Stepparents in America have experienced at best a grudging acceptance, and at worst a negative and suspicious reception throughout American history. Overall, their role has been poorly defined by law, public policy, and social custom. Still, stepparents have always had an important role to play in raising children. In early colonial times because of high mortality rates and more recently because of divorce, the common occurrence of remarriage has meant a substantial proportion of American children are raised in stepfamilies.
Widowhood was a common phenomenon in colonial America. Although many widows with children remarried, the role of stepfathers is prominent yet unclear in colonial America. Under seventeenth-century English common law, as indeed under modern American family law, the stepfather stood in an uncertain position with regard to his stepchild. Under common law, the mere relationship of stepfather and stepchild conferred no rights and imposed no duties. If, however, the stepfather voluntarily received the child into the home and treated it as a member of the family, the reciprocal rights and duties of the parent–child relationship were established and continued so long as the relationship lasted. If a man died without a will his stepchildren would not inherit from him. Beyond that the law is mostly silent.
We do have historical evidence that as heads of households, stepparents took on virtually all the responsibilities of natural fathers even if they were not officially recognized as such. Certainly all the colonial laws requiring fathers, parents, and masters to maintain, educate, and train children and servants in their households applied to stepfathers, who may well have had natural children in the household as well. There are also many references to stepfathers apprenticing their stepchildren to others, a role normally reserved for fathers. The mother of the children, as femme couverte (without a legal status separate from her husband) in remarriage, had no ability to make indenture contracts in her own right.
Stepfathers, however, were limited in their obligation to support their stepchildren. As heads of households, they were obliged to support the child they had accepted into the household, but not if the natural father was available. If the child was born out of wedlock, the natural father still had to pay maintenance for the child, which he gave directly to the stepfather. In one such case the biological father was forced to make payments for his sexual transgressions both to the stepfather and to his wife's natural father. A Massachusetts County Court decided
Joseph Hall of Lyn, charged by Elizabeth wife of Nathll Eastman of Salisbury, as being the father of her child before her marriage, and the charge having been proved true, was ordered to pay 121i. [pounds] toward the child's maintenance to the husband of Elizabeth, in provisions within two years. Hall was also to pay 51i. [pounds] according to the law to Johathan Hudson, father of Elizabeth, for enticing her and frequenting her company contrary to her father's warning. (Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts, Vol. V:1672–1674, p. 103)
If the stepchild's mother died, the rights of the stepfather were greatly weakened. ADOPTION was not available until the nineteenth century, so stepfathers had no legal right to retain their stepchildren. The courts determined the placement of children in these circumstances based mainly on practical considerations. Labor was scarce and healthy children were an important asset, a fact not ignored by the courts. Petitions on behalf of the stepfather before the Maryland Orphan's Court arguing for custody of the child as against the claims of the grandparents did not mention the best interests of the child, but rather stressed the investment that the stepfather had already made in the maintenance of the children and his need for their services.
In practice, most children remained with their stepfather if he chose to keep them, but the community continued to keep a close watch on stepfathers. Court records are filled with accusations about stepfathers squandering children's estates or mistreating them. Under guardianship law, minors could appoint their own guardians for their estates at age fourteen. At that age, Aaron Prother asked the Maryland court for permission to choose his own guardian since "he has had the mishap sometime since to fall under the lash of an unfortunate father in law [stepfather]" (quoted in Wall, p. 90). Neighbors and town officials also monitored the behavior of stepfathers, as they did of fathers, but courts appeared more willing to remove a child from a stepfather than from a father for what was frequently referred to as "evil usage" or "hard usage" of their stepchildren.
Since widowers remarried just as did widows, stepmothers constituted a large class in colonial America. There is very little to say about the legal status of stepmothers, however, because like natural mothers they were femme couverte and had a legal existence only in the shadow of their husbands. Like biological mothers, their only claim was to "love and respect." Upon the death of her husband, a stepmother had a weaker claim to the custody of her stepchildren than would a stepfather, since her economic and marital future was uncertain. Only if the father had made a will appointing the stepmother as the guardian of his children could a stepmother have a strong claim.
