The evil stepmother of fairy tales is just that – mostly a myth. Women trying to bond with children from an earlier marriage can be just ordinary moms!
In today’s evolving world, relationships are fragile. It is complicated to build a relationship when the very start is from hesitation and distrust. Unfortunately, these are the only ingredients provided to a stepmother when she steps into this role with negative connotations. She is the target of blame for most problems in the family: the children’s misbehavior, the parents’ conflict, and the mother’s insecurity. I know this is not a popular comment, but it is true. Not to say that there are not stepmothers who contribute to the problems, because I firmly believe every family member plays a role in the dysfunction. With that said, I think it’s important to offer a few tips to those women taking on this difficult challenge.
In a remarriage where children from a previous marriage are involved, everyone is in a difficult position. The children are vulnerable and angry, because their secret fantasy that their parents might reunite is destroyed. The father has divided loyalties between his new partner and his children. Such difficulties are acknowledged. Less easily accepted are the problems that stepmothers face – partly because the stereotype of the wicked stepmother is so powerful. They are expected to just suck it up – because the child is just a child, and to marry someone with children is a choice they made and have to live with. But it’s not that simple. The stepmother faces formidable challenges, not least because to admit to her difficulties is often taboo. Most women – according to research quoted by Martin – define themselves by the quality of their relationships. “Stepmothers,” writes Martin, “are more self-critical and blame themselves more than any other members of a remarried family.” They “tend to experience difficulty with a stepchild as ongoing, unremitting and overwhelming”.
When a stepchild is rude, it is hard for a stepmother to discipline them because the relationship feels fragile. Furthermore, stepmothers may find themselves undermined by the father, who finds himself torn. Because of guilt from getting divorced in the first place, fear of losing their child to the biological mother entirely and the fact that the child seems particularly vulnerable, the father will be inclined to back the child, leaving the stepmother feeling excluded and abandoned. It is a classic case of divided loyalty. In the end, the stepmother may begin to sour, because she is only human in the face of rejection, anger and hatred. And thus she will be in danger of becoming the stereotype she always wanted to avoid. Only, unlike the stepmother of myth, she is tormented by guilt, a sense of failure and a feeling of being betrayed by her husband.
Protect your marriage.
The other key is protecting your marriage. Having children is challenging to marriage, even when they are you and your husband’s children together. Having children that are not yours biologically, but are your husband’s with another woman—well that’s really, really hard. You are not Mom, no matter when you came into those children’s lives. Given this, it is important to work diligently on your marriage by learning about each other, spending quality time just the two of you, and not allowing the children and/or his ex to become the center of your marriage. Make it a point to work every day on your marriage, communicating and loving on one another even when it’s hard. It is these moments that give you strength when your stepchildren work hard to divide and conquer you and dad.
Know your role.
I think the key is learning to not trump Mom. That means respecting who she is, how she wants to raise the children, and accepting her decisions whether you like them or not. That means not cutting her daughter’s hair even if you think it looks scraggly. It also means portraying her as a good mother, even if you question her parenting choices. Do not encourage the children to call you “Mom” or any version of it. Step back and allow the parents to parent. Believe me, if you can do this, the children will naturally grow closer to you and respect you because you respect their mother.