ISU sociologist explores modern American stepfamily in new book

AMES, Iowa -- The face of the classic American family is changing, and it sure doesn't look like the families depicted on TV. That's according to a new book by Iowa State University sociologist Susan Stewart.

"We hold up 'Leave It to Beaver' as our concept of the classic American family, but it never existed," said Stewart, an assistant professor. "As a society, we latched onto that model as what an ideal family could be. But the truth is that most families fall outside of that model."

In fact, an increasing number of American families are now stepfamilies. But they're even becoming increasingly difficult to define, according to Stewart's analysis of existing research for her book, "Brave New Stepfamilies: Diverse Paths Toward Stepfamily Living," which will be published in December by Sage Publications.

"What is a stepfamily? As social and demographic changes diversified American families in recent times, this seemingly straightforward question has become difficult to answer," she said. "The definition of stepfamily is broader than you think."

Recent trends -- such as couples having children and living together outside of marriage, parents sharing custody of children, gay parenting, population aging and increasing racial and ethnic diversity -- mean that couples and children follow multiple pathways into stepfamilies, Stewart said. "Once formed," she wrote, "these stepfamilies manifest a wide range of living arrangements, caregiving and intimacy."

Writing from experience

Stewart should know. She has been a part of a cohabiting stepfamily, a multi-household stepfamily and a stepfamily with adult stepchildren.

"I've been influenced by the fact that my mom has remarried (after being a single mom for 30 years)," Stewart said, "but I don't know if her new husband will be a 'real' grandparent to my daughter or like a distant uncle. We really don't know as a society."

And in fact, many researchers don't know. Eighty percent of the studies Stewart analyzed for the book focus entirely on remarried couples and exclude whole groups of stepfamilies. The U.S. Census focuses on households, rather than whether or not an individual's partner's children live with them or the other biological parent.

"We need to update our concept of a stepfamily. It's more than just remarriage," she said. "For instance, African-Americans are more likely to form stepfamilies through nonmarital cohabitation and first marriage rather than remarriage Because of this, most minority stepfamilies are not being examined -- and that's a problem because it perpetuates the idea that African-American families are made up mostly of single mothers"

Book provides latest research

Stewart's book presents the latest scholarly research on stepfamilies, along with predominant theoretical perspectives, findings from national surveys, and interviews with stepfamily members on parenting, relationships and child and adult well-being. It also provides information on the legal and practical realities of living in one of the aforementioned emerging stepfamily categories.

Any stepfamily situation is precarious at best, according to Stewart, especially if that family breaks up.

"The stepparent, regardless of the amount of time they may have spent with their former partner's children, has no rights to see those children in the future," she said. "They may have a close relationship, provide parental and financial support, but our (U.S.) laws are not equipped to handle this type of relationship.

"In many cases it's the children who are left out in the cold."

Stewart discusses stepfamily issues in her sociology classes, which include one titled, "The Sociology of Intimate Relationships."

The family demographer's next project is an edited book with current research on stepfamilies. She also produced a recent research paper titled, "The Sociology of African-American Nonresident Fatherhood: The Effect of the Men's Relationship with the Child's Mother," based on a study supported by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.