1. Issues Considered in Contemplating Stepchild Adoption
Author(s): Lawrence Ganong, Marilyn Coleman, Mark Fine, Annette Kusgen McDaniel
Source: Family Relations, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Jan., 1998), pp. 63-71
Published by: National Council on Family Relations
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/584852
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2. Issues ConsideredIn ContemplatingStepchildAdoption
Lawrence Ganong,* Marilyn Coleman, Mark Fine, and Annette Kusgen McDaniel
The primarypurpose of this study was to explore the factors that stepfamilymembersconsider when contemplatingstepchild
adoption. Thirty-two adults and 22 stepchildrenfrom 16 stepfamilieswere interviewedabout their thoughtsandfeelings regard-
ing stepparentadoption. The desire to be a "regular"family, to sever relationshipswith the nonresidentialparent, and to legit-
imize roles and relationshipswere reasons givenfor consideringadoption. Whetheror notfamily membersthoughtabout or dis-
cussed stepchildadoption was relatedprimarilyto the level of involvementof the nonresidentialparent. Implications policies
bond are discussed.
that may expandthe range of options available to strengthenthe stepparent-stepchild
Stepfamily households, defined as households in which sons, much of the literatureon adoptionof unrelatedchildrenis
there is an adult couple, at least one of whom has a child unlikelyto generalizeto stepchildadoption.
from a previous relationship, are common in the United
States. In 1990, 11.3% of children in the United States lived Process of StepchildAdoption
with a parent and a stepparent (U.S. Bureau of the Census, For a stepparent be able to adopt,the nonresidential
1992). A numberof these stepchildrenare eventuallyadoptedby must relinquishall legal ties to the child (Mahoney, 1994). The
their stepparent;although the extent of stepparentadoption is nonresidentialparent can either voluntarily relinquish parental
not known, it has been estimated that 100,000 stepchildrenare claims to the child, or the stepparentand residentialparentcan
adoptedby their stepparents every year (Levine & Sallee, 1990). initiate legal proceedings to force the nonresidential parent to
There are probably many similarities between stepchild lose parentalstatus.There are two generalreasonswhy courtsin-
adoptions by a stepparentand adoptions in which both adults voluntarilysever the parentalrightsof a nonresidential parent:(a)
adopt an unrelatedchild, especially when children are younger the nonresidentialparentis declaredto be unfit for a variety of
than preschool age at the time of adoption (Reitz & Watson, reasons, and/or(b) it is in the child's best intereststo end the re-
1992). There are also similarities with older children in both lationship (Mahoney, 1994). Traditionally, legal jurisdictions
types of adoption-children are confrontedwith modifying self- have used both of these reasons in a two-stage process of decid-
identities;they may experienceloyalty conflicts between genetic ing whetheror not to allow stepparent adoption.First,a judgment
and adoptingparents;family membersmust learn new roles; the is made aboutthe fitness of the nonresidential parent.There are a
family boundariesmust be redefinedby its members;and adopt- number of bases for determiningif the nonresidentialparent is
ing parentsmust cope with identity changes (Daly, 1988; Kirk, unfit, including: (a) the parenthas abandonedthe child; (b) the
1981; Visher & Visher, 1996; Watson, 1996). parenthas been abusive to the child; or (c) the parentis a sub-
Despite the similarities, there are importantcontextual dif- stance abuser.Once the nonresidential parent'srightsto the child
ferences that make stepchild adoptionworthy of study as a spe- have been terminated, clears the way for a decision regarding
cial type of adoption. For instance, in stepchild adoptions only whetheror not the adoptionwould be in the child's best interests.
the stepparent seeking to change her or his legal statusin rela-
is In recent years some courts have tried to simplify this two-stage
tion to the children (Mahoney, 1994), whereas in most other process somewhat by using the child's best interests as the sole
adoptions there are two adults seeking to adopt a child. In basis for allowing stepparentadoptionin situationsin which the
stepchildadoptionthe stepchildhas an alreadyexisting relation- nonresidential parent has not consented to terminate parental
ship with one biological parent in the home, an emerging rela- rights. However, even in jurisdictionsin which the sole standard
tionshipwith anotheradultin the home (the stepparent), pos-and being used for stepparentadoptionis the principleof the child's
sibly an ongoing relationship with a nonresidential biological best interest,the fitness of the nonresidential parentcontinues to
parent.By contrast,in adoption of unrelatedchildren, the child be a majorpartof the legal deliberations (Mahoney, 1994).
does not have a pre-existingrelationshipwith either of the adop- If they desire to adopt, the adults in the stepfamily have to
tive parents.Consequently,in stepchild adoptionsthe stepparent make a case that stepparent adoptionis in the best interestsof the
is the additional member of an already existing family unit, child, and often stepchildrenare consulted by the judge before
whereasin otheradoptionsthe child is the newcomer.One possi- the adoption is allowed (Mahoney, 1994). Moreover, adoption
ble result of these structuraldifferences is that issues such as may be costly to stepfamiliesdue to legal expenses and the loss
openness in adoption,defined as the extent of direct and indirect of child support from the parent who yields parental rights.
contact between the adopted child and the birthparents(Kirk, Clearly,adoptionis not only a legal event, but it is a process that
1981), may have differentmeanings in stepchild adoptionsthan
in othertypes of adoptions.
In addition to these structuraldifferences, it is likely that
there are differences in the motivations to adopt between
stepchild adoptionsand other adoptions.For example, infertility
is a primary reason why childless couples adopt (Daly, 1988; *Addresscorrespondenceto: LawrenceGanong, Departmentof HumanDevelopment
and Family Studies, 31 Stanley Hall, University of Missouri,Columbia,MO 6521 1.
Kirk, 1964; 1981), but this is seldom the reason why stepparents
adopttheir stepchildren(Wolf & Mast, 1987). Consequently,the Key Words:adoption,stepchildren,stepparent.
process of deciding to adopt is likely to differ, as are the factors
that are consideredwhen adoptionis contemplated. these rea-
For (Family Relations, 1998, 47, 63-71.)
