If you’re one of the more than 15 million stepmothers in the country, you know the particular trials—and joys—of stepfamily dynamics today. You wonder if you’re doing the right thing and, as a stepmother, many of your specific questions are unique. In this second edition of Stepmotherhood: How to Survive Without Feeling Frustrated, Left Out, or Wicked, journalist and stepmother Cherie Burns brings together countless insights and sound advice, based on the latest research and interviews with experts in the field (including dozens of other stepmoms), to answer questions such as:
• How do you manage discipline when parents and stepparents disagree?
• How can you help stepsiblings get along?
• How do you handle birthdays, holidays, and weddings?
• What’s the best way to get along with your stepchild’s mother?
• When should you seek a therapist’s help?
Burns’s wise and empathetic suggestions go beyond struggle, stigma, and compromise, showing how sensitive, informed stepmothers can take charge—and pride—in their role, becoming more effective and fulfilled.
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About the Author
Cherie Burns is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, People, Glamour, Sports Illustrated, US, New York, Self, Working Woman, and other publications. One of the first writers to address stepfamily issues, she speaks publicly to local and national stepfamily groups and organizations. She is a mother, stepmother, and stepgrandmother and is married to journalist Richard L. Duncan.
Read an Excerpt
"You can't be a peer. You can't be a parent. It took me five years to figure it out."
"I was in our house looking out the window, watching the kids with my husband and his parents playing together on the lawn, and I thought: I don't like these people. I don't belong. My life rotated around them, always what was best for the children. How can you argue against that moral argument? But I resented it a lot."
As a stepmother, you are initially perceived, falsely or not, as a rival to the most traditionally revered and respected biological force in the family the mother. If that's not enough to put some drama into your life, there's plenty more.
You are the last member to enter an extended family (the term most commonly used to describe these modern hybrids in which the natural parents are divorced and one or both are remarried), and you are often the last to grasp the significance of that. Family life is already in progress. You join it when you marry, at a time of high hopes, optimism, and a romantic view of family members, together with your commitment to them. Everyone else (your husband, his children, and their mother) is a bit more realistic. They know more about each other's strengths and weaknesses, moves and limits. The stepmother is an earnest newcomer and not always a welcome one.
"Dad's new wife" has never ranked high on the roster of family endearments. No one has known exactly what to make of her, and she often shares their puzzlement. The trouble, as one psychologist points out, is that modern stepmothers typically lack the purpose they had in times past when a father was likely to remarry only after he was widowed, and his new wife moved in to rule the roost. Her role to replace a natural mother was crystal clear. Still, as Cinderella, Snow White, and a host of other plaintive young victims in children's stories remind us, the kids plainly loathed her. Trying to replace a natural mother was undoubtedly a terrible task. As we modern stepmothers also soon learn, trying not to replace her isn't a snap either.
Stepmothering is not simple in practice or in its effect. The role's lack of clarity and uncertainty can muddy your self-image and self-esteem. A stepmother goes from merely marrying a man with children to facing a myriad of psychological and emotional truths. It's a quick, short trip, and it leaves many of us feeling overwhelmed and out of touch with our own lives. Personal considerations seem small and unworthy against the larger issues of children, pain, and divorce.
What is a stepmother really? The fact of being a stepmother can be described accurately she is married to a man who has children by somebody else but the meaning is seldom examined. Current society doesn't even seem to have a standard for the role.
No wonder we stepmothers feel so ill at ease. There are no models, no precedents, no fantasy stepmums in television commercials to depict what an ideal stepmother should be. The only role model is a natural mom, and it is disastrous for us to emulate her. Even the greeting card industry, which has found ways to celebrate almost every conceivable relationship and occasion, dances around stepfamily relationships. Hallmark has introduced a new line devoted to nontraditional families but the word "step" is never used, which surely says something about society's unease with us.
Stepmothering means filling a new position in a family and creating a relationship to the children that is different from any either you or they have known before. For many women, one of the most disconcerting aspects of stepmotherhood is the title: stepmother. Those last two syllables are difficult for them especially for women without children of their own to feel at home with.
Changing an awkward title almost never works. Changing our understanding of what the term implies does help.
