Complex Christmases of Britain's growing number of step-families

December 19, 2004

The extent to which dilemmas and tensions in step families are brought into sharp relief at Christmas, as parents and step-parents aim to do what is best for the children, is revealed in new findings from research sponsored by the ESRC.

Decisions about where, with whom and for how long youngsters will spend their time, and the giving and receiving of gifts for children within and between households, take on an increased significance and symbolism, says the study led by Professor Rosalind Edwards of London Southbank University.

Step-families are the most rapidly growing type of family unit. It has been estimated that just under 20 per cent of dads aged 34 are step-fathers - nearly double the number among men born just 12 years before them.

According to the study, the vast majority of step-families are made up of a step-father who has partnered and formed a household with a biological mother and her resident children.

They can, however, be particularly complex set-ups, in which the adults may combine biological and step-parenting, and the children can be from both previous and current relationships.

Professor Edwards said: "Two of the key, and interlinked, issues facing step-families include their living arrangements and emotional ties as a social unit, and the idea of fairness between members of the family.

"There are particular tensions about where children should spend Christmas - with their resident mother and step-father, or with their non-resident father and, if he has one, his partner."

Where children in step-families had no contact with their non-resident father, then where and with whom they should spend Christmas was clear-cut. Where the non-resident father was involved in the children's lives, however, there could be difficult decisions to be made.

Some mothers could decide where children should spend Christmas based on the father's behaviour. One, Tina, explained: "Well as far as I'm concerned her father doesn't contribute in any way, financially or emotionally really, to my daughter's upbringing. So we have first refusal. Which means she will spend Christmas with us." Other mothers negotiated 'turn-taking' at Christmas, or special arrangements to balance time spent with their ex-partner.

Sometimes parents were prepared to leave the decision about where they should spend Christmas with the children themselves, though not all youngsters found this responsibility easy. They feared upsetting one or other parent.

Many mothers and step-fathers regarded buying Christmas presents and treats as one way in which a non-resident father could communicate caring and commitment. However some felt they did not understand that they could not 'buy' their children's love at the expense of spending time with them.

Some mothers encouraged fathers to spend money on their children in a responsible and appropriate way. Others, however, found it more difficult to exert some control, and described what they considered to be the inappropriate toys and clothes that were bought.

Difficulties can also be created by Christmas presents coming into the household for particular children and not others. Some parents saw fairness between children as their receiving exactly the same from their biological and step-parents, but sometimes another parent disagreed and wanted to give more to their own child.

Such issues could spread beyond the immediate relationship of parents, step-parents and children, to grandparents, uncles, aunts and others. Some grandparents might seem to be keeping a distance from the step-children. Conversely, others appeared eager to get involved and make it a competition with the children's own grandparents.

Professor Rosalind Edwards on Tel: 01273 558145 or 07742 122123 (mobile)

Or Iain Stewart, Lesley Lilley or Becky Gammon at ESRC, on 01793 413032/413119/413122

Economic & Social Research Council

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