somietimes?) matter in the dynamic of the family. There was, in the memory of the child, life before X and there is life after X. I don’t mean that anything in particular must follow from this, but I do think it’s a difference that will come up and that will mean something to most children. But of course, if the “step” person came along with the child less than two weeks old, you won’t see this and even when you do see it there will be questions of degree. Someone who enters a child’s life at ten is in a different position from someone who enters a child’s life at four. And this probably isn’t universal.

      I also think that there’s a different dynamic between the grown ups. If two people decide to have a child together–whether they do it by ART or adoption or whatever–then it’s a joint project and there is a stronger sense that they are equals in the project. Where one person has joined in later it seems to me that there is often (always? usually?) a greater sense of inequality. Again, there are degrees and it’s not universal.

      Finally, and this is one that I’m afraid is going to look circular, I think the social status of the later-coming parent is generally lesser. After all, the child/parent dyad was there before they were, so they’re not necessary, maybe even they’re expendable. I think this actually exacerbates the first two points–people deal with you differently if you came along later. Now again, people may not know, there are questions of degree, etc.

      In sum, I guess there are some issues broadly common to many people who join families after the kid is there and so I want a category name for that group of people. I think this is what most people think of as a step-parent. And it means that for me, the Sporn isn’t a step parent. He’s there from the beginning but has no formal legal relationship to the mother and no genetic relationship to the child.

      • What bugs me about your approach here is it all seems very personal to you and not objective or clinical at all like your unable to step back from the situation and really listen to what your saying because your chief concern is the ego of the spouse or partner married to the bio parent. Your whole concern seems to be about how others view them and think of them and the level of respect that they garner etc. In reality a step parent can come along in a minors teen years and build a stronger bond with that minor than either parent did in the previous 16 years and that relationship and bond can be so strong as to outlast the marriage the relationship originated from. I certainly know plenty of people who refer to their step parents as their parents and love them more than their parents. So time is what you make of it when you are raising kids. You can be there from the begining but be out to lunch do to work or relationship problems drugs whatever. These are things that biology and genetics do not govern nor does time. There are kids whose parents were abusive for ten years who are more closely bonded with the foster parents they had for 6 months.who would say it does not matter that they are loosing the only parent they’d ever known for 10 years they much prefer what’s behind door number two. What is the difference between saying a person deserves the title because of time or genetics your still saying someone deserves to be named parents so nobody owes it to the child to act as a parent unless someone out there has proven they deserve it. Well if you put a person on this earth who is going to be financially dependent on someone for 18 years – someone is you who owes it to them whether you deserve that burden or not is irrelevant and whether you think of it as a blessing or not is also irrelevant.

        Why can’t doesnt the kid deserve their bio parents full care and support and why can’t the kid have the support of their step parent as well and why are we so worried about the ego of the spouse. They did not put the kid on this earth its not their permanent responsibility to care for the kid, they are there for the kid as long as their marriage lasts.

        • I’m not sure I understand the issue here, but I don’t think this is a fair characterization of my position, though I understand it is your point of view. You ask why the child doesn’t deserve their bio parents–I’m looking at situations where, deserved or not, the child doesn’t have the bio parents–but they have adults who act as their parents and love them unconditionally, let’s say. I can just as well ask why the kids doesn’t deserve to have those relationships–operational relationships that the kids depend on–recognized and respected.

          Not all step-parents take this role–some do, some don’t, as you say and just as some genetic parents do and some don’t. This says to me that legal parentage should not be awarded because of step-parentness, nor should it be awarded based on genetics, but rather on performance.

          I don’t want to dismiss all step-parent, not because of the step-parents feelings but because of the kids involved. Where step parents (or genetic parents) are functional parents, the kids need to be able to rely on those relationships and when other people trivialize them or undermine them, it is not a good thing. It’s painting with too broad a brush.

          I’m a little worried that this repsonse may be off-target, though, as I’m not sure I have your point well enough in mind. I am not saying that all step-parents necessarily form these relationships wtih children, but surely some do and so we ought not to discard them all.

