Blended families more common, but the 'step' in 'stepmom' still carries a stigma

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2011; 10:34 AM

Call them blended families, bonus families or para-kin. Just don't call them stepfamilies. The term -- seared into our consciousness through fairy tales and Disney movies -- is falling out of favor, even as the ranks of nontraditional families are expanding.

A new poll estimates that at least four in 10 Americans consider themselves part of a stepfamily, but a growing number reject that label, saying it carries a stigma.

"There's no 'step' in my family," said Samantha Sweeney, a school psychologist who lives on Capitol Hill and feels fortunate to have two fathers -- the one who died when she was 2 and the one who raised Sweeney and her sister after their mother remarried.

Sweeney gained two brothers as part of what she calls her blended family. "When we all are together," she said, "we feel very much like a family."

Many therapists also shun the term, which seems to confer second-class status on a stepparent or stepsibling.

"It causes problems," said Mary Kelly-Williams, a therapist, mother of four and stepmother of one who runs the Web site "We're stuck with the language, but it doesn't resonate with people."

The new terminology hasn't totally displaced the old. But many stepfamilies are groping for new ways to describe themselves at a time when half of first marriages end in divorce and four in 10 babies are born to unmarried women. As a result, children are more likely than ever to grow up around step-relatives.

Yet 40 years after TV's "The Brady Bunch" became a symbol of the changing American family, so little research has been done on stepfamilies that no one knows exactly how many there are today.

In an analysis of the living arrangements of children in 2004, the Census Bureau reported that 17 percent of all children under age 18 lived in blended families. About 12 percent had at least one half-sibling, and 2 percent had a stepsibling.

But that likely underrepresents the phenomenon. Though the census estimated that about one in 10 households with children had a stepparent present, it counted only a child's primary residence, not the other parent's new family.

Changing perceptions

In a nationwide Pew Research Center survey released last week, 42 percent of 2,700 adults polled said they had at least one step-relative. Three in 10 have a step- or half-sibling, 18 percent have a living stepparent, and 13 percent have at least one stepchild.

Stepfamilies are more prevalent among people under 30, African Americans and people without a college degree, according to the poll, "A Portrait of Stepfamilies."

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