In some cases, the court chose a blood relative over a stepmother. In Connecticut, the stepdaughter of Edward Clark's widow was bound out to her aunt against the widow's objection. Since adoption was not yet a legal concept, binding out by contract, or apprenticing, was as close as one could come to adoption. It gave the relative a firm legal hold on the child until the child reached majority. This decision could mean that, in the court's judgment, the stepmother was unable to maintain the girl and the nearest relative offered to do so. It could also mean that the court chose the aunt because she was a blood relative and the stepmother was not.
These contradictory decisions indicate both the lack of clear legal principles regarding stepparents' rights and also the practical strategy followed by the courts in placing the children where they could provide critical labor. The nineteenth century changed the status of stepparents somewhat both through the new option of adoption and the elimination of APPRENTICESHIPS or "binding out" as a way of dealing with children whose fathers had died. The "best interest of the child" replaced the labor value of the child in determining the relationships with nonbiological parents. Still, adoption did not suit all stepparent situations, particularly where there were children from a previous marriage. The act of adoption gave the child inheritance rights that were often resented by children of the first family. Therefore most stepchildren and stepparents continued to coexist in an ambiguous relationship.
A great shift in stepfamily demographics occurred in the twentieth century as divorce replaced death as the most common reason for remarriage. The modern stepfamily is different and more complex than the colonial stepfamily in several important ways. With divorce rather than death as a background event it is the remarriage of the custodial mother that usually forms the stepfamily. Some 86 percent of stepchildren live primarily with a custodial mother in their stepfamily. In most cases the noncustodial parent is still alive, creating the phenomenon of children with more than two parents. This fact precludes the option of adoption for many stepfathers. In addition to divorce, 28 percent of children are born to unwed mothers, many of whom eventually marry someone who is not the father of their child. In a study including all children, not just children of divorce, it was estimated that one-fourth of the children born in the United States in the early 1980s will live with a stepparent before they reach adulthood.
Still the role of stepparents continues to be ignored as a social or legal concept. While the rights and obligations of biological parents, particularly unwed fathers, have been greatly expanded in recent years, stepparents have received almost no attention from policy makers. Stepparents in most states have no obligation during the marriage to support their stepchildren, nor do they enjoy any right of custody or control. Consistent with this pattern, if the marriage terminates through divorce or death, they usually have no rights to custody or even visitation, however long-standing their relationship with their stepchildren. Conversely, stepparents have no obligation to pay child support following divorce, even if their stepchildren have depended on their income for many years. And stepchildren have no right of inheritance in the event of the stepparent's death.
Some social scientists believe that stepparent–stepchildren relationships are not as strong or nurturing as those in biologically related families, and that stepchildren do not do as well in school and in other outside settings. Other studies show that when single or divorced mothers marry their household income increases more than threefold, rising to the same level as nuclear families. In many cases this lifts the mother and children out of poverty. Studies also show us that residential stepparents perform many of the same caregiving functions as biological parents: helping with homework, driving the children to school, and so on. And in many stepfamilies the affectionate bond between stepparent and child is warm and strong. Stepfamilies are likely to remain an important family configuration. There is little indication, however, that they will soon receive the recognition and acknowledgement they deserve.
Mason, Mary Ann, et al. 2002. "Stepparents: De Facto Parents, Legal Strangers." Journal of Family Issues 23, no. 4.
Mason, Mary Ann, Arlene Skolnick, and Stephen Sugarman. 2002. All Our Families: New Policies for a New Century, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
Vernier, Chester G. 1971 [1931–1938]. American Family Laws: Vol. 4. Parent and Child. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Wall, Helena M. 1990. Fierce Communion: Family and Community in Early America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
MARY ANN MASON