      • Ki said something a while back that was a real lightbulb for me. Its like people think the people who are having sex with eachother have got to be the parents. No sex, no parenthood.
        What you call a project is being in a relationship with someone who reproduces with someone who is not you. They have a kid together and you agree not to leave them. You agree to stick around and help raise the kid. Your not relevant you are unnecessary in the equation. You are not the one reproducing they are. They could just as easily have reproduced without your involvement. Your roll in the child’s life is at their descresion and really any legal parenthood you might gain is only because one of the bio parents failed to take care of their child leaving room for you to step in. Parenthood requires nobody’s permission step parenthood and adoption do. The permission is concealed in donor conception. Permission is the crucial thing.

  2. I would agree that step-parent is an inadequate term, but not for anything having to do with timing. The reason is that step-parent runs the gamut of situations. Some step parents have a truly parental relationship with the step children but some don’t. Timing might be related to this, but then again it might not.

  3. A step-parent is a person romantically involved with a child’s biological parent and thus interested in raising the child.

    If my roommate gives birth and I participate in raising the child – babysitting, taking to and from school, feeding, playing, etc. – every day from the start, according to some of your thinking I might qualify for being a de facto parent, I guess. But I wouldn’t be a parent, or a step-parent. Just an involved roommate.

    • Yes, to me it seems dependent on the relationship with the father or mother of the child (however we like to define those) rather than someone directly choosing to conceive (however we like to define that) the child as part of a relationship.

  4. Look at how Kriss said it: “Yes, to me it seems dependent on the relationship with the father or mother of the child (however we like to define those) rather than someone directly choosing to conceive (however we like to define that) the child as part of a relationship.”
    But Kris, what the heck does this mean” rather than someone directly choosing to conceive the child as part of a relationship.” You can choose to conceive a child all day long with the love of your life but if you are the same gender or if you are different genders but one of you is sterile – your not going to be conceiving a child together. End of story. You can’t conceive the child you want to conceive.
    The mere fact that they would have liked to have conceived a child you think means they should be legally named as the parent of someone else’s offspring without going through a court approved adoption?

  5. As a former student of Professor Shapiro, a quick late night response about my insecurities as a stepfather resulted in a cathartic and far too revealing two hour, nineteen page, short-story. The abbreviated version:

    Both financially and emotionally absent, my children’s biological father does not deserve the title I so desperately desired. Despite my utter distain for him, I strongly encourage and facilitate a relationship with their dad, still. He, however, takes for granted what I would give my life up for in exchange, fatherhood. I never have said what I think of their father, nor did I try to replace him. I was an extra-dad. Because of my own horrific history of step-monsters, a template for what not to do was readily available.

    Now, 19, 18, and 14, we’ve been in each other’s lives for 13 years. Valedictorian out of a class of nearly 500, the bio-father told my eldest that he would not be attending her graduation speech and ceremony. Believing I might be the reason, I felt the right thing to do was not attend one of my proudest moments in her life. After explaining my reasoning, she said, “I want both my dad’s there, but if forced to choose, I want my real dad there, I don’t really have a choice. He’s my dad. Thank you for understanding. ” Of course, instantly overcome with childish jealousy, the nausea of “why” nearly found its exit. Was it not I that, even after 18 hours work days, took time to help study (except anything mathematical, of course)? Was it not I that drove you to school every day until I bought you a car? Once again, stepfather repressed the vomit of “what about me?” Needless to say, I was devastated. She continued, “my father is coming, aren’t you?” Instantly, I burst into tears. Admittedly, the best part was returning my sarcastic yet lighthearted approach to life, like a sledgehammer to my fragile ego. Nature before nurture? Not in my world.

    As a loquacious, type-A personality that loves the sounds of his voice, I cannot articulate the years of immense struggle to never speak ill of someone that hurt those I intensely love adequately. Had I included the other 18 pages, this would make much more sense. Regardless, I don’t believe that children need traditional notions of mother / father relationships, all that is needed are role-models and unconditional love. Alternatively, a trust-fund to pay for 30 years of therapists that mask rather than fix life long abandonment issues might help some. Genetics, intelligent design, or whatever one believes could not create a father-daughter relationship better than what I was given.

