How mothers and their new partners feel about becoming a stepfamily is one thing, and how the children involved feel is quite another. In 2009, more than 7 percent of children lived with at least one stepparent, yet much of the research and writing on the topic centers on how the adults navigate their new family dynamic.

Brigham Young University researchers sought to shift the question to the child’s perspective. Kevin Shafer, a professor at Brigham Young’s School of Social Work, and Todd Jensen, a graduate student, wanted to discover what stepchildren think makes for a good relationship with a stepfather, and how a mother and her new partner can make that happen.

The researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth (which is why their conclusions, although possibly more broadly applicable, are limited to mother-stepfather households) to consider what factors appeared to affect how close children reported feeling to their stepfathers.

Happily, their findings suggest factors like family resources or education levels had little or no impact on a child’s perception of the strength of his or her relationship with a stepfather.

What mattered, they found, was that the children’s voices were heard, and to some extent, the adults were muted. The adults need to agree on how to parent (and keep their disagreements to a minimum), while the children need to feel comfortable sharing their problems.

“Moms need to let their children know that it’s OK to talk if they have a problem with their stepfather because everybody is still trying to figure out this new family dynamic,” Shafer said.

Shafer described two mistakes couples commonly make in the transition: acting as though nothing has changed, or leaving the majority of the active parenting to the mother (although when the stepfather assumes too much authority too soon, children also report feeling frustrated).

Children want to see their mother and stepfather get along, but that alone is not enough — they also need to feel they can still count on their mother to hear and respond to their feelings about their stepfather and their new family. That, the researchers suggest, may make children less prone to hold resentful feelings toward their stepfathers, and more able to find a connection.

Their results were published in the journal Social Work.

AFTER MONICA WESOLOWSKA gave birth to her first child, a healthy-seeming boy, things took a fast and grim turn: Her son, Silvan, was taken from her arms for “observation,” rushed unexpectedly through hospital hallways and ultimately given the worst possible prognosis.

How do you parent a child who is caught up in our complex system of modern medical death? Silvan’s life was short, but in it, Wesolowska found strength, courage and, most surprisingly, hope.

What sounds like the most depressing of books isn’t at all, although there is no medical miracle and no happy ending. Instead, there are two very fallible, frightened, first-time parents wrestling with decisions they never imagined making: appearing before an ethics committee. Holding a baby who has very little time and making choices about how that time will be spent.

Somehow, Wesolowska was able to see something larger in the story of her days with Silvan. What started out as the memoir of one mother and one child became a meditation on life and its endings, and on how modern medicine has changed death — and how it hasn’t.

“What we lived through was not a story that I had read before,” she told me. “What felt to us like the most loving thing to do was contrary to what parents usually choose, which is to do anything they can to save their children. I wanted parents in this sort of a situation to have something — to not be at a complete loss if their choice is different than what they’ve seen before.”

“Holding Silvan” is a guide to the emotional territory of the end of life when death does not come simply. “What we had to choose for Silvan was an extreme, but almost no one just dies of illness anymore,” Wesolowska said. “Everyone has to make a choice or multiple choices along the path. We need to be prepared for that.”

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