The person Christina Maki, 26, calls dad is not her biological father. Rather, it’s her stepfather, Shawn, to whom she gives the title. It’s Shawn who she considers the patriarch of her family. He’s the one who receives Father’s Day card and the one she will ask to walk her down the aisle when and if she decides to marry.
“I have a great relationship with Shawn,” Maki says. “In fact, it’s really kind of odd for me to even call him Shawn or refer to him as my stepdad. I typically only do so during explanations of my family dynamic. Otherwise, he’s Dad to me.”
Step relatives, like Maki’s stepfather, are more common today than ever before. A survey by Pew Research Center reports that four in 10 American adults have at least one step relative. The pervasive presence of step relatives has reshaped the framework of the American family.
For Maki it means having an enduring father figure even after her biological father had ceased contact. Maki and her biological father haven’t talked in years. Two years ago, about a week after Maki’s 24th birthday, she received an e-mail from her father wishing her a happy 25th birthday.
“I think having to be corrected on the birth date and year of his only biological child cowed him into some sort of self-imposed ostracism,” Maki says.
Maki was 6 years old when her mother remarried. At first she held her heart back, reluctant to lavish a different man with the same sort of love she was used to giving her biological father.
“I think it just took awhile for me to figure out that it was OK for this other guy to have the same relationship with me that my biological dad should have had and that they didn’t need to be mutually exclusive,” Maki says.
But Maki’s stepfather, Shawn, was introduced while Maki was young enough to accept a new relative into her family. Dennis Karpowitz, professor of marriage theory at KU, says that younger children tend to be more welcoming to step relatives.
“It depends on the age of the child,” Karpowitz says. “Very young children tend to be quite accepting, not showing much resistance at all.”
Ashley Trunnell, Lawrence, was about 5 when her mother remarried. Growing up, Trunnell lived with her mother and stepfather, visiting her dad on the weekends. Now 24, she has a healthy relationship with both her biological father and her stepfather. She calls them both dad.
“There’s really not a term for calling your stepdad,” Trunnell says. “I would say I do have a better relationship with my biological father for personality reasons. But I give the same kind of attention to both of them: Father’s Day and birthdays. The kind of effort I put toward the relationship is very similiar.”
Trunnell calls her stepfather “dad,” unless she is talking about him, at which point she calls him by his name to avoid confusion.
Not all children call stepparents “dad” or “mom.” And if it doesn’t happen naturally, Karpowitz says parents shouldn’t push, even though there’s not a friendly term for stepparents, the qualifier “step” being pejorative.
“Think of all of the old stories about the wicked stepmother,” he says.
Every family is different, but older children are more likely to reject step relatives, says Karpowitz, because teenagers are busy crafting their own identities and growing away from biological parents; they’re not primed to welcome new family members when they’re pulling away from existing ones.
Lynne Moeller, 46, was a teenager when her mother remarried.
“We already had four kids in our family, and then we added three more,” Moeller says. “It wasn’t good. My full siblings and I felt like we weren’t getting any attention, like we were lost in shuffle. And my stepsiblings, I saw them more as enemies. It wasn’t like we welcomed them into our lives.”
Moeller ended up moving out at 17 to get away from the commotion that comes with having seven children in one house.
Some children recalibrate easily and welcome new step relatives with open arms and fixed grins. Others buck and wail to keep new stepparents from sticking around, something Moeller experienced later, when she married a man who has two children.
“I was considered an intruder,” Moeller says. “There was a lot of resistance. We dated for 10 years before we got married because of his kids and how rotten I thought they were.”
Eventually Moeller’s stepchildren grew up, made it through their teenage years, and now they have warmer relationships. Her stepdaughter Julie usually calls or gives a present on her birthday. And they talk by phone often enough.
The PEW Research study also found that people tend to have a weaker sense of obligation for step relatives versus biological family members.
But Maki is on the other end of the spectrum, feeling a strong sense of loyalty for her stepfather, Shawn.
“If Shawn needed anything at all, I would do everything in my power to help,” says Maki. “If he was in the hospital, I’d be there to see him every day. ... I love him, and I know he would do the same for me.”