1998, Vol. 47, No. 1 63
3. involves emotional, psychological, financial, and interpersonal recreatethe nuclearfamily because it is familiarand simplerthan
factors. the reality of stepfamilycomplexity and ambiguityand because
they are supportedin this effort by extendedfamily, friends,and
Prior Research on Stepchild Adoption society as a whole.
Unfortunately, although stepchild adoption is a relatively The lack of legal ties between stepparents their stepchil-
common occurrenceand the contemplationof adoption in step- dren may also add to feelings of ambiguityand a sense of a lack
families is probablyeven more prevalent,it has rarely been re- of control for stepparents. Moreover,clinicians and social scien-
searched(Reitz & Watson, 1992). Little is known about motives tists who examine legal issues contendthatthe absence of a legal
to adopt or issues and concerns that stepparents parentscon-
and relationshippotentiallyserves as a barrierto the developmentof
templatewhen consideringstepparent adoption(Duran-Aydintug emotionallyclose stepparent-stepchild bonds (Fine, 1989; Visher
& Ihinger-Tallman,1995). A survey of 55 adopting stepparents & Visher, 1988). If this is so, then adoptionmay be seen as a way
yielded some evidence regarding the motives underlying to reduce ambiguityand remove an impediment(i.e., the lack of
stepchildadoption(participates could identify more thanone mo- a legal relationship) closer ties.
tive); name changes (40%), family unity (31%), a good relation-
Social stigma may also be a factor in the social construction
ship between the stepparent and stepchild (27%), transferring
of stepfamily life. The cultural meanings associated with step-
legal rights to stepparents(23%), and severing ties from the non-
family roles may not be ones that contribute to positive self-
residential parent (23%) were the main reasons given for
identities; for instance,the prefix step has negative connotations
stepchildadoption(Wolf & Mast, 1987).
for many (Coleman& Ganong, 1987; Fine, 1986), so individuals
Clinicians and legal scholars have speculated about issues who are in stepfamiliesmay be motivatedto avoid the use of step
related to stepchild adoption. For example, it has been argued labels and terms that denote stepfamily positions (Coleman &
that stepchild adoptionmay representan attemptto demonstrate Ganong, 1987), and they may want to use nuclearfamily terms
affection and commitment to the child, to create a parent-child for each other (e.g., motherinstead of stepmother)as an impres-
bond that is legal as well as emotional (Visher & Visher, 1979). sion management strategy (Dainton, 1993; Kaplan & Hennon,
Also, adoptionlegally addressessome of the complicationsasso- 1992). If stepfamiliesand stepfamilypositions (e.g., stepmother,
ciated with stepfamilyliving (e.g., family membershaving differ- stepchild)are seen by family membersas stigmatizedsocial cate-
ent last names), presumably making life easier for stepfamily gories associated with generally negative attributes (Ganong,
members(Mahoney, 1994). Coleman, & Mapes, 1990), then this serves as additionalmotiva-
In this study we take a social constructionistapproachto un- tion to patterntheir stepfamilyas closely as possible afterthe nu-
derstandingconsiderationsand motivations for stepchild adop- clear family model.
tion (Dallos, 1991). The socially constructedmeanings of con- Adoptionmay be seen by stepfamilymembersas one way to
texts and relationshipsare of particularimportancein understand- accomplish the goals of normalizing stepfamily roles and "be-
ing stepfamilies because stepfamily roles and relationships are coming" a nuclearfamily: the noncustodialparentloses parental
often ambiguousand unclear(Ganong& Coleman, 1994) and be- rights and responsibilities, and these are given to the adopting
cause step relationshipsare stigmatized(Ganong & Coleman, in stepparent. Legally, the stepparentbecomes a parent, and the
press). Understanding socially constructedviews of individu-
the stepfamily"becomes"a nuclearfamily.
als within these relationshipscan help stepfamily members and Of course, not all stepfamiliestry to emulatenuclearfamilies
practitioners who work with stepfamilies to better understand (Papernow, 1993). Instead, many stepfamilies construct new
family members'behaviorsand intentions. ways to function that reflect their "step"realities. Members of
It has long been pointed out by clinicians that stepfamily these families may consider stepchild adoption for reasons that
members,particularlyremarriedadults, often attemptto use the do not reflect a desire to become a nuclearfamily.
nuclearfamily as a model to emulate in constructingstepfamily In light of the gaps in the literature, the purposes of this
life (Goldner, 1982; Visher & Visher, 1988; 1996). They do so study were to: (1) explore the factors that stepparentsconsider
partly because culturalmodels about how families are supposed when contemplatingadoptionof their stepchildrenand (2) exam-
to be are based on nuclearfamilies (Coale Lewis, 1985) and part- ine stepfamily members' motivations to adopt. Using a social
ly because there is a lack of institutionalized guidelines and constructionistperspective, we investigated whether the factors
norms for stepfamilyroles (Cherlin, 1978). Several clinical writ- considered by stepfamily members reflected images of family
ers have noted that stepparentsare often unsureof how to relate life based on nuclearfamilies.
