“Do you, the bride, take this man, to have
and to hold, in sickness and in health … and do you take his kids?”
You may never hear a minister utter these words
at a wedding, but in theory, they’re becoming more and more appropriate. The “blended family” – a
term that is both celebrated and abhorred, depending on whom you ask – is becoming a fact of modern life.
Statistics show that while one out of every two
marriages today will end in divorce, three-fourths of divorced people will eventually remarry (suggesting that the institution
marriage is alive and well, even if people sometimes pick the wrong partner). Unfortunately the rate of divorce for second
marriages is even higher. And step relationships can be a huge factor.
Ask any family therapist, and they’ll agree:
the stepmother generally has the most challenging role in these new families. There are plenty of reasons for this, starting
with history. One research group found some 900 stories referring to the concept of an “evil stepmother,” the
most well known of these “Snow White” and “Cinderella.” Certainly there are stepmothers that do terrible
things (as there are biological mothers that do). And the myth is becoming less acceptable as more and more women take on
the stepmother role. But it’s still true that stepmothers have an uphill battle on almost every front.
The role of a stepmother is exceedingly complex.
A stepmom can get whiplash trying to negotiate her way around competing interests and attempting to find a path through veritable
mazes of paradox. Stepmoms often have all of the responsibilities of parenting (think cooking, cleaning, laundry) but none
of the legal rights. Stepmoms may constantly be trying to find the middle ground between being a child’s pal and being
a disciplinarian. Those who feel no love for their stepchildren are seen as cold; those who do can be accused of “trying
to take the place of the biological mother.” In short, being a stepmom means pleasing some of the people only some of
A stepparent’s role in a family is unique
in that it is born of loss. A child has lost a natural parent due to death or divorce; the natural parent may be in the child’s
life all the time, or may be gone, but a child’s dreams of having “the perfect family” have been shattered,
and a stepmom is the living proof of that fact.
A stepmom’s relationship with the biological
mother can range from friendly to neutral to downright hostile.
“I consider myself very lucky,” says
Claire, whose household contains her two children and her husband’s two children, all under the age of nine. “At
first, my stepchildren’s biological mother was really angry. But over time she realized that I take good care of the
kids, and now we are best friends.”
Not everyone is so fortunate.
“When I first got married I had this fantasy
that the biological mother and I would be friends and would co-parent this child together,” says Kyra. “Now, several
therapists later, our two households can communicate only via lawyer -– and even now there are blowups. I wish that
she could at least appreciate that her son and I have a loving relationship, but I sometimes think she’d rather that
I be a terrible person to give her an excuse for hating me.”
Lynnette, the custodial stepmom of three elementary
school children, had a similar experience when her stepchildren’s biological mother lost custody of them.
“I didn’t know how to function being
the object of such intense and systematic hatred,” she says, but adds, “the children were a little unruly, but
they are wonderful -– sweet, absolutely dear.”
Relationships between stepparents and stepchildren
can vary greatly. There truly are some children that “only a mother could love,” and there are stepmothers that
behave badly and give their stepchildren good reason to dislike them. Sometimes a stepmom tries her best, but is faced with
a “team” made up of her husband and stepchildren, against which she’s always losing.
Other stepmoms and stepkids just “click.”
“I love my stepdaughter as if she is my
own,” says Rebekkah. “She’s sweet, smart, funny, pretty, and talented. We actually enjoy being together,
and she’s never given me that ‘You’re not my real mom’ crap. But I give so much of the credit to her,
for being the kind of person she is – frankly, she’s an easy kid to love.”
A big reason why the rate of divorce among second
marriages is extraordinarily high is that the husband and wife often argue over the children. Jane is a clinical social worker
and a stepmom as well. She knows from personal experience how important it is to keep the marital relationship strong. “My
husband and I have always known that we were together because we loved each other, not because we wanted a pseudo-family,”
Jane emphasizes the need for the children’s
father to promote the stepmom as a parent figure within the household, deserving of respect. “When I would have a little
struggle,” says Jane, who has two stepchildren, “I was supported by my husband. Still, it took time to acclimate.”
Many husbands, she says, want their wives to
be pals with the children –- an unrealistic wish. And many “experts” on stepparenting say that stepmoms
should never discipline their stepkids. But discipline is not punishment; it’s a form of teaching and can be done in
a positive way.
“‘Discipline’ comes from the
word ‘disciple,’” Jane says. “It’s about directing them in the way they should go. Children
need the adults in their lives to be parents, not friends.”