The Harrison family in the 1998 film "Stepmom" consists of the father (Luke Harrison, played by Ed Harris), the ex-wife and mother (Jackie Harrison, played by Susan Sarandon), the daughter (Anna Harrison, played by Jena Malone), the son (Ben Harrison, played by Liam Aiken), and the soon-to-be stepmom (Isabel Kelly, played by Julia Roberts). The children's natural mother and ex-wife becomes of aware that she has cancer, a number of therapies are tried, but finally everyone must face the fact that disease will end her life before long.
The parents of Anna and Ben have divorced, and their father's girlfriend, Isabel -- a single, successful professional photographer -- is living with them. Isabel's efforts to provide good mothering to the children is met at every turn by their resistance -- understandably, the children want their parents back together. Ganong, et al. (2011) identified six patterns of step-relationship development, including: "accepting as a parent, liking from the start, accepting with ambivalence, changing trajectory, rejecting, and coexisting" (p. 396). The theoretical grounding for the research conducted by Ganong, et al. (2011) was that "the degree to which stepchildren engage in relationship-building and maintaining behaviors with stepparents is a function of the stepchildren's evaluative judgments about stepparents' behaviors toward them and toward their peers" (p. 401). The dynamic that Ganong, et al. (2011) made clear was that the judgments that stepchildren made about their stepparents were influenced to a high degree by input from others people who are important to them, such as their biological parents, their siblings, their half-siblings, and their peers. Other variables that impacted the quality and tenor of the stepchild-stepparent relationship included the child's age when the stepparent entered their life, the gender of both the stepchildren and the stepparents, the relationship between the children and their biological parents, differences between the relationship between the children and the custodial parent vs. The non-custodial parent, and the amount of time that stepchildren spent with their stepparents and their biological parents according to the custody arrangements by which they all had to abide (Ganong, et al., 2011).
The relationship between Isabel and Anna was the focus in the film since Anna is the oldest of the two children and is also the same gender as her stepmother and her biological mother -- a factor that is commonly considered to add complexity to the relationships, particularly as the child ages. Ganong, et al. (2011) found that the efforts of the biological parent to encourage or discourage the child to have a meaningful -- or at least tolerable or pleasant for a majority of the time-was a strong factor in the development of the step-relationship. The patterns of step-relationships are quirky and based on many variables, such that, only 30% of the children in the study who had two or more stepparents developed the same pattern of relationship development with each of their stepparents. The stepparent-stepchild relationship that has developed between Isabel and Anna can best described as "changing trajectory" -- indeed, the relationship seems to have spanned "rejecting" and "coexisting" and finally settled on "accepting as a parent" (Ganong, et al., 2011, 396).
It was not in Isabel's plans to become a mother; she is torn between trying to do a good job in her new role and still keep her day job. Isabel faced an uphill struggle on several fronts as she was plunged into instant parenthood. The fact that one of the stepchildren was a pre-adolescent girl was a harbinger of difficulty, as Kluwer (2010) indicates, since the responsibilities of bringing up a daughter fall more to the mother than to the father. According to several studies cited in Kluwer (2010), less active parenting by the men in a family relationship adds to the stress of the mother. Although it is unlikely that Isabel had many clear-cut expectations about mothering in her new role, she still would have experienced the additional demands that raising a girl entails. Additionally, the relationship between Anna and Isable was volatile to begin with, and made all the more incendiary by the fact that Isable and Luke enjoyed each other's company, with the occasion of unavoidable exclusion when they were intimate. These encounters were particularly difficult since Anna was right on the cusp of her teenage years. When Isabel rescued Anna with her plot to have a high school boy show up on campus and pretend to be Anna's boyfriend -- and with her...
The tide shifts inexorably when Jackie's diagnosis worsens. Both Jackie and Isabel see that for the children to be happy, Jackie must demonstrate her acceptance of Isabel. When Jackie makes overtures to Isabel and encourages her daughter to spend time with her, such as allowing Anna to attend the rock concert with Isabel, she takes major strides in a direction that begins to erode Anna's resistance to Isabel's efforts to connect with her. They must cross this threshold sooner than either would like in order to stop any more damage to the future opportunity for the children to adapt to life with their new stepmother. The well-defined and respected boundaries that have surrounded the pre-Isabel family have been breached -- they must necessarily be breached once the Jackie's situation has been acknowledged.
The family demonstrates a moderate level of flexibility as they undergo the strain of drastically changing relationships. They are both structured and flexible in their roles -- at first, not smoothly adapting, but slowly reacting to the new dynamics that are imposed on them by the mother's terminal illness and the impending marriage of the father and his fiance. The cohesion between the family members is strong, and the strength of those relations is kept strong by their regular interactions. The divorced parents seem to have adapted to a pattern of coparenting, that has become a more conflict-ridden endeavor with Isabel in the picture children (Ganong, et al., 2011, p. 1). Jackie appears to derive some social encouragement to coparent and who "perceived greater control over…[her]…abilities to coparent," assuming the same patterns as when they were an intact family, except that only one parent at a time is accessible to the children (Ganong, et al., 2011, p. 1).
Isabel's role enactment is complicated by the fact that she is living with the children and their father -- so she isn't classified as a non-residential stepmother -- but the relationship has not been formalized yet through marriage (Weaver & Coleman, 2005). The twelve-year-old daughter, more than her younger brother, Ben, holds out hope that Isabel will disappear from her life and her parents will get back together. Isabel feels fairly continuously inadequate when enacting her role as a stepmother: she has little control and her role situation is ambiguous (Weaver & Coleman, 2005). Isabel's mothering is considered a failure, more or less, by the children, by the biological mother, and occasionally -- although he does not say it outright -- by the father.
Observed parenting behaviors change dramatically over the course of the film. Fine, et al. (1993) attribute the changes in the observed parenting behaviors to the changes in family structure, and the impact these changes have on family processes. In some circumstances, the family members must adjust from a first-family status to a single-parent family to a stepfamily (Fine, et al., 1993). In the movie, Isabel experiences a high level of stress not just as a result of the children's high jinxs and attitude, but also because of the high contrast between the new domestic demands and the autonomy and independence of her professional, adult-oriented lifestyle. Each transformation demands adjustments to family processes -- particularly to the critical family process of parenting behaviors (Fine, et al., 1993). Indeed, the role that Ben plays in the film seems designed to be a mechanism, so to speak, for Isabel to most clearly demonstrate her ineptitude with respect to parenting behavior. Yet, the story is no less believable for this as some researcher have noted, there are no set or reliable patterns of sibling relationships showing positive or negative effect as a result of living in different family contexts, such as intact, stepparent, single-mother households.
The movie allows viewers to see the adaptive self-organization of the natural family system in action (Cox & Paley, 1997). This adaptive self-stabilization refers to "the capacity of systems to reorganize in response to changes form external forces acting on internal constraints…[And the]…term 'adaptive' suggests that the direction of change is one in which the existing system can best continue to function in the face of the new circumstances (Cox & Paley, 1997, p. 18). The emotional welfare of the children in a stepparent family is related to…
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