The simple definition of a blended family, also called a stepfamily, reconstituted family, or a complex family, is a family unit where one or both parents have children from a previous relationship, but they have combined to form a new family. The parents may be in a same-sex or heterosexual relationship and may not have children with each other.
There is no guide on how to mother stepchildren. For stepmothers, cultural, societal and generational support does not (yet) exist at the same level as for new mothers or even adoptive or foster mothers. Our societies have traditionally responded to step mothering with, at best, a grudging acceptance, and at worst with negativity and suspicion (i.e., the wicked stepmother myth or the abusive stepfather) or with just plain indifference by pretending it doesn’t exist. The stepmother is frequently reduced to a secondary status within blended families due to a lack of blood ties (combined, perhaps, with a lack of seniority). Sadly, stepparenting has been stigmatised into almost a taboo topic for social settings.
Listening to different women who have stepped into the stepmother role, we often hear how an emphasis on the nuclear family affects society’s expectations of women. Where society values biological mothers over stepmothers or a two-parent home rather than a single parent one. We realised how cultures place different values on separation, death and divorce on men and women. Men can almost immediately remarry, but it is frowned upon for women, especially if she marries another man “too soon” or “too fast”.
In many African cultures, a man who is seen to have many women and children is said to be prosperous, while a woman is considered promiscuous. Why is that so? Polygamous families are a norm in many African families today, where the man is celebrated for having children in different households, but a woman is chastised, and worse, stigmatised.
Following divorce, separation or death, children and their fathers’ transition and adjust to living together independently. And often, this can mean a father is taking on tasks that he didn’t previously do – like picking his children up from school or cooking and cleaning. Most children find that they enjoy this time and emotional connection with their fun dad. When a new stepfamily is formed, fathers are conditioned to move back to a breadwinner role and expect/encourage the stepmother to take on the caretaker role. So, a new stepmother steps in and finds herself responsible for organising activities, dinners, school lunches, homework and, at times, discipline. And, without even knowing why, she may find that her stepchildren are feeling resentful.
The social dynamics of co-parenting can be addressed by publicly speaking against stereotypes surrounding stepparents and advocating for equal parental responsibility by all parents. The legal framework in Kenya has taken measures to enforce parental responsibilities and has provided for the process and guidelines of how a stepparent can acquire parental responsibility for stepchildren. Unlike the biological parents, the stepparent cannot obtain parental responsibility just because they are marrying the biological parent. However, there are situations where a stepparent can acquire parental responsibility for a stepchild:
- One can enter into a parental responsibility agreement. The agreement is between the stepparent and the child’s parents, who already have parental responsibility. To enter into a parental responsibility agreement, you must have the written consent of every person who has parental responsibility for the child. This sometimes is not successful as one of the parents’ might still be bitter about the breakup.
- A stepparent can apply to the Court for the Judge to order that they have parental responsibility for the stepchild. If this happens, those that already have parental responsibility for the child will be provided with notice of the application to the Court. The other parent can oppose such an application. Still, ultimately, the Court will decide whether it is in the child’s best interests for parental responsibility to be granted to the stepparent.
- A stepparent can obtain a Child Arrangements Order in which they are specifically named as the person with whom the child lives; parental responsibility will automatically be granted to that person as long as the order remains in force.
- If a stepparent becomes the child’s legal guardian, then parental responsibility is automatically granted by the Court.
- If a stepparent is appointed as the child’s ‘special guardian’, parental responsibility is automatically granted by the Court at the same time.
For parental responsibility agreements, it is advisable to have the agreement registered and adopted in the Court as an order. This accelerates the process in case either party decides to violate the agreement. For registration, an application is made to the Children’s Court seeking the adoption of the agreement as an order of the Court. This creates protection whereby, should a parent violate the order, the parent becomes liable for contempt.
Previously, the Court held that it would be against the best interests of a child for a party who has had a parent-like relationship with a child to renounce all responsibility and duty to maintain the child when they fall out with the parent of the child. In 2019, Justice Theresiah Matheka at the High Court in Nyeri held that the law of succession says a man can take in a child that is not biologically his, but that does not automatically make the child an heir to his property unless there is an adoption order. The Judge further stated that in case of a dispute, the child must prove that the stepfather took them as his own. Evidently, it is legally better to gain parental responsibility instead of assuming that it exists.