What springs to mind when you hear step-parent? Is it some evil witch looking character from Cinderella? A matronly figure from a Hollywood rom-com? Let’s be honest whatever your first thought is it usually isn’t one filled with love, kindness, sacrifice and thanks, nor is it a man! We have been brainwashed into the notion of step-parents being on the fringes of raising children, in being the harsh disciplinarians, the ones who keep love and care at arm’s length. Want proof that this is a woman’s issue? Have a google for step parenting books, the vast majority have titles such as ‘Daddy’s New Girlfriend’, ‘Daddy’s New Wife’, ‘The Other Mother’. Feel free to shake your fist at this!  

We all know the statistics around divorce with the rate sitting and stable at around 50 per cent so the question to ask is how many of these married couples have kids and therefore how many of these kids end up in step-families, the answer, around 10 per cent according to the latest statistics from 2016. I think it is long overdue that we face this fact and start to treat step parents as critical members of our society who at the end of the day have a large impact on the children in their lives. To start with I am banning the word step-parent! From here on out we will call them bonus parents. There is nothing step about them, they are a bonus and if all goes well will be instrumental in raising well-rounded children. 

This story is personal to me and I hope to bring some of my experiences into this story and relate it to the wider issue of how bonus parents are regarded in society and in the legal system. Up until recently I was a bonus mum to a 10 year old bonus daughter. I have known said bonus kid since she was 5. Mine is not a success story in the typical sense, her dad and I have had ongoing issues with her mum and her bonus dad. It has never been the Hollywood version of a blended family but I know that it can be and I know some of you reading will have wonderful stories about your blended families, mine is not that! I also know there will be many of you, even with great blended family dynamics that will relate to the issues we as bonus parents face, navigating couple life vs family life if you share custody, the sometimes hurtful and hateful things that our bonus kids say, the questions we face, the heartache for those of us whose relationships do not survive. 

Legally, bonus parents have very few rights and yet they are paramount in raising children within our community. Separations, as we all know, can and do get messy and children are affected by this. If the biological parents can’t come to an agreed about parenting they may make the decision to start the process of going to family court for a parenting order. The ideal first and only step on this journey is mediation, bonus parents are not allowed in the mediation. To me this seems very backward. Mediation is an ideal situation to not only save the biological parents money, time, resources and potentially more hard feelings, it also often provides quick resolution. Bonus parents might have been in the picture for years before this process happens and yet their observations, opinions, and relationship with all involved is completely ignored in this process. If the matter ends up in court, all parties involved can be interviewed for a child impact assessment and a bonus parent can be called as a witness and provide evidence. 

Let’s say a judge has awarded full custody to one parent in this court proceeding described above. The bonus parent has been present, testified, given a full interview for the child’s impact assessment. Their bonus kid moves full-time into their house, years go by, then the biological parent dies. The bonus parent in their grief of losing their partner is then faced with their bonus kid going back to their other biological parent, who, let’s remember, does not have custody. Bonus parents have no legal right over this child. Who they love, care for, have provided for and of course, formed a bond with. Bonus parents in this time of sheer grief will have to go back to court to fight for their bonus kid, not just for custody, which they are unlikely to get, even just for visitation or contact. Are we as a society OK with this?

Parental alienation is becoming a more prominent feature in the Domestic and Family Violence (DFV) sector and for good reason. Psychologists now believe it has the same emotional impact on children as other forms of emotional abuse and can take years to undo the damage. Parental alienation can and does occur against bonus parents. When my ex-partner and I told my bonus kid we were engaged she started balling her eyes out and told me that I had ruined her family and made her mum and dad separate. She told me that her mum had told her numerous times that I was the reason her family was no longer together. You can imagine the heartache in a time of celebration seeing my bonus kid having a breakdown over false information and her dad having to explain for the remainder of the evening why and how this information couldn’t be and wasn’t true. This is parental alienation and there are many examples of this. Unfortunately this form of abuse against a bonus parent is not generally taken very seriously in family court or mediation (partly as bonus parents are not present) and yet it has a rippling and devastating effect not only on the child but on family dynamics. 

I completely understand that no one gets married and has kids thinking about what happens if it doesn’t work out. We wouldn’t do it if that was the case but as a community we need to look at the realities for bonus parents and bonus families. As a bonus parent I have said to friends or family, at one time my ex mother in law, I wasn’t expecting (insert situation) to be this hard/hurtful/scary etc and the response has been ‘well you knew what you were getting into’. This is not said to birth parents and yet as we all know no parent knows what they are getting into! It’s not a malicious comment or reply, it just isn’t informed and that is the issue. Our community and our society is not educated on the unique challenges faced by bonus parents and yes they are different to the challenges faced by biological parents. 

Unbeknownst to me and probably a lot of us July 26th is National Stepfamilies Day. This is relatively new here in Australia but the USA has been celebrating stepfamilies officially since the early 1990’s. What a wonderful idea. Bonus parents usually miss out on the traditional mothers day/fathers day events and I for one think ALL bonus parents deserve a day of recognition and thanks!

If you are a bonus parent, about to become one, or are a biological parent who is having trouble relating to your partner’s challenges as a bonus parent, I encourage you to reach out to Stepfamilies Australia: a truly sensational organisation at the forefront of breaking stigmas and bringing step families aka bonus families into the 21st century. 

Bonus parents choose to love, care for, nurture and support children who are not biologically theirs. This takes guts, dedication, patience, risk and selflessness. I think it’s time we respected and valued their opinion more, in society and the legal framework.