to their stepchildren,an uncertaintythat is sharedby other step-
family membersand by outsiderswho interactwith stepfamilies
(Mills, 1984; Papernow, 1993; Visher & Visher, 1988). Conse-
quently, some stepfamilymembersbase theirviews on how their
families should functionon their image of nuclear,first-marriage Sample
families. According to clinicians, such a model does not serve The sample consisted of 32 adults and 22 childrenfrom 16
stepfamilies well because it does not provide much assistance in stepfamiliesin which therewas at least one stepchildbetween the
anticipatingstepfamilyproblemsand figuringout workablesolu- ages of 10 and 19 living in the household the majority of the
tions to existing difficulties (Coale Lewis, 1985; Visher & Vish- time. One criterionfor inclusion in the sample was that stepchil-
er, 1988). However, from the stepfamily members' viewpoints, dren be at least 10 years old because we felt that younger chil-
thinking of themselves as members of nuclear families allows dren would have a difficult time understanding questions asked
them to use societal norms for parentsand childrenas guidelines in the interview.Of the 16 stepfamilies,14 were stepfather-mother
for their role enactments. Members of stepfamilies often try to households,and 2 were complex householdsin which both adults
64 Family Relations
4. were stepparents to children in the household; none were In this type of interview protocol the interviewersask such
stepmother-father households. In seven of the stepfamilies, questions as, "Whatdoes adoption mean to you (as a steppar-
one of the adults had children from prior relationships who ent)?";"Whatimpact, if any, do you think adoptionwould have
lived in another residence with the adult's former spouse. Both on you, on your stepchildren,on the family as a whole?";"What
adults were interviewed in all families, and all children who reactionsdo you expect from othersin the stepfamilyif you were
resided in the household and who were between ages 10 and 19 to mentionthe possibility of adoptingthe stepchildren?" these
were interviewedfrom 15 of the families. interviewswe triedto find out not only what happened,but what
All of the families were White and generally middle class; the participantsthoughtand felt aboutwhat happened.
the medianfamily income was between $40,000 and $50,000 per Immediatelyafter the interview, field notes and interviewer
year, and most adult participantshad attendedcollege. Most of impressionswere either dictated on the audiotapeor writtenby
the adults were employed full-time outside of the home. All of the interviewer. In addition to the interviews, family members
the parentshad been divorced from their previous spouses, and filled out a batteryof questions that focused on stepfamilyrela-
81% of the stepparents had been previously married and di- tionships and individualwell-being. The questionnaire data were
vorced. The parents'earliermarriageshad lasted a mean of 7.32 not used as the primarydata source for this study. Tape malfunc-
years (range= 9 months-20 years), and the stepparents been
had tions preventedus from transcribing of the data from two of
marriedpreviously for 6.89 years (range = 1-13 years). The re- the adults,so in these cases only field notes were availablefor re-
marriedcouples had been marrieda mean of 5.59 years (range= view. Stepparents parentsgenerally were interviewedby the
.92-12.17 years). The mean age of adultswas 39.80 years (range faculty members of the researchteam, and stepchildrenusually
= 30-51), and the mean age of children who were interviewed were interviewedby graduatestudents.Wheneverpossible, inter-
was 13.93 (range= 10-19). viewer and intervieweewere matchedby gender.
The participants were recruitedthroughvarious media, and
adult study participantswere asked at the end of interviews to
recommendother remarried families that we might contact to be The transcribedinterviews were read independentlyby all
in the study. Interviewswere conductedwith family membersin- four researchers.Insteadof using an a prioricoding scheme, the
dividually.All of the participants
lived in centralMissouri.Fami- interviews were coded using an inductive approach (Patton,
lies were monetarily reimbursed for their participation in the 1990). The process of analyst triangulationwas used to guard
study. against the coding schemes being the product of only one per-
son's perceptions and interpretations(Patton, 1990). The plan
InterviewProtocol was that each person would analyze the data independently.
The in-depth, semi-structuredinterviews were conducted Analyses were compared,and minor differences and discrepan-
using an approachdeveloped by Buehlman,Gottman,and Katz cies in inferencesand identifiedthemes and patternsof responses
(1992). This semi-structured interview was based on Gottman's were resolved via discussion.
modificationof Studs Terkel's interviewing method and Satir's We read the interviews again using the revised analytic
family life chronology(Buehlmanet al., 1992). In this type of in- scheme. Interviews were read one family at a time. Patternsor
terview, not every questionis askedin order,nor are all questions themes in the data were examinedboth on a family level and on
asked in every interview. The researchergoes with the natural an individualbasis. That is, we triedto analyze the data in such a
flow of conversation,trying to get the interviewees to be as ex- way thatcommonalitiesand differenceswithin and between fam-
pansive and involved as possible. The goal was to understand the ilies could be identified, as well as similarities and divergence
subjective world of the people being interviewed and the con- across individual family positions (e.g., stepparentsin different
structionsthey have of theirexperiencesand life circumstances. families). Subsequent to this reading, we again met, discussed
The primaryfocus of the interviewwas on the development our analyses,and resolved the few minordisagreements.
of stepparent-stepchild relationships,but several questions were
asked that dealt with adoption. For example, stepparentswere Results
asked, "Have you ever thought about adoptingyour stepchild?"
and "Whateffect do you thinkadoptionwould have on your fam- The stepfamiliesin this study were recruitedto participate in
ily relationships?" stepparentshad not adoptedtheir stepchil-
If an investigationof stepparent-stepchild relationships.Therefore,
dren,they were asked, "How do you think the absence of a legal all of them contained steprelationships, stepparentadoption
tie with your stepchildren has affected your relationship with had occurred in only one complex stepfamily (i.e., both adults
them?" Stepparents who had adopted were asked how they had childrenfrom prior marriages).Adoption by a stepparent in
thoughtthe adoptionhad affected the relationship.Parallelques- simple stepfamilyhouseholds(i.e., only one adultis a stepparent)
tions were asked of parentsand stepchildren. Probesor follow-up legally transforms the stepfamily into a nuclear family, and
questions were asked when appropriate. Wheneverpossible, in- steprelationships transformed
are into parent-childrelationships.
terviewersasked open-endedquestions, or they followed closed- Consequently,it was not surprisingthat only one stepfamilyhad
ended questionswith probesand requestsfor elaboration. ex-For experiencedan adoptionbecause adoptivestepparents unlike-
ample, a stepfatherindicatedthat he had thoughtabout adopting ly to identify themselves as stepparents,nor are they likely to
his stepchildrenseveral times but had not said anythingto other agree to participatein a study of stepparent-stepchild relation-
family members. The interviewer asked about the stepfather's ships. Therefore,the results of this study should be generalized
thoughtsand feelings regardingadoptionand explored with him only to non-adoptiveor pre-adoptivestepparent households.