    • No you did the right thing. You did everything just exactly right. Thank you for existing. You did not take his title you did not do the work for the title you did it because it was the right thing to do and you in turn have the tight relationship to show for it. Everyone be like this guy

    • And that everyone, is what it looks like to gain your credentials ethically. Respectfully and without trying to steal half a kids family. Your wonderful.

  6. Hi John, thanks for sharing your story no matter how painful…. I am sorry you went through all this… it seems that you did all the right things no matter how hard, I hope this does not discourage you from continuing to do the right thing… It’s all the more unfair since you didn’t place her into the position of having to choose, he did.
    In reality though, you really have no idea how things would have turned out had you indeed attempted to replace your kid’s biological father. It would have definitely created a different dynamic. But I think it unlikely based on what you described, that you could ever have erased the emotional signficance of this man to your kids, although it may hava played out differently.

    • My feeling in general is that relationships are unfair…. they are not like jobs. If something is a job, you do a good job, you get the reward. You do a bad job, you don’t.
      Relationships don’t always work that way. They aren’t earned. They just are.

      • This is why I object to Julie’s frequent of the title parent as some kind of reward to be earned.
        I’m reminded of a woman who married her husband whom she had never really loved, because he took care for her during her years of chronic illness. The marriage didn’t work out. Unfair; hadn’t he “earned” her love? Maybe but relationships aren’t based on earning.

        • Right? Here Here.

        • Yes I agree entirely. Exactly from whom does one EARN a human child? They don’t simply materialize out of thin air. Someone must have control without having earned it to be giving them away as prizes. Is it the government do they own all the children and then award them to the best in show? Is it the controlling parent that owns the child and then awards parenthood as she sees fit to the person she happens to be all lalalala in love with? Yes you deserve to be the other parent of my child because I love you and we should be able to have a child together you were here when i started the project. The project . There are people who invest their efforts into these projects and damn it they expect to get something out of it.
          The child is not owned by the mother nor is the child owned by the government . Good grief it it so outrageous to expect that the people who create the dependency be the ones obligated to resolve it? Women are so bad when it comes to treating their children like dowry. Here let me bestow upon you the title of father since you are the one doing all the work. He’s her husband and he is legally obligated to do all that work as part of supporting his wife, without taking the title of father and the best part is the father is still obligated to take care of his kid also even if there is a step father sharing the physical and financial burden of his wife’s support obligation.

        • Here is the other thing about people saying that people DESERVE the title of parent based upon effort, not genetics. They are so full of hoo hoo. Adoptive parents are referred to as adoptive parents when the ink is still wet on the decree, long before they’ve coached a soccer game or kissed any boo-boos. They act like they EARNED the title of parent through hard work and being there but they sure were not arguing with taking that parental title without having done a damn thing the day they brought that kid home. Oh no no, please don’t call us his adoptive parents now! Wait a few years until we’ve earned that title by having a psychological bond formed from continuous care giving.

          Biological parents are named parents without having put in any effort as well. The duty is born of the title and not the other way around.

        • Just to be clear, it’s the legal rights of parentage that I think should be earned. And perhaps earned isn’t the right word. What I mean is that rights should be given to the people who have actually demonstrated the commitment to be parents (social/psychological parents) through their actions. To be a psychological parent is to actually have a pscyhological parent/child relationship so it isn’t just about doing the laundry, etc. To put this another way, the law should recognize the relationships that have been brought into existence by the conduct of the people involved. So I don’t actually think this is like the example you invoke where it sounds like the actual relationship was lacking.

          • “What I mean is that rights should be given to the people who have actually demonstrated the commitment to be parents (social/psychological parents) through their actions. To be a psychological parent is to actually have a pscyhological parent/child relationship so it isn’t just about doing the laundry, etc.

