Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT has been a therapist for over 30 years, specializing in work with couples, families and relationships. She has expertise with clients
Stepmothers start off with hills to climb.
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word, “stepmother”? Evil? Wicked? Mean?
More people think of Cinderella’s and Snow White’s stepmothers then Carol Brady of the Brady Bunch. Hard to get a break when you start off in a tough space.
Sometimes women who are stepmothers start off on the wrong foot as well. They may have unrealistic expectations for their new family and try too hard to create a close family long before the children are ready. Disappointment and frustration with these new children, along with what is often a very unclear role definition, may make it hard to find a stepmother to really find her place in this family.
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Stepmothers often assume and, it is assumed, that they will handle much of the day-to-day parenting. What a job to handle right out of the starting gate!
Attempts to discipline and handle problems are met with resentment and challenge, sometimes not supported by the natural parent, and can lead to many hard times and hurt feelings.
Being a stepmother to her husband’s daughter has its own special challenges. It can be extremely emotionally complicated when there is more than one female who wants a man’s attention, not to mention tension between and within mothers, stepmothers and daughters.
Some of the biggest challenges for stepmothers
Stepmothers have many challenges. Probably the biggest one is defining her role with the children and in the family. In some instances she is an “insider’ and at other times, she is clearly on the outside. She may have responsibility for transportation, cooking, laundry, discipline but may not have a say in other areas and may find that her husband sides with his children over her some of the time.
Most women believe that, if they are kind, loving and gentle enough, everything will work out and the children will fall in love with her. As most step families have told me, this NEVER happens.
Children often resent stepmothers as trying to take the place of their natural mother, even when step moms try to take it slowly and patiently, they are still the woman who is with their dad and in the bed and kitchen, where their mother should be.
The divorce rate is higher for step families than for those who are in it the first time around. The odds of protecting a marriage are not good ones since roughly 2/3rds of marriages with stepchildren end in divorce.
Women often take much of the responsibility for maintaining relationships and that can be extremely difficult to do with unhappy and challenging children, divided loyalties and sometimes interfering exes.
Strategies for success for stepmothers
There are some things that stepmothers can do to have the best chance of thriving in her stepfamily. Here are some suggestions.
1. There are lots of complications and twists in people and relationships in stepfamilies. Nothing can be ”fixed” immediately. Many of the problems are not about you. As they say in al-anon, “You did not cause it. You cannot control it and you cannot cure it.” Be patient, go slowly and find ways not to take things personally.
2. Work with your partner to define your role and responsibilities. Make sure that everyone in the family is aware of what they are …. and what they are NOT. Ask him to be your ally in this and work with you as you all figure this out together.
3. Spend time alone with your stepchildren. Relationships take time to build and it is hard to achieve respect without a peaceful relationship.
4. Try not to take negative experiences too personally. Many of the challenges that you have are because of your role with their dad, the divorce, their age or a whole host of other things and not about you.
5. Encourage children to spend time alone with their dad as well as with their mother and other relatives. Let them see that you respect these other relationships that preceded your introduction into the family.
6. Don’t expect to mother another woman’s children. Look for a different role with them that can evolve over time.
7. Find time alone with each of your stepchildren on a daily basis, even if it is only for a few minutes. Use the time to catch up with them and with what is going on in their lives. Children tend to be drawn to adults who really seem to value them and their ideas. In addition, go to bat for them when it is appropriate. Let them see that you want to be their ally and respect their needs.
8. Do not expect appreciation from your stepchildren … until they are well into adulthood. This may be difficult as you are changing your life and schedule to accommodate them and their needs; however, they are children. They also may have divided loyalties and believe that showing appreciation to you is being disloyal to their mom. Keep doing nice things and, eventually, it will pay off.
9. Stay positive with your spouse. When you need to tell him about problems with the children, find a way to do it softly and gently. These are his children and criticisms about them will feel like a criticism of him and his parenting. Recognize his difficult role and strategize with him about how to handle problems. You want your marriage to make it long after these children have grown up and have left home.
10. Accept the fact that you may never love these children; in fact, it may be hard to even like them much of the time. That happens in many step families. Find some aspects of them and their personalities to like and show them respect. Watch for any changes along the way as you, and they, age together.
11. Be your own best friend. Find time to be alone, exercise, visit with friends and talk with other women in the same situation. This is a long process and there is no quick and easy answer. Take care of yourself and build your stamina for the long haul.
While many step families do not survive, there are also many that do. With patience, humor and a lot of working together, you can be one of those who make it work.
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