why he had not mentionedthem to othersin the family. Although stepchild adoptionhad occurredin only one fami-
ly, adoptionwas a relevantissue for this groupof stepfamilies.In
nearly all of the families, at least one member had given some
1998, Vol. 47, No. 1
5. thought to the stepparentadopting a stepchild. In about half of remarried 12 years, explained, "Well [adoptionis] out of the
the stepfamilies, adults had talked with childrenabout adoption. question.I mean, we would have to have the approvalof theirfa-
In the other half of the stepfamilies,membersgave differing re- ther, and that would never happen."This motherhad endureda
ports on whether or not adoption had been considered. Some- contentiouscustody battlewith her formerhusbandseveral years
times one adult reportedthat he or she had talked about steppar- earlier,but this type of sentimentwas expressedeven when rela-
ent adoption with the spouse, but the other adult claimed that tionshipsbetween formerspouses had been generallydispassion-
adoptionhad not been discussed. ate. When formerspouse relationshipshad been characterized by
We can only speculate about why some family membersre- hostility and conflict over the children,then stepfamilymembers
ported discussing adoption while others reportedthat adoption were especially reluctantto pursueadoption.
was not discussed. Perhaps those who said adoption had been Financial concerns also were importantbarriersto seeking
discussed between family members were those for whom the adoption.The loss of financial provisions for the child from the
issue was more important; the issue of adoption holds more nonresidential parent,either throughthe loss of child supportor
salience for some stepfamilymembersthanit does for others.For the withdrawalof money for such items as college, was relevant
stepparentsand stepchildren,adoptioncould have a direct effect for some stepfamilies. One mother, in explaining why her hus-
on their self-identityand legitimatea position for them within the band had placed adoptionproceedingson hold, statedthat it was
family. The self-identity of residentialbiological parents would due to ". . . the cost involved. We aren'tin a position thatwe can
not undergo changes to the same degree, so adoptionwould be just dropthat [child support]money, and I don't know how much
less relevantor less important them.
to my ex-husbandwill fight it, just to be hateful ...." In a thirdof
Family members co-construct reality through interaction the families, parentsstated that they would lose child supportif
with each other and by sharing perceptions, expectations, and parentalrights of the nonresidential parentwere terminated, thus
meanings of situationswith each other (Dallos, 1991). The step- ending parental obligations for financial support as well. For
families in which membersreportedsimilaraccountsof how seri- some stepfamilies,this was an importantissue, and one that led
ously adoption was considered were those in which there was the adults either to abandonadoptionplans or to delay them. A
agreementbetween members on the possibility of adoption;that stepfather, explaining why he had not pursued adoption, said,
is, those family members shared similar perceptions regarding "The only thing that has ever kept me from discussing the adop-
how constrainingthe potentialbarriers were to the likelihoodthat tion of [my stepchildren]is because I don't know what it would
stepparentadoptioncould be accomplished.In families with less do as far as child supportand that type of thing."One 15-year-
consistency in reporting, some members perceived barriersto old stepson, who wantedhis stepfatherto adopthim, yet realized
adoptionthatwere not identifiedby othersin the family. that he needed his father's economic supportto attend college,
statedthathe might have his stepfatheradopthim afterhe finish-
Issues Consideredin StepchildAdoption es school.
Whetheror not family membersthoughtabout or discussed Otherfinancialconcerns were relatedto: (a) the ongoing fi-
stepchild adoption was related primarilyto the level of involve- nancial commitmentthat an adoptive stepparentwould have to
ment of the nonresidential parent. If the nonresidentialparent the adoptedchild if the remarriage ended and (b) the actualcosts
was actively involved, or at least was in somewhat regularcon- of adopting,such as courtfees and attorneyfees. These monetary
tact with the stepchild, then adoption usually was not seriously issues were mentioned more frequently by stepparentsthan by
considered.In those cases adoptionwas not seen as a realisticop- parents and never by stepchildren.In one stepfamily in which
tion; as one stepfathernoted abouthis stepson, "He's got his dad adoptionhad been discussed between adults and children,but no
and he's also got me." In explaining why adoptionwas not con- action had been taken, the stepfatherstated, "I guess, really, in a
sidered in her family, a mother said, "Theirfatheris still a very way, it's probably more of a relief [that adoption has not hap-
dominantfigure in their life and probablyalways will be." A 14- pened]. . . if [we] were to split up, I wouldn't have no financial
year-old stepson said, "I never thoughtabout adoptionbecause I ties or anything towards her." That same stepfather on legal
have my other father."Another stepchild said, "It's [adoption] costs: "There'sa lot of money to have a lot of lawyers say a lot
never been an issue for me and my brotherbecause we see our of things that really don't mean a whole lot except that you've
real dad every otherweekend."Adoptionwas even less of an op- got to go through[it to adoptthe child]."
tion when the nonresidential parenthad a good relationshipwith The only other reason given for not considering or for not
the children;when that was the case, adoptionwas not thoughtto pursuingadoptionwas also relatedto a concern about continuing
be appropriate. obligations and ties if the remarriage ended in divorce. One wife,
However, some stepfamily members gave adoption careful remarriedfor over a decade, did not want her husbandto adopt
her daughterbecause she did not think the remarriage would last
considerationeven when the nonresidentialparentwas involved
with the child. In situations in which the nonresidentialparent and did not want to be saddled with a relationship with him
was not especially close to the children, yet maintainedcontact shouldthey divorce.
periodically throughphone calls or visits, the remarriedfamily Motivations for Stepchild Adoption
adults often contemplatedadoptionbut were reluctantto engage
in what they anticipatedwould be hostile legal proceedings and A common motivationfor family membersto consideradop-
angry interactions over the request that nonresidentialparents tion was the desire to become as much like a nuclearfamily as
surrender their parentalrights. In these families the decision was possible. Sometimes this was phrasedin terms of family close-
made not to seek a stepchild adoption because the stepfamily ness or family integration. example, severalindividualsmen-
adults feared that the nonresidential parentwould contest giving tioned a desire to bring the family closer together through
up parentalrights.As a motherof two adolescents,who had been stepchild adoption.For example, a stepfatherwho was thinking
66 Family Relations
6. about adopting his 12-year-old stepdaughtersaid, "We're just because that would be the kind of thing where she could
trying to meld the family together and strengthenit." Some of come in and be the big hero ... not only will they lose
these stepfamilies functionedvery similarly to nuclear families, you, but they'll lose the stability in the family and every-
and members of these families saw adoption as completing the thing else, and who knows what'll happen to them ...."