The stepmother's time has come. The rates of divorce and remarriage have swelled her number and dramatically changed her function, even if her public image still lags behind. The dusty old pinched and negative notion of stepmothering is going out of style as a quarter of a million modern women become new stepmothers every year and leave their imprint on the title. A stepmother is no longer an apologetic oddity on the fringe of family life. Instead, she has a full-fledged part in a new kind of family that is fashioned around new needs and relationships rather than an inapplicable old design of traditional family life. She is neither imitative of the natural mother nor a half member of a family as a helpful maiden aunt or kindly neighbor might be old parallels that were formerly applied to her status.
Though the semantics of stepmotherhood can be off-putting, the term does describe a relationship to your husband's children. It is a term that is earning more respect as our number increases and our function comes to be appreciated as the glue that holds together families
Stepmothering will always have trials and tribulations that no amount of consciousness-raising or public regard can prevent. The persons involved determine the quality of any relationship, but a stepmother often underestimates the ready-made aspect of marrying a divorced man with children. She becomes a stepmother as well as a wife at the altar.
It's the original package deal pick one, get one (or more) free. A six-month stepmother who feels that she didn't realize this fundamental law about stepmothering when she married, said, "It was as though I came along with just my overnight bag. I did'1t know he had all these bags and suitcases waiting out in the car."
The same is often true of in-law relationships, but in the latter, convention dictates the primacy of husband and wife. All parties are adults, and it's considered proper that a son leave his mother and father to form a new household when he marries. That a father should make trade-offs between his children and his new wife, even though both have proper claims on him, is not so acceptable. If anything, public perception puts the needs and wishes of children, especially children of divorce, above a second wife's. Her uncertain rank in the family hierarchy becomes part of her frustration. Stepmotherhood is one of the most complex family roles a woman can undertake.
Stereotypes of stepmothering the public's and our own add to our difficulties and disappointment. Most of us enter stepmothering believing that we must love our stepchildren and be loved by them in return. The fact is that the ideal of a mutually devoted relationship between a stepmother and her step-children is seldom achieved. The images that we aspire to achieve for ourselves have little bearing on the reality of our family situations.
Stepmothers and stepchildren have a relationship a lot like partners in an arranged marriage. Neither party has much to say about who is on the other end. "The relationships that were part of my life until I married my stepson's father had always been what I called yes-or-no relationships. You got to know the person, and if you liked him, you said yes. You had a relationship. If you didn't, you said no. My husband1s older boy was a no. I didn1t know what to do. I couldn't get rid of him. I had to deal with him," stated an eight-year stepmother who continues to feel that she and her stepson are not the same kind of people.
"Our chief problem was that we couldn't escape each other. I'm sure we both wondered how we could have any kind of family relationship at all if we were so totally different," she said. He was the first "no" person she was obliged to accept in her private life. "I can say we feel good about each other now. I guess over the years we've gotten used to each other, but I'm not comfortable saying I love him," she added with evident regret. She concluded, after taking a thoughtful pause and drawing a deep breath, "If you had told me when I married my husband that I'd be saying this eight years later, I would have fallen apart. I thought if you didn't love your stepchildren and they didn't love you, it was unacceptable. I was wrong. What my stepson and I have is normal and reasonable. I like him and I respect him and I think he feels the same way about me. But in the beginning I expected much more than that. Now I can see that my expectations were ridiculous."
Breaking away from romantic stereotypes is a monumental accomplishment, yet failing to do so can be crippling, even tragic. A former stepmother whose marriage to a man with three children failed in less than a year now looks back: "My husband and I had no imagination about how to do it. I got right in there and played their mother cooked meals and gave marching orders. My husband expected me to do that, and so did I. The kids hated it, and eventually, I did, too. Pretty soon I blamed my husband. It wasn't really our fault. We just didn't know what else to do. If we'd looked around for help, it might have worked out differently, but we expected to be a happy family overnight. We refused to give up that dream. It was all or nothing."
Most stepmothers talk about their isolation. Though they may be close to their husbands in every other respect, they hesitate to confide their qualms about stepmothering at the start of a marriage. Other confidants can prove equally unsatisfactory and are often less likely to be sympathetic. "My mother said, O Well, what did you expect?" stated a stepmother who found her former best pal no longer a sympathetic listener. It was the old you-made-your-bed-now-lie-in-it reaction that people, maybe mothers in particular, employ when they don't know what else to advise.
Friends without similar family situations can also be disappointing confidants. They often regard the complexities of extended family situations as signs of marriage failure. A stepmother can quickly find that too much tea and sympathy hurts her pride and makes her less likely to bring up the subject again.
