Stepmothers can take a lesson from stepfathers:Â Stepfathers generally report lower levels of involvement in the early years of stepfamily formation.
By: Wednesday Martin, Ph.D.
The dawn of 2010 is a watershed moment for what we might call the New American Family. This is the year, according to many experts, when stepfamilies will outnumber first families in the U.S. One in three Americans is now a “step” of some sort — stepparent, stepsibling, or stepchild.
There’s now no denying that stepfamilies have our place in mainstream American culture. But there are plenty of struggles too. Many stepfamilies find they don’t get the support and understanding they need from their children’s schools, or from their churches or temples. Stepkids feel loyalty binds — a sense that to love or even like a stepparent is a betrayal of their real mom or dad. And stepparents often feel shut out — by partners who have gotten used to years of parenting solo, and by stepkids who, the research shows, tend to be hostile and rejecting of a stepparent in the initial years of the repartnership — and sometimes for years.
Here are ten simple steps stepfamilies can take to usher in a decade of stepfamily satisfaction:
1.Â Resolve to be a couple. Remarriages with children are twice as likely to fail as those without. Stepcouples are assailed by challenges including children who are unenthused about the union, family and friends who don’t get the stress of repartnering with children, and unsupportive exes in the wings. Putting the marriage or partnership first gives the whole family a chance at stability and happiness.
2.Â Don’t try to “blend.” Stepfamilies are assailed by unrealistic expectations. The primary one is that they are “supposed” to be just like a first family. When we ask stepfamily members to “blend,” we’re putting them in a jam with regards to the other parent in the picture, as well as their separate histories and family cultures. Stepfamilies can be healthy settings for adults and kids, particularly when we remove the pressure to “be” any particular way.
3.Â Bridge the gap. Young adult stepchildren especially, come to a developmental crossroads where they may be able to see a previously demonized stepparent in a new way, or understand their parent’s divorce from another point of view. Spouses can give their spouse who is a stepparent the benefit of the doubt in the New Year: “I married her, and I’m going to trust that when she’s upset, she’s not making a big deal out of nothing.” It is amazing how finding this “middle ground” can soothe and heal old hurts.
4.Â Resolve to care for yourself. As I interviewed women for my book Stepmonster, I realized they all fit the new research findings about stepmothers to a T: many were trying so hard to buck the “wicked stepmother” stereotype that they bent over backwards in the wrong direction. Sure, it’s nice to be kind. But never expressing any displeasure with your stepkids, and constantly putting your own needs and feelings last, as stepmothers are usually expected to do, is a recipe for resentment. Self-care is key for women with stepkids. A regular “girls night out” or occasional massage or even just finding time to read a novel are key to preventing stepmaternal burn out.
5.Â Resolve to lower the bar. This one’s easy! In general, stepparents will do well to do less — less attempting to blend, less trying to win the kids over, less acting as a family and marital counselor. Stepmothers can take a lesson from stepfathers here: stepfathers generally report lower levels of involvement in the early years of stepfamily formation — and kids report higher levels of satisfaction with stepfathers than with stepmothers. There are lots of factors to consider, but a big one is the ability to step back, and let the relationship develop on its own terms, in its own time.
6.Â Learn to fight. That’s right. It’s a skill. And couples with kids from previous relationships are going to need it. Find a “hot topic” communication formula that works for youâ€¦and use it. This can include “I sentences” versus accusations (“When you say that I feel . . . ” instead of “You always do X!”), as well as communication formulas found in Stepmonster and other books listed in “resources” below.
7.Â Find the right things to do together. Eye-to-eye activities, like sitting down to talk, are always more stressful for steps than are shoulder to shoulder ones. Try doing a puzzle, playing a board game (Scrabble can be a good one if the stepkids are older) or doing arts and crafts together. And understand that unlike first families, stepfamilies bond best one-on-one. All-together activities tend to activate everyone’s fears of being an outsider.
8.Â Get out of the house, and invite family and friends in. Stepparents in particular need to balance the sense that they are something of an “outsider” in the household with plenty of time with family and friends who help them feel like an insider. Stepkids of any age will feel less “on the spot” if there isn’t endless attention trained on their every move, and they are part of a living, lively household that gives them a sense of security and belonging.
9.Â Resolve not to treat the kids like royalty. Kids of any age who turn up want to feel included and comfortable, and that doesn’t happen when parent and stepparent bend over backwards to accommodate their every whim, or design their days around a step/child’s desires. Making him or her part of what you do normally, plus some alone time with mom or dad, will helps kids feel like family rather than guests.
10.Â Find a place. Give a stepchild who doesn’t live with you something that is always the same — if it can’t be a whole closet, then a spot in one, a regular place at the dinner table, and so on. And stepparents, be sure to find a place in the house that is just for you. When stepfamily life gets momentarily tense — which is inevitably will — you will have a place to escape and recharge.
Â©2009 Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., author of Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do
About the Author:
Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., is a social researcher and the author of Stepmonster: a New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do (2009). She is a regular contributor to Psychology Today (www.psychologytoday.com) and blogs for the Huffington Post and on her own web site (www.wednesdaymartin.com). She has appeared as a stepparenting expert on NPR, the BBC Newshour, Fox News and NBC Weekend Today, and was a regular contributor to the New York Post’s parenting page. Stepmonster is a finalist in the parenting category of this year’s “Books for a Better Life” award.
A stepmother for nearly a decade, Wednesday lives in New York City with her husband and two sons. Her stepdaughters are young adults.
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