process of becoming a "real"family. Adoption was seen as a One of the majorreasons [for the adoption] was probably
mechanismto help cementrelationships. JusLso that they would be safe if something happenedto
In some stepfamiliesthe stepchildrenwere emotionallyclos- him.
er to stepparentsthan they were to their nonresidentialparents, The fatherin this family agreed:"Their[biological] mother
and adoption was seen as a way to solidify the stepparent- was real inappropriate still is, and it's a legal way of severing
stepchild relationshipand to reflect its closeness. In other step- those ties. [Adoption] stops a lot of problems early on." These
families individuals hoped that adoption would somehow draw stepfamilyadultsrecognizedthat the childrenwould likely be re-
the family closer togetherand give membersa sense of being "in quiredby law to live with the nonresidential parentif the residen-
family" together.For example, the one stepmotherwho adopted tial parentwere to die and that the stepparentwould have little
saw herself as "Mom,"the person upon whom everyone could legal recourse to maintaincontact with the stepchildren.In our
rely for help and nurturing. her, legally adoptingher stepchil-
To state third party visitation is relatively rare, particularlywhen
dren legitimized that role. Her husbandagreed; after discussing stepparentsare the third party. Said one stepfather, "We were
how unfit his ex-wife was as a mother,he explainedthe rationale thinkingmore in the aspect of if somethinglater on were to hap-
for why his second wife adoptedhis children:"The actual deci- pen to one of us, is there some way to firm this up so we don't
sion, I think, was hoping that it would give the kids the feeling have problems."
more of having a real mom." A stepdaughter anotherfamily The lack of legal relationships between stepparents and
said she "wouldn't mind" being adopted by her stepfatherbe- stepchildren was not a motive to consideradoptionfor most step-
cause "I could probablycall him Dad then and feel comfortable family members.This was trueeven among those who were con-
with it." From these perspectives,adoptionwould legitimize the cerned about the possibility that the stepparentwould lose con-
use of family labels (i.e., mom or dad) and the taking of the cul- tact with the stepchild if the parentdied. These folks perceived
turally institutionalized roles of mother and father, son and the potentialfor problemsif somethinghappenedto the residen-
daughter. tial parent,but they did not thinkthe absenceof legal rights made
It should be noted that some of the closest steprelationships a differencein their relationships.This apparent paradoxmay be
were in families in which adoptionhad never been considered.In due to the fact that the legal dimensions of family relationships
some of these families, it seemed that a strong nonresidential are usually unobtrusive.Legal issues do not often come up in
parent-childrelationship provided the security necessary for a daily family life, and it is likely that many of these stepfamily
good stepparent-stepchild relationshipto develop. In these step- membershad not had an occasion to be confrontedby the con-
families there was no motivationto adoptin orderto develop re- straintsinherentin the absence of legal rights. A few did com-
lationshipsbetween stepparentsand stepchildrenthat resembled ment on the absence of legal rights, however. One stepfatherre-
parent-child relationships. ported,
For some stepfamiliesadoptionwas perceivedto be a way to My company allows me to pay for their health insurance
removesome of the daily hassles of being in a stepfamily,such as even though I have no legal relationship. I found this
having differentlast names. This was of particular importanceto bizarre.That was a weird sensation to think that I had no
stepchildren,and it should be noted that in three of these step- legal relationshipto them at all. Most days it makes no dif-
families, the stepchildren used the stepfather's last name at ference,but it's a weirdfeeling.
school. In this way they achieved unofficially what they per- This stepfatheris citing an example of the ambiguity sur-
ceived to be an advantageof adoptionin reducinga complication roundingstepparent-stepchild relationships.In this case the step-
in their lives. For example, one adolescent stepson complained fatherwas quite awarethathe had no legal rights as a stepparent,
that his friends could not find him in the telephonedirectorybe- yet he was allowed to assume financial responsibility for his
cause the family telephonewas listed in his stepfather'slast name stepchildren, least in termsof healthinsurance.
ratherthan in his. To this stepson, adoption would easily solve Not all family membershad the same degree of motivation
this problemfor him. for the stepparent adoptthe stepchild.Stepparents,
Another motive for adoption was a concern about what stepfathers,thoughtabout adoptionmore often than their spous-
would happen if the residentialparent would die when the chil- es. Stepchildrenalso thought about adoption more than parents
dren were minors.This was mentionedby adultsonly. A mother did. These differencesmake sense in light of the fact thatsteppar-
said, ents and stepchildrenwould be the ones changing the status of
The only thing, my only fear is that if something would theirrelationshipif adoptionhappened.
happento me ... he would have absolutely no legal right
to her. And that's the scary part for me . .. it would tear
his heart [out] again and tear hers [the daughter's] to Althoughchildren'sunderstanding stepchildadoptionwas
pieces if somethinghappenedto me, and that's my biggest not a purpose of the study, we thought the children's reactions
concern. were worthy of comment. Stepchildrensometimes thought they
The stepmotherwho adoptedher stepchildrenreportedthat had been adoptedeven when no legal procedureshad been initi-
her husbandagreedto the adoptionbecauseof this issue: ated. Other children were not sure if they had been adopted or
. .. and I said, "If something happens to you, they're just
not. This is probablybecause they lack familiaritywith the term
gonna be whipped off to her and you know she'll fly in adoption;it was clear to us that several of the childrenwere not
1998, Vol. 47, No. 1 67
7. entirely familiar with the concept, especially the preadolescents. those relationshipsinto "real"family ties if therewere no barriers
Even those who presented themselves as if they were familiar to doing so. Adoptionwas seen as a way to solidify and strength-
with and understoodthe concept of adoptionseemed to have lim- en relationshipsor to recognize strong feelings between stepkin.
