According to the Office for National Statistics, 42% of UK marriages end in divorce and 34% of marriages are expected to end in divorce by the 20th year – meaning that thousands of us become the children of divorced parents each year. This high divorce rate means that many of us also have step-parents, our divorced parents either choosing to marry again or take up long-term partners.
The experience of a parental breakup can vary wildly from the horrific – Sarah, 23 – “My parents’ divorce was so acrimonious, that my Dad kidnapped us and took us to another country when we were teenagers, just to spite my Mum” to the harmonious James, 19 – “My Dad was best man for my new Mum’s new husband. They all go on holiday together and my Mum is godmother to my stepsister.”
But the representation of step-parents in literature, film and popular culture is rarely positive. One of the first really negative archetypes children experience in literature is the wicked stepmother in fairy tales. The most famous examples are in Cinderella, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel. In these stories, the stepmother, so consumed by jealousy of the father’s natural progeny with the (pure and usually dead) natural mother, either utilises the kids as underpaid and overworked staff or attempts to murder them. Disney has reinforced this stereotype so successfully that the title ‘stepmother', for children at least, mostly invokes images of witches, long black cloaks and dark spells.
Step-parents in more recent popular culture haven’t fared much better. From the paedophilic kidnapper of a stepfather Humbert Humbert in Lolita, the fascist dictator stepfather in Pan’s Labyrinth, to the rubbish stepfather (compared to Liam Neeson) in Taken. Most recently, the evil stereotype resurfaced in the form of Olivia Coleman’s deliciously evil turn as the greedy, grasping, bitchy stepmum in BBC series Fleabag – our love of hating on the step-parent remains strong.
Popular culture often exists as a mirror reflecting both who we are and how we feel, and in the case of its representation of the step-parent it appears to be fairly accurate – a lot of us remain wary of them. This isn’t really surprising when you consider a step-parent usually comes about at the expense of a personal tragedy for the child (regardless of age) – either the split of their natural parents, or the death of one of their parents. This is a conflict few stepparents are able to either resolve or reconcile – even the good ones who probably try hard to.
However, in 2016 – where even the most solid seeming couples aren’t immune from the divorce courts, and lots of us have known our step-parents for longer than we knew our parents as a couple – have our attitudes towards the step-parent evolved?
I have two step-parents – neither married to my respective parents, but both long-term partners, and both refer to me as their “stepdaughter.” And I like both of them. In particular, I have an emotional bond with my Dad’s partner, because they have two now-teenage daughters, both of whom I am very close to, and are a similar age to I was when my parents split up. There were certainly some angry and difficult times – particularly when I was an angry, difficult teenager myself – but now as an adult, I think it would be peculiar for me to get on anything but well with my step-parents.
As my half-sisters blossom into young women, I find them calling me and coming round to my flat with increasing regularity – particularly after an argument with their parents. Their teenage anxieties and questions make me smile (and cry), and I love watching them grow into lovely women. My parents’ divorce did cause me pain all those years ago – but many good things came out of it, and two in particular – so how could I possibly resent that now?
Ahead, I asked eight adults to share their experiences with their step-parent. Do they like them? Why or why not? And how close a role can a step-parent ever really play to a biological parent? From tales of loss to forgiveness, the results came in mixed...
Some names have been changed