Being a stepmother is hard, and often, thankless work. While some stepmothers are able to establish close and comfortable relationships, many struggle with the role. In addition, children are typically more tolerant and accepting of stepfathers than stepmothers. Here are some important reasons why stepmothering can be such a struggle:
- Loyalty Factor: Children often have intense feelings of loyalty to their mothers after divorce. Professor Linda Nielsen, author of an excellent book titled, Embracing Your Father: How to Build the Relationship with Your Dad that You Always Wanted conducted a 15-year study of daughters in college. She found that most college-educated daughters discriminate against Dad when it comes to giving him the same chance they give their Moms to get to know one another, to talk about personal matters, to have meaningful conversations or to allow him to express sadness or grief. Dad is still more likely than Mom to be treated as a critical judge and a banking machine. These feelings of loyalty to Mom can directly interfere with a stepchild’s desire or ability to bond with the stepmother.
- High Expectations of Self: For better or worse, women come into marriage with the expectation that they should be loving, nurturing, and supportive. Unfortunately, parenting, like marriage, takes two to tango. A stepmother who tries to be close to a stepchild who is uninterested or unwilling may walk away feeling resentful, and rejected. One of the largest, best-controlled studies of divorce (Hetherington, 2002) found that one-fourth of grown stepdaughters carried intense feelings of negativity about their stepmothers and only one-fourth described their relationship as close as adults.
- High Expectations from Husband: Men are likely to hold their wives to the same standard that women hold themselves to. That is, they often believe that their new wives or girlfriends should be able and eager to step into the mothering role. This is both unrealistic and unreasonable.
What to do?
A) Be a friend, not a mom, to your stepkids unless it’s completely clear that mothering is what they really want from you.
B ) Let your husband do the disciplining, not you.
C) Be assertive when you need to be. Your stepchildren may test your limits. While you can’t assume that they’re going to want to be close to you, you can hold them to the same standard of respect that you’d expect from anyone else. Therefore, they can’t call you names, they can’t take your stuff without asking, and they can’t boss you around.
D) Take the long-term perspective: Your partner chose you, not his children, so it may take them quite a while to adjust to being divorced and accept that dad’s primary love interest is no longer their mother, and for some children-them. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a good (or tolerable) relationship with stepchildren. Typically, it takes years, so try not to get too discouraged by the inevitable ups and downs.