            “To put this another way, the law should recognize the relationships that have been brought into existence by the conduct of the people involved.”

            And so if you bring into existence a relationship to child by your conduct that resulted in the birth of your own offspring the law should recognize that relationship?

            As a point of clarification, there is a difference between doing something yourself and influencing or forcing someone else to do something. You cannot say that you conceived or that you reproduced when what you really did is get someone else to reproduce and abandon their parental responsibilities to the resulting child. A person can encourage their spouse to get pregnant by a donor and can agree not to challenge the validity of the state’s marital presumption of paternity even though that presumption is false, but their support and encouragement was not essential in order for their spouses offspring to exist. Their spouse could just as easily gone ahead and gotten pregnant by the same guy without their blessing. There are lots of people that have this dillusion that they conceived the child they are raising with their sterile or same sex partner when in fact that is not the case. They conceived with the other bio parent and their spouse was OK with it, even in favor of it.

            the actual relationship was lacking.”

            • I meant that the law should recognize the psychological parent/child relationships discussed in the preceeding paragraph. Sorry if that was unclear. I’m not sure I track your next questions. You don’t bring a psychological parent/child relationship into existence by conduct that results in the birth of an offspring–whether by engaging in sex or by providing sperm for insemination.

              And if your last point is about voluntariness, I think I agree that generally there is a difference between doing something by choice and doing it because you are forced to do it or forcing someone else to do it.

  7. which is not to suggest for a minute that your step daugter does not love you… my guess is she does very much…. but sometimes the absent, dereleict parent becomes all the more precious because of his absence… he needs to be held on to else he will disappear.
    Sometimes it’s the better parent who is more taken for granted. I don’t know you so don’t know if this is the situation but it happens.
    Unfair? absolutely.

  8. I failed to mention that we’re also an interracial couple; she immigrated with a work VISA to the US, solely to escape the abject poverty from a third world of purgatory. Regardless, I seek (or sought) not praise, yet I offer only another perspective. I’m perfectly happy, but the false sense of anonymity resulted in 20 pages of emotional turmoil. It’s a good thing, I needed it. I think the topic daily, yet no one understands it…. I have a great relationship with each of my daughters, and with Rule 19 behind me, I’m content with life. I did not intend the Debbie Downer tone.

  9. Step families are real families in the eyes of the law and they receive the same benefits as if they were genetically related. If your step child resides with you more than with their other parent you will be able to claim your step child as a relative dependent on your taxes and your step child would receive your social security or military death benefits until they reach 18 if you were to pass away. Your step child can be placed on your medical and dental and vision insurance auto insurance etc. State and federal law requires that employers give people time off to take care of a sick step relative or to attend the funeral of a step relative. Step relatives are considered legal relatives and can obtain copies of one another’s vital records. Step parents are legal guardians of children they can sign consent forms and enroll children in school as they are acting under the authority of the parent to whom they are married. They can’t go against the parent’s wishes but they can and do act as caretakers of their step children under the direction of their spouse who is the child’s parent. Their parental roll is obtained through the marriage to the person who is the parent. It does not outlast the marriage. They can and do receive visitation with ex-step children but they have no duty to continue providing financial support which is totally appropriate. That is the parent’s obligation not theirs. Their emotional bond can be respected through visitation that facilitates continued contact without forcing the child to assume an identity as their child rather than as the child of their parents.

    Check out the Government Printing Office for publications on the benefits afforded step parents and their step children.

    • It’s true that there is a really complicated picture when it comes to taxes, financial aid, etc. And there are doctrines like in loco parentis that may assign rights to a step parent. But a step-parent is typically not a full legal parent.

      • There is the real step parent and real step family that has real rights to benefits extended to “family members” by the government. And then there are the boyfriends or girlfriends of parents who are step parent like because they are with the parent all the time and their position is similar to that of a spouse in relation to the child. It does not mean they do or don’t have caregiving responsibilities it says nothing of their actions only their position in relation to the offspring of the parent.

  10. difficult to navigate the site

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