New York Times, August 17, 2000

Differences Found in Care With Stepmothers
Children raised in families with stepmothers are likely to have less health
care, less education and less money spent on their food than children
raised by their biological mothers, three studies by a Princeton economist
have found. The studies examined the care and resources that parents said
they gave to children and did not assess the quality of the relationships
or the parents' feelings and motives. 
But experts said that while the findings did not establish the image of the
wicked stepmother as true, they supported the conclusion that, for complex
reasons, stepmothers do invest less in children than biological mothers do,
with fathers, to a large extent, leaving to women the responsibility for
the family's welfare. 
"Being raised by the biological mother gives children a lot of protection,"
said the chief researcher on the studies, Anne Case, a professor of
economics at Princeton. "It's a very big thing to ask someone to care for
children instead of the birth mother, who, as the sociobiologists tell us,
invests so heavily in carrying the child, nursing the child." 
The studies took their data from two of the broadest, most respected
surveys of Americans' households, income, spending and health habits. While
those surveys were not created to analyze stepfamilies, their information
is detailed enough to allow comparisons between different kinds of families. 
Among children over a year old, living with both biological parents, the
health study found that 61 percent have had a medical checkup within the
last year. But among those living with a stepmother and birth father, that
number dropped to 46 percent -- and of those whose biological mother was
dead, only 35 percent had seen a doctor. 
Of the children living with their biological parents, 74 percent wear seat
belts almost all the time, compared with 63 percent of those living with a
stepfather and biological mother and 52 percent of those living with a
biological father and stepmother. 
Families with a stepmother reported overall household food spending that
was about 5 percent lower for each stepchild than in families in which both
biological parents were present, the food study found. 
In families in which women care for both their stepchildren and biological
children, the biological child, on average, went to college for a year,
while the average stepchild did not go to college. 
Children reared by a stepfather also have lower educational achievement
than those reared by both biological parents, although, as in most other
measures, the negative effect is only about half as much as with stepmothers. 
Prof. Frank Furstenberg, a sociologist of the family at the University of
Pennsylvania, said that he did not question the findings and believed that
the studies raised important questions, but he noted that stepfamilies vary
For example, women who take on a 2-year-old child step into a role very
different from that of women who care for a 12-year-old stepchild, and for
all stepmothers the relationships evolve as the family becomes better
"I don't think most stepmothers are evil," Professor Furstenberg said. "If
they're less involved, if they take a step back, it may be for the most
noble motives, to give the parent more room, to decrease the tension. They
may be relying on the child's father when perhaps their trust is
With more than half the nation's children living apart from at least one
biological parent by the time they reach 18, the functioning of
stepfamilies has become increasingly important. Most stepfamilies involve
stepfathers, rather than stepmothers, and compared with families in which a
single mother is rearing a child alone, the presence of the stepfather and
his income help raise the family's standard of living. 
Still, previous research has shown that children who did not live with both
of their parents had bleaker futures: among other things, they were more
likely to drop out of school, become delinquents or engage in early sexual
activity and drug abuse than children raised by both parents. 
But while those outcomes are well known, there has been almost no research
on the care, attention and resources such children receive -- and
therefore, no way to know whether the damaging effects reflect poor
parenting, family instability, lack of money or other factors. 
"What seemed important to us was looking at the input, which hasn't really
been done," Professor Case said. "For example, on the lower educational
achievement, there was always the question about whether it was because
stepmothers were less-able parents or the household was unstable. But now
that we know it's not that, since the biological children of those same
women, living in the same house, are more likely to go on to college." 
Many stepmothers are quick to acknowledge that being a stepparent is
complicated, particularly when they take on older children and that it is
unrealistic to imagine that the new bonds will be the same as those between
a biological parent and child. 
"I think it's very important, going into a stepfamily, to understand that
family integration is a process that takes four to seven years," said Carol
Albano-Lutz, a stepmother and psychoanalyst in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., who
treats mostly children and adults in stepfamilies. 
And, Ms. Albano-Lutz said, in part because society generally holds women
responsible for family welfare, the most difficult process of family
integration involves the stepmother. 
Susan Sasse of Chesapeake City, Md., vice president of the International
Stepfamily Association, a nonprofit group, said: "What I hear from new
stepmoms all the time, especially with older kids, is, 'They just hate me.
They don't want to give me a chance. They think I'm taking their dad.' " 
Ms. Sasse is no longer in touch with her own stepmother, from whom, she
said, she "learned everything a stepmother shouldn't do," a lesson that
became valuable three years ago when she married a man with a 2-year-old
"We have custody of all the kids," she said. "I have a wonderful
relationship with my stepdaughter. But it does make a difference that she
has a biological mom out there. I'm a female influence, but I'm not her
mother. You have to respect that a stepchild has that other parent." 
Just what effect that other biological parent has, at least in terms of
health care, was one of the surprise findings of the Princeton research. 
"We expected that children living with stepmoms would have less health care
if they were still in contact with the birth mother," Professor Case said,
"because the stepmom might not know if the birth mother was taking care of
it, or might be getting some message from the birth mother like, 'No,
you're not going to take my child to the dentist,' " 
"But we found just the opposite," she said. "Where stepchildren had contact
with their biological mother at least two or three times a month, they had
the same health care status as children who lived with both biological
parents. Having a birth mother hovering was protective." 
Professor Case said she initially expected that having a stepmother would
be better for children than having no mother at all, but her findings
showed that children reared solely by their biological fathers did as well
on health measures as children with stepmothers. 
The research also looked at adopted and foster children, but the samples of
those families are small, and the results less conclusive and more
For example, if adopted children were the only children in the family, they
were even more likely than biological children to attend college, but if
the family included biological and adopted children, the adopted siblings
were likely to get a year less schooling than the biological children. 
The education and food studies are based on data from the University of
Michigan's Panel Study of Income Dynamics, and the health data from the
Child Health Supplement to the National Health Interview Survey, both
nationally representative surveys of thousands of Americans. 
In addition to Professor Case, the authors of the education and food
studies were I-Fen Lin of Bowling Green State University in Kentucky and
Sara McLanahan of Princeton. Professor Case conducted the health study with
Christina Paxson of Princeton.