ited perceptionsaboutwhat adoptionmeant.For instance,earlier The perception that adoption normalizes the stepfamily by
we quoted a stepdaughter who thought adoption would be good changing it into a nuclear family illustratesthe need that some
because she would be more comfortable calling her stepfather stepparentsand stepchildren have to fit the norms for parent-
"dad"and a stepson who wanted his friends to be able to find child roles.
him in the phone book. Stepfamilyroles are unclear(Ganong& Coleman, 1994; Ka-
On the other hand, a stepchild who had been adopted was plan & Hennon, 1992; Visher & Visher, 1979), stigmatized
quite angryaboutit because he had thoughtthat nothing substan- (Coleman& Ganong, 1987; Dainton, 1993; Fine, 1986), andhold
tive would change because of the adoption,and to his regrethe low salience for the identitiesof most stepparents (Keshet, 1990).
found that many things had changed for him. The stepmother's For the most part, individualsin step roles are not interestedin
motivationfor adoptingher stepchildrenappearedto be at least role making if they can enact the relativelyfamiliarroles of par-
partiallyto garnerrecognitionand supportfor the important role ent and child. Those who considered adoption were those who
she had played in their lives and to seek legal sanction for that were engaged in assuming parentalroles as much as possible.
role. Her expectationsfor relationshipchanges that would be in- However, when nonresidential parents were actively involved
stigated by the adoption were not clearly communicatedto the with their children and had warm relationshipswith them, then
rest of the family; in fact, she may not even have been complete- stepparents, stepchildren,and residentialparentshad little option
ly awareof these motivationsat the time of adoption.The adopt- but to engage in constructing new role for the stepparent play
ed stepchildresentedwhat he saw as efforts to replacehis biolog- in the stepchild'slife; in these stepfamiliesadoptionwas seldom,
ical mother. He blamed his stepmotherfor hurtinghis relation- if ever, considered.
ship with his mother,even thoughthe motherhad voluntarilydis- Despite the ubiquity of the nuclear family as the standard
continued contact with him long before the adoption, and his family form, there are other ways of conceptualizingfamily life
stepmotherhad been the only mother-figure had known. This
he (Scanzoni & Marsiglio, 1993). For instance, adoption scholars
adolescenthad agreedto the adoptionwhen he was 10 years old, have identified a continuum of openness in adoption (Kirk,
but clearly he had not understoodat thattime what it meantinter- 1964;1981). At one end of the continuumare those who reject
personally and psychologically to other family members or to the notion that adoptive families differ from nuclear families.
himself. These families essentially re-construct themselves as nuclear
In summary,adoptionwas relatedto a desire to be a "regu- families, differencesin family formationand relationships de-
lar" family, to disconnect the nonresidential parent from their nied, and ties with birthparents not maintained.
are The stepfami-
lives, to legitimize roles and relationships,or to legally support lies in our study who most seriously discussed and considered
what the stepparentor stepchild felt about each other. Stepchil- adoptionare similar to these adoptive families. At the other end
dren did not always understandwhat adoption would mean to of the continuumof adoptiveopenness,however, are the families
theirrelationshipswith parentsand stepparents. who acknowledge differences between themselves and non-
adoptive nuclear families, and they provide another model of
Discussion how to think about being a family. In these adoptive families,
family members are encouragedto accept differences (i.e., how
for they are unlike non-adoptivefamilies). Childrenare allowed, and
even encouraged,to develop and maintaincontact with birthpar-
The socially constructedview that adoptionnormalizesstep- ents. Adoptive parentsacknowledgethe natureof their relation-
families by changingthem to nuclearfamilies illustratesthe need ship with adopted children, and both adults and children are
for family life educatorsand family counselorsto help stepfamily given opportunitiesto explore ways to think about themselves,
members expand their thinking about ways to function success- theirfeelings, and theirfamilies (Colon, 1978). The examplepor-
fully, thus reducingthe pressurefor stepparents feel that they
to trayed by adoptive families that acknowledge their differences
have to fit the normsfor parent-child need to be
ties. Practitioners from nuclearfamilies representsa model that stepfamiliescould
able to think creatively about families so that they can help step- adapt,whetherthey adoptstepchildren not.or
family members who cannot see any options other than the nu-
Other models for constructingnew ways to create families
clear family model. Althoughthe nuclearfamily model appeared
and family roles may be learned by observing the practices of
to be working at least somewhat successfully for some of the
some African American families (Crosbie-Burnett & Lewis,
stepfamilies we interviewed, for most it was an inappropriate
1993). For example, in African Americancommunities,biologi-
model to follow because it caused more problems (e.g., strained
cal mothers,or bloodmothers,are expected to care for their chil-
stepparent-stepchild relationships)than it solved. There are other
need to be aware of this dren, but African American communities have also recognized
ways to raise children,and practitioners that vesting one person with full responsibilityfor motheringa
and help stepfamily members creatively adapt a model that is
child may not be wise or possible. As a result, othermothers-
women who assist bloodmothersby sharingmotheringresponsi-
Few stepfamily members in our study were able to think bilities-traditionally have been centralto the institutionof Black
abouttheirfamilies in ways otherthanas a variationof the nucle- motherhood(Troester,1984).
ar family model. For many individualsin these stepfamilies,the bell hooks (1984) suggests that the relationships between
social constructionof family is embodied in the norms and ex-
bloodmothersand othermothers may have greatertheoreticalim-
pectations that surroundfirst-marriage,nuclear families. If the
portancethan currentlyrecognized, and this phenomenoncould
step-relationships close, stepfamily memberswanted to turn
68 Family Relations
8. be an especially useful way to broadenour thinking about step- understandings about concepts such as adoptionchange as their
parentroles. Accordingto hooks, "Thisform of parentingis rev- cognitive abilities develop (Brodzinsky,Singer, & Braff, 1984).