Stepmothers aren't always their own best friends either. There are times when most of us feel overwhelmed by our own frustrations. We feel guilty for not loving our stepchildren, flawed by our failure to be selfless, angry with the marriage and the men who brought these problems our way, and powerless. We needn't feel all these emotions at once; any combination can make us feel wretched. Worse, fear of failing our husbands and ourselves leads us to internalize our anguish until it gathers the force of an explosion. Inevitably, most of us let loose. "I have always been a reasonable and controlled person, but when it comes to issues about my husband's daughter, I didn't know I could be so out of hand. I cursed, I hated, I accused, and then I hated myself for the whole spectacle. I looked foolish, and I felt desperate. I'd tried my damnedest and I'd lost," wailed a stepmother who finally blew her cool. She's not alone. This kind of despair or explosion is very common, and it can also be cathartic, marking the end of a phase of confusion and surprise. From then on, a stepmother at least knows what reality she's dealing with.
There are, of course, some stepmothers who do not experience turmoil or stress. They are scarce, however, and I honestly can't say that I've found their approach admirable or easy to relate to. Their stepparenting relationships seemed unrealistically pat and one-dimensional. One such woman said she disliked children, so stepmothering let her in on the fun end of parenting, which for her was buying Madame Alexander dolls and taking her nine-year-old stepdaughter to the circus. She expected the girl to arrive and exit punctually and to demonstrate perfect manners. I got the impression of Shirley Temple making an entrance with a few bars of "On the Good Ship Lollipop" followed by a curtsy. A canopy bed chock-full of dolls was this stepmother's proud contribution to stepmothering. She also said that she had no difficulty with her husband's ex-wife, who quite obviously saw no maternal rival anywhere in sight. She certainly had a positive outlook and a positive experience. Her low expectations were easy to meet. But the majority of stepmothers aren't like her. Fortunately, if they're adaptive, realistic, and patient, they are likely to get more satisfaction out of their stepfamilies as well.
There are simply no quick fixes. Professionals unanimously agree on two invaluable attributes for a stepmother: patience and maturity. Family relations take time. It helps to think of stepmothering as a process rather than as a stance. Relationships change with time and with effort. Suffering in silence or hoping for the best won't help. Since clear roles cannot be assigned to a stepmother or her stepchild, those that result must be genuinely achieved and earned: custom-made, so to speak.
Even professionals sometimes express dismay at the complexity and emotional demands of stepmothering. "I don't know how stepmothers make it," one psychologist said. Psychologists have coined a word for new extended families: "chaos." The term is apt. The marriage of a father, a former head of household, shifts everyone's position in the same way that management changes realign power and loyalties within a corporation. Ripples of anxiety, discontent, subterfuge, and mutiny break out until the new system takes hold. As the stepmother, the newcomer at the top, you feel more denigrated than the others by such chaos. Disoriented by it, you may panic, underestimate your chances for success, and become defensive. However, defensiveness is not your best defense. Patience, perspective, and understanding the emotional currents at work within your stepchildren, your husband, and yourself are.
To accept and to become part of a family situation that is unlike the ideal takes extra effort, self-knowledge, and courage. There is more to it than just adapting to a few children. A woman's conditioning about family, sexual roles, and life goals is challenged. Family trailblazing is probably not what you had in mind when you married, but it's as likely to be part of stepmothering as setting an extra place at the table.
The best advantage you can have is a model for stepmothering that is based on reality rather than myth. No woman is adequately prepared to be a stepmother. The idealized versions of stepfamily life don't ring true in practice, and realizing that fact can bring you up short. Also, you've probably never examined the range of emotional and real demands that a stepfamily makes. Most of us enter into stepmothering without theories on how to cope with stepfamily guilt, vacation planning, discipline, visitation schedules, holiday strains, ex-wife relations, and money matters, to mention just a few of the most common areas of concern. We don't consider those things in advance or even associate them with stepmothering. That's where creating a new, realistic, and flexible model comes into play. It is your best defense against the lows and disappointments that plague us when our steprelations turn out different from some ideal. Different doesn't mean less.
Stepmothering with the proper perspective and expectations can be uplifting, even liberating, from the stereotypes of real mothering and imagined stepmothering that plague us. Learning the differences is where we start.