While some stepmothers have a fairly easy time adjusting to their new roles, many of us find it far more difficult than we ever imagined. In a world filled with technology designed to help us enjoy more leisure time, many of us still forsake the simple joys—going to the movies, having lunch with girlfriends, reading novels—in order to take care of our stepfamilies. Very quickly after marrying our partners, too many of us have crossed the fine line into emotional imbalance by working too hard and becoming involved in situations where we receive little joy or reward. We are suddenly in deep water without a life jacket to keep us afloat.
Little guidance is available about the challenges we face—being a stepmother is truly a "forgotten" role in society. Have you ever complained about the problems you are having as a stepmother, and heard the comment: "Well, you knew he had kids when you married him"? Unfortunately, this is a statement that too many of us hear all too often.
Second marriages can be difficult in themselves, with or without stepchildren. Add children into the mix, and the situation is that much more complicated!
Why Are So Many of Us Having So Much Trouble?
As you might expect, the reasons for stepfamily problems are complex. One contributing factor is that many of us are just not prepared for this role and have no idea how demanding the job can be. Many of the respondents to the online questionnaire said that they simply had no concept of the depth and breadth of the problems they would encounter once married.
For many of us, affection for our new partners makes us turn a blind eye to potential problems down the road. We simply hope that our love will get us through. While most women understand that marrying a man with children won't be as easy as marrying a man without children, conventional wisdom suggests that time will help "blend" family members into a cohesive unit. We are led to believe that, eventually, stepchildren will grow to love and respect us, partners will overcome their guilt for hurting their children, and ex-wives will get over their anger and resentment. Even for those of us with prior experience—having been a stepmother in a previous relationship or having had a stepmother—this knowledge may not be of much use in our current situations.
Problems can take months or years to develop in stepfamilies. Consequently, many of us are bound to be unprepared for the challenges we face, and are overwhelmed by their magnitude when they do occur.
Other stepmothers said that they were aware of potential problems in their stepfamilies, but they believed those difficulties would improve as everyone adjusted to the new family dynamic. Unfortunately, they were usually just plain wrong—the problems did not diminish. In fact, for many, the problems grew. Rather than improving, without intervention, stepfamily life tends to deteriorate or remain static over time.
There is a small group of women who did not know about their stepchildren when they got involved with, or married, their partners. Now that paternity tests are widely available, some women have discovered they were stepmothers months or years after they got married. Needless to say, these surprised stepmoms experienced a host of emotions, including shock and anger, when introduced to children they had no idea existed.
The conversations in the Steps for Stepmothers online chat room are powerful illustrations of the problems we as stepmothers experience and, to a large extent, these conversations have shaped my thinking about being a stepmother. Even the usernames on the message board are poignant. Many of these monikers, such as "Worn Out," "Want to Be Happy," "Stressed to the Max," and "At Wit's End" are vivid shorthand expressions of the painful experiences of these women.
Many of the stepmothers I have worked with in my psychotherapy practice have also felt unappreciated, overburdened and misunderstood by their families and communities. Before contacting me, many of these women had suffered in silence, for fear of being judged or ostracized, until their situations finally became intolerable.
There is a wide variety of problems that can make our lives as stepmothers miserable. Many stepmothers find that their partners act more like pals to their children than like fathers, with the result that stepchildren are undisciplined and spoiled. Some partners are afraid to set guidelines for their children to follow, along with appropriate consequences if those guidelines are ignored. Partners fear that if they are strict, their children will no longer be willing to spend time with them. To keep this from happening, they remain passive when their children act up. It is both difficult for stepmothers to witness and experience a child's misbehavior, and frustrating when they cannot get partners to understand the need to take corrective parental action. Other stepmothers must deal with intrusive, difficult ex-wives, who disrupt their households by calling at inappropriate times, change scheduled dropoffs and pickups at the last minute, and bad-mouth us to their children.
Many of us sadly realize that our attempts to bond with our stepchildren have failed, and we are left feeling ignored and disrespected. Some of us grow weary of dealing with stepchildren who seem unappreciative, uncooperative or spoiled. Some of us feel we have limited authority in our own households, because many decisions are made without our input or consent. Some of us—an unfortunate few—get to deal with all the above situations, and maybe more.
Would You Do It Again?
"If you knew what your life would be like as a stepmother, would you get involved with your partner again?" Stepmothers often ask this of each other in the online chat room, and I also asked this question in my survey. For many who responded to the survey, the answer was an unequivocal no. At times, do you also regret your decision to get involved with or to marry to your partner? To help you answer this question, consider the following:
Indications of Potential Problems
■ You feel frustrated, aggravated, annoyed or angry about your stepfamily, and don't have appropriate outlets to deal with these negative feelings.
■ You feel insecure about your place in the stepfamily. You feel like an outsider in your own home, despite concerted attempts to bond with your stepchildren.
■ You are constantly tired, and don't have enough time to take care of yourself.
■ You are unable to talk to your partner about his children without having a fight.
■ Your partner is defensive and hostile when talking about his children.
■ You avoid discussing certain topics with your partner's parents, children or ex-wife because you don't want to look bad in front of them.
■ You don't have input into decisions about how money is spent in your stepfamily; your feelings and attitudes about money are not considered by your partner.
■ You have issues with the custodial arrangements for your stepchildren, and do not have any input about their schedules.
■ You are not allowed to discipline your stepchildren, and are expected to tolerate misbehavior.
■ You feel that you take care of the needs of your stepchildren more than your partner or his ex-wife.
■ You sometimes wonder if you made a terrible mistake getting involved with, or having married, your partner.
■ You sometimes feel foolish for being trapped in your current circumstances.
■ You sometimes wish you had listened to the warnings of family and friends, rather than following your conviction that your stepfamily would blend into a loving unit.
If any of these ring a bell, don't be dismayed—there is hope! While you may not be able to solve all the problems in your step-family, you can change the way you deal with them, making your life more satisfying and content. Before discussing some solutions that can help you, let's look at some of the problems you face as a stepmother in greater detail.