olutionaryin this society because it takes place in opposition to Adults should not be surprisedif the issue of adoptionneeds to
the ideas that parents, especially mothers, should be the only be discussed again with childrenas they enteradolescenceand as
childrearers . . . This kind of shared responsibility for child they gain new cognitive skills and more abstractways of thinking
care can happenin small communitysettingswhere people know aboutthe world and theirrelationships.
and trustone another.It cannothappenin those settingsif parents It shouldbe remembered thatnot all stepparents our study
regardchildrenas theirproperty,theirpossession"(p. 144). thought about adoptionas the only way to solidify relationships
Although parentsare unlikely to say that their children are with stepchildren,nor did all of them conceive of nuclearfamily
pieces of property,theirparentingbehavioroften reflects such an models as the benchmark.For example, in several of the step-
assumption (Hill Collins, 1990). For example, parents seem to families in which nonresidential parents were quite active in
have the right to discipline their childrenas they see fit, even if childrearing, stepfathers had spent a lot of time working on
that discipline is abusive. Hill Collins likens this to the developing a special relationshipwith their stepchildren.Adop-
widespreadassumptionthatpropertyowners may dispose of their tion was not an option for these men, yet they had found satisfy-
propertywithout consulting members of the larger community. ing ways to be close and connectedto their stepchildren.In sev-
African Americans challenge the notion of children as property eral of the stepfamilies we interviewed,children participatedin
when the African American community assigns othermothers the marriageceremonyof the parentand stepparent received
and other nonparents rights and responsibilitiesof parenting.
the some symbol of their joining with the adults in creating a new
This notion of Black women as othermothers has allowed family unit, such as a ring or a pin. Practitioners
could assist step-
AfricanAmericanwomen to treatbiologically unrelatedchildren family members in modeling themselves after stepfamilies who
as if they were membersof theirown family. have thoughtof creativeways of being a stepfamily.
The assumptionsof some of the stepparents our study that
adoptingtheir stepchildrenwould bring the family closer seems
Implications for Social Policy
to be related somewhat to the model of "child as property."In Pertaining to Stepfamily Adoption
fact, reflecting the notion of ownership,one child indicatedthat In light of the findings from this study,it may be appropriate
she wished to be adopted"becausethen I would be his." Allow- to develop social policy thatallows for the establishmentof some
ing stepmothersand stepfathersto serve the role of othermother legal ties between the stepparent and stepchild without relin-
would requireus to think of family boundariesas transcending quishing the biological parent's legal ties. The currentstate of
the household and would provide status and a legitimaterole for law regardingadoption supportsan implicit policy that children
stepparents.As it stands, the stepparentand the nonresidential shall have no more thantwo parentsat a time. This policy creates
parentoften end up in competitionover who will own the proper- problems for stepfamilies, and makes adoption a necessity if
ty (i.e., the child). The one who has legal rights is the owner, and stepparents want to have a legal say in their stepchildren'slives,
the only way a stepparentcan gain legal rights is to adopt the yet mandatingthat a parent must sever her or his relationship
stepchild. with children. Some social critics have suggested that states be
We have identified two models for families that do not re- allowed to create incompleteadoptions,which would allow non-
strictchildrenand families to two responsibleparentfigures, one residentialparentsand theirkin the legal rightto continueto visit
from adoptivefamilies and one from AfricanAmericanfamilies. and have relationships with children who are adopted by their
There are othermodels, and family life educatorsand otherfami- stepparents (Mahoney, 1994). Seen as an approach thatwould ac-
ly practitionerscould aid stepfamilies by teaching them about commodate more people's needs, this method would legally
these adaptivemodels of family life. allow three or more adultsto be involved in the lives of children
whom they are helping to raise. Nonresidentialparentsand step-
Stepparents and stepchildrenappearedto be more motivated
parentscould be given legal recognitionthatthey have an interest
to consider adoption than biological parentsbecause they were
in the well-being of childrenwho do not live with them all of the
concerned about solidifying their relationships and reducing
time but whom they may financially help to supportand whom
some of the ambiguitiesof stepfamilyliving. Practitioners could they may see periodically.
help stepfamily members by assisting them in thinking about
other ways of feeling more connected to each other. Many, per- Althoughnot designed with the stepfamilyin mind, a system
haps most, stepparents not able to determineways to develop
are recently implementedin Great Britain, England's ChildrenAct
close steprelationships that are not identical to parentalrelation- 1989, which took effect in 1991, established a new concept in
ships (Ganong& Coleman, 1994). They need help in thinkingof English law: parentalresponsibility.This Act regardschildrenas
creative ways to establish emotionally satisfying steprelation- their parents'responsibilitybut eliminatesthe notion of children
ships. as their parents' property.In effect, this law ends the notion of
In workingwith stepfamilieswhose adultsare seriouslycon- custody in the law (Fine, in press). The ChildrenAct 1989 pro-
vides an opportunityfor stepparentswho have been marriedto
sidering adoption, legal and helping professionals should make
the child's parentfor at least two years to have a legal relation-
efforts to explore the meanings stepfamily members attach to
ship with their stepchildrenby petitioningthe court for a "resi-
adoptionand the expectationsstepfamily membershave regard-
dence order."Such a petitioncan be grantedeven over the objec-
ing the effects they think adoption will have on their relation-
tions of the nonresidentialparent, althoughthe children's opin-
ships. It would be wise for practitioners make sure that chil-
to ions must be heard (Masson, 1992), and it gives the petitioning
dren understandas completely as possible what adoption is, in-
adult many of the same rights and responsibilitiesas the child's
cluding legal, social, and interpersonal dimensions.We also urge
biological parents.For example,establishinga residenceorderal-
family professionalsto caution stepfamily adults that children's
lows the stepparentto have the legal right to sign permission
1998, Vol. 47, No. 1 69
9. forms for school or healthcare when the stepchildis in his or her Because enhancingthe well-being of childrenis one of the
home or residence. Under this act the stepparent also be ap-
can primary goals of adoption, research on stepparent adoption
pointed guardian,which helps secure the stepparent's position in should focus on childrenin particular. instance,what are the
the event of the parent'sdeathif the parentholds a sole residence effects on childrenof adoptionsthat occur when the nonresiden-
order. tial parenthas voluntarilyyielded parentalrights, as comparedto
Although a residence order gives parentalresponsibilityto adoptionswhen the parenthas had to be declaredunfit? How do
the petitioner(e.g., the stepparent),it does not end the nonresi- childrencope with identity issues that may arise? By what psy-
dentialparent'sstatusand responsibility.In the case of stepparent chological or interpersonalmechanisms do they cope with the
petitioners,the child may end up with a legal relationshipwith parent"giving them"to the stepparent? Researchersshould also
three or four adults,includingboth parentsand stepparents, of all examine children's understandingsof the concept of adoption,
whom will have both parentalresponsibilitiesand obligations to paying special attention to developmental changes that may
the child. As a result of the British ChildrenAct 1989, Masson occur.
