Books for stepmothers tend to perpetuate certain myths. The myth of the blended family and the myth of the maternal stepmother are the most glaring examples. These books’ relentlessly upbeat tone can make stepmothers feel as though our own occasional negativity and impatience regarding his kids are freakish. Other books on stepmothering are so lighthearted, so insistent that we see the humor in our situation and in our responses to it, that reading them feels suspiciously like being told that our concerns don’t matter and that we just need to lighten up.
But the real problem with many books for stepmothers is not what they imply, but what they actually say:
- Remember that his kids will always come first.
- Leave the disciplining to him.
- You will regret it forever if you lose your temper or say something nasty to your stepchildren, so whatever you do, don’t.
- With patience and love, they will come around.
The fact that these directives have become a virtual mantra, the unassailable golden rules of stepmothering does not mean that they are right. For example, a number of stepfamily experts concur that in a remarriage with children, giving the couple relationship priority is crucial (see chapter 6).
It may jar us to learn that our concept that “the kids are the most important thing” is misguided, even destructive to our partnerships. The ideas that you should be second and should accept it, that his kids came first chronologically and so are first in his heart, and that his believing and acting on these ideas makes him a good person are powerful, deeply ingrained beliefs. But all of them can be fatal for the remarriage with children. They are even bad for the children, giving them an uncomfortable amount of power and focusing an undue amount of attention and pressure on them.
Andrew Gotzis, M.D., a New York City psychiatrist and therapist who works with couples, echoed the advice of a number of marriage counselors when he told me, “In a remarriage with children, the hierarchy of the family needs to be established quickly and clearly. The kids need to know that the husband and wife come first and that they are a unified team.”
Otherwise, Dr. Gotzis cautioned, the kids can split the couple apart and create tension in the marriage indefinitely. To remarried couples with children, the scenario of kids turning to Dad when Stepmom has said no, or vice versa, in an attempt to split the team is all too familiar. A woman with stepchildren may exhaust herself with her attempts to resolve such situations. For this reason, sociologist Linda Nielsen notes that a woman with stepchildren will have more success when she adopts the attitude “My main goal and my main focus is to build an intimate, fulfilling relationship with my husband and to take better care of my own needs, not to bond with or win the approval of my stepchildren.”
Nielsen notes that a shift like this cannot happen in a vacuum; the woman’s partner needs to be on the same page with her. If the marriage is to work, Nielsen insists, “her husband has to be committed to creating a [partnership] around which his children revolve rather than a marriage that revolves around his children. Especially when his children dislike their stepmother, the father has to make it clear that the kids will not be handed the power or given the precedence over his marriage.”
“Things didn’t improve until I let my daughter know that, even though I loved her, my ultimate loyalty was to my wife,” one man who had survived a rocky early remarriage with children observed. We can only imagine the resultant fireworks in that household. But the outcome was a stronger marriage. This in turn gave his daughter proof that marriages can last. It also replaced what could have become profound confusion about her unchecked power in the family with a sense of secure belonging.
As for the advice “Leave the disciplining to him,” whoever said it never went to a home while the stepkids were visiting and their father was out. Certainly, no one is saying to step right in and start issuing orders to your stepkids in your first days and weeks together — and few of us are likely to do that, fearing that we will be perceived as wicked. But what works in theory — you should hold back more or less indefinitely so that you don’t seem like the villain, backing up your husband rather than doing things yourself — doesn’t always work in practice.
What happens when a stepchild does something that crosses the line but hubby isn’t around? Are you to sit on your hands and bite your tongue rather than issue a firm “That’s not okay, and you know it”? Moreover, firsthand experience has often demonstrated that the longer a woman with stepchildren waits, the harder it is for her ever to draw the line or be taken seriously as an adult with authority. I can attest to this fact. Because I was more or less a fraidy cat in the first year of my marriage, I had to be a tiger for the subsequent two or three years, as my stepdaughters still occasionally tried to walk all over me, just to see if they could.
This was hardly their fault; I waited ages to take a stand about things such as snide remarks, dumping suitcases in the middle of the floor, and ignoring me.
Sometimes it is easier and smarter to ignore a stepchild’s annoying habit, to decline to get involved in an emotion-charged discussion over her sweet sixteen party, or to be the voice of reason when planning her wedding. A number of women with stepchildren have found that “disengaging” is, in some situations, far and away the best strategy for them (see chapter 4). Other times, ignoring bad behavior just feels like being stepped on and creates a breeding ground for more resentment. And then what?
The culture at large is eager to gloss over women’s anger in general, and advice for stepmothers in particular is full of warnings that if we express it, the consequences will be dire and irreversible. This strikes me as absurd. It would be the rare stepchild who never went through a phase of wanting to provoke his or her stepmom. Of course we lose our tempers, inevitably. And although it can feel catastrophic — What if they hate me? What if they think I’m wicked? — expressing our anger is, in my opinion, something we should do sooner rather than later. Otherwise, we risk setting the bar too impossibly high for everyone and creating a situation in which kids, teens, or even adult stepchildren go on pushing our buttons forever in an attempt to see where our limit is.
Most of all, we need to learn as soon as possible — to experience firsthand — that being disliked is an occupational hazard for stepmothers, not a referendum on our worth. “Dad’s girlfriend Laura yelled at us once in the car,” my stepdaughter told me solemnly in our early days together. I didn’t know exactly why she was telling me this, but I knew how Laura must have felt, and I admired her for letting the girls know when she thought they’d gone too far.
You’re not my mother! Most of us fear that it is yelling or disciplining or losing our tempers or not being nice enough or patient enough or selfless enough that will keep our husbands’ children from accepting us or drive them away. If only we had so much control.
Instead, unrealistic expectations about blending and being maternal, difficult developmental stages, competition that is largely inevitable and unavoidable, misinformation about stepmothering, and a host of other factors play a bigger role in the way a reconfigured family group coheres — or doesn’t. We are not, in fact, their mothers.
Happily ever after and happiness all around are ideals – unlikely ones at that, even in traditional nuclear families. Eventually, we may find that we have arrived at a place of comfort, familiarity, and real pleasure with our husbands’ kids. But if our happiness is contingent on his kids being happy for us, being happy with us, and loving us, then we have given away our greatest power and put everything at risk.
Copyright © 2009 Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., author of “Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do.” Martin is a social researcher; she is a regular contributor to Psychology Today (www.psychologytoday.com) and blogs for the Huffington Post and on her own Web site (www.wednesdaymartin.com). She has appeared as a stepparenting expert on NPR, the BBC Newshour, Fox News and NBC Weekend Today, and was a regular contributor to the New York Post’s parenting page. Stepmonster is a finalist in the parenting category of this year’s “Books for a Better Life” award.
A stepmother for nearly a decade, Wednesday lives in New York City with her husband and two sons. Her stepdaughters are young adults.