It’s Complicated: The Challenges of Being a Stepmother
On the second Sunday of every May we stop and honor our mothers. We acknowledge the difficulty of the job and her devotion to the stability of the family. There is a sub-group of mothers, however, that despite their growing number, are often overlooked: stepmothers. A stepmother begins her journey with enormous challenges. Every situation will have unique circumstances, but a step-family can’t function like a biological family. The dynamics are more complex. The three most common truths a stepmom can anticipate are:
There will be conflict of loyalties
Biological families have conflict, but a step-family is formed on the heels of loss; divorce, abandonment, or death. Unresolved conflict between ex’s and the opinions of family members and friends add to the emotional turmoil. Adults that openly criticize each other in front of the kids, create confused and conflicted children. Even in the absence of the above, you are blending two different families’ values and traditions. There will be a natural jockeying for position.
The stepmother is the perfect target for any displaced anger
Step mothering comes with a big side of judgment; “darned if you do, darned if you don’t.” It’s easier and safer for children to blame her than confront their father (or both parents, in the case of divorce). Expressing their anger at the appropriate parent(s), would be too risky. A stepmother is the outsider and the safest person to unload on. If biological dad has weak parenting skills, or parental guilt he will often look the other way, or even add to the blame game. This perpetuates the “bad stepmother” persona. Instead of the biological parents addressing their own children’s emotions and taking ownership, the stepmother becomes the perfect scapegoat.
The children may never grow to love her
The younger the children are when the new family forms, the greater the chance (usually) for love and acceptance. With the sundry of variables, however, it is possible a stepmother will never receive true love and appreciation for her role in the family. Let that be okay. Drop the expectations and aim for mutual respect. Anything else will be a bonus.
The step-family challenges are complicated, but not insurmountable
There are plenty of examples of step-families that aren’t just surviving, but thriving, despite the inevitable difficulties. A stepmother can’t cure all, but there are things she can do to keep things on an even keel. Here’s the short list: get step-family counseling. Keep your marriage the priority. Treat the children with loving kindness. Discipline should be done by the biological parent. Don’t take the insults personally and don’t participate in the drama. Build a support system of trusted friends. Let your husband have time alone with his own children. Take time for yourself. Don’t deny your own feelings. Speak the truth. And when all else fails, try humor!