(1992) assertedthat adoptionordersin favor of parentsand step- Finally, it would be interestingto comparethe impactof dif-
parentswill likely become rare,and any stepparent seeking adop- ferences in state laws regardingstepparentadoption.For exam-
tion during the lifetime of the child's other parentwill need to ple, is stepparent adoptionawardedmore often in states in which
have exceptionally strong reasons for the order and be able to nonresidentialparentscan legally continue to see their children
demonstrate adoptionis in the best interestsof the child.
that afterthey give up theirparentalrights?Are stepparents moti-
The British ChildrenAct 1989 appearsto be a step towards vated to adopt when state laws allow them the possibility of re-
legally establishingsocial positions for stepparents, as other-
just ceiving visitation rights with their stepchildrenif the marriage
mothersare socially recognizedin the AfricanAmericancommu- ends? Cross-nationalcomparisons of stepparentadoption laws
nity. At the very least, it is a step away from consideringchildren could also elucidate the effects of legal options on individuals
to be the propertyof theirbirthparentsand a step towardsbroad- and families.
ening the notion of family, family rights,and family responsibili-
ties. In England it is not yet clear whetheror not the concept of Conclusion
parentalresponsibility, the legal position of guardians,and the
proposed residence order will meet the stepfamily's emotional Because the numberof people involved in stepfamiliescon-
need to be a legal family entity (De'Ath, 1992). tinues to rise, it is vitally important that social and legal supports
be developed to foster their success. Although researchersand
These two policy proposals, the idea of incomplete adop- clinicianshave often repeatedthe warningthatthe nuclearfamily
tions and the British Children Act of generalized parental re- model may be inappropriate, they have seldom offered concrete
sponsibility,move closer to the role-making situationsin which alternatives,and the nuclear family model remains the societal
many stepparents and stepchildrenfind themselves. These policy ideal. It is the family form that is viewed as "normal." is little
ideas representsocietal-level efforts to createnew normsfor step wonderthat so many of the stepfamilymemberswe interviewed
roles and to legitimize, at least in some ways, stepfamily roles considered adoption. Adoption is a legal means of establishing
that lack clear, institutionalized norms.These two policy propos- the stepfamilyas a "normal" family.
als also allow more flexibility to allow stepfamily members to
creativelyconstructnew roles. To illustratethe extent to which adoptionis used as a mecha-
nism to create a nuclearfamily, in our state at the time of adop-
Implications for Future Research tion the child's birth certificate is altered to show the adoptive
parent as the birth parent. In that way the adoptive parent be-
Obviously,the resultsof this exploratorystudy shouldnot be comes a real or "normal" parent(i.e., the child "belongs"to him
generalized without caution. Much more research on stepchild or her). The sense that everyone in a stepfamily "belongs" to
adoption is needed. The responses from these stepfamily mem- each other may be what some members of the stepfamilies we
bers suggest several avenues of investigation.First,because little studied were seeking. Therefore,it is not surprisingthat it was
is known about the extent of stepchildadoptions,there is a need most often the stepparentwho mentionedconsidering adoption.
for large-scale studies of representativesamplesthatwill provide The stepparent is the outsider in a stepfamily, the intimate
descriptionsof adoptivestepparents theirfamilies. Currently,
and stranger(Beer, 1988); to a stepparent,adoption may seem like
it is impossible to say how many stepchildadoptionsoccur annu- the most efficient way to become a real partof the family.
ally, and we cannot predict who is likely to adopt until we have
demographicprofiles of stepfamiliesin which stepchildrenhave At the societal level, efforts are needed to broadenthe defini-
been adopted. tion of family (Scanzoni & Marsiglio, 1993). For example,
among family scholarsand social critics, feminists have long at-
There is clearly a need for longitudinalinvestigationsof the temptedto disabusepeople of the traditional notion that wife and
effects of stepchild adoption. Outcome variables could include childrenare chattelor men's property.Otherfamily scholarsmay
intrapersonaleffects of adoption (e.g., well-being, depression, want to build on the feminists' efforts to challenge the notion that
self-esteem, life satisfaction) on adoptive stepparents,adopted childrenare parents'property.Policy makersand legislatorsneed
stepchildren, residential and nonresidential biological parents, to look at family law more creatively as well and develop legal
and extended kin. Interpersonal outcome variables,such as rela- alternatives that strengthen stepfamilies without requiring the
tionship satisfaction, emotional closeness, and family stability, severing of previousfamily ties. Changeis often disorientingand
should also be assessed. Longitudinal studies of both adoptive upsetting to individuals and to the broader society. Family
and nonadoptivestepfamilieswould shed light on whetheror not change, however, has been occurringat a rapidpace throughout
adoptionfulfilled the expectationsof it thatwere embodiedin the the century, and we are challenged with providing supportive
presentsample. means to strengthen these emergingfamily forms.
70 Family Relations
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