Over and over and over again, lately, I’ve been hearing women online and in person say that their husbands and partners get angry at them for not loving their stepkids enough. That they don’t know how to pretend they love their stepchildren when they don’t. Or that they just feel guilty for not loving or sometimes even liking their stepkids.
I’m very lucky that the Lovely Man doesn’t buy into this garbage, but it seems that many, many men do. I’d say it’s the single biggest criticism I hear of men directing at their stepmother wives and partners – that they “aren’t loving enough” or “you don’t love my kids like you love your own”.
My question is, do these men expect their kids to love the stepmum like the kids love their mother?
(This is a purely rhetorical exercise, by the way – the answer is guaranteed to be “Of course not!”)
Stepfamily writers and therapists agree that it is completely unreasonable for bio-parents to expect this love from their partners, and it just makes it harder for the stepparent to integrate into the family. There’s actually a psychological term for this problem: “The Myth of Instant Love”. Despite this, studies show that over half of men expected their wives to be “more maternal” with their stepkids than they turned out to be.
Not only is this expectation unreasonable – it’s misguided. Oftentimes kids in loyalty binds don’t want you to love them anyway! And the more loving, warm and appealing they find you, the more they will feel driven to reject you.
I experienced quite a breakthrough recently with Boy A on this issue.
It came about when we were all in the car together on the way out to dinner or something and Boy C announced, completely out of the blue (as he does):
You don’t love us like our mummy loves us!
I’ve always had an honesty bug when it comes to those moments of challenge, so without even thinking much, I replied:
No, I don’t love you like your parents love you, because parents love their kids in a different way from other people. I really care for you guys and want you to be happy, but I don’t love you the same way your mum and dad do. That’s their job.
There were no complaints or arguments from the backseat, just satisfied expressions. It made sense to them, and I suspect they actually liked hearing it – I think it reassured them that I wasn’t trying to take their mum’s place, if that makes sense. Boy A’s behaviour towards me improved dramatically from that point of the visit, and has continued to improve since. My stepmother instinct tells me that something about that conversation fell into place for him.
To his credit, the Lovely Man handled it well, too. I told him about the research that says that very loving, “mother-style” stepmothers are hard for kids to handle when there are loyalty demands placed on them. And the outcome kind of spoke for itself.
The thing is, I do have some quite loving feelings towards the Boys at times. But I am not going to pretend that those feelings are the same as a biological parent might feel. It’s just so obviously not true.
Nobody can wave a magic wand and make a stepfamily into a first family, however much some men wish it would happen. I think some of them expect their partners to love their kids mostly so they can feel like they’ve replaced the first family that “broke” and thereby “make up” to the kids for the divorce. Like so much else, it’s a guilt thing.
You may never love your stepkids (or you might love them differently from each other) and they may never love you. As long as you are fair and kind, that’s all anyone should expect. Hopefully you’ll eventually develop a relationship that feels ok for you and for them. And as Wednesday Martin says in “Stepmonster”, that’s probably a “good enough” relationship.
If you are copping pressure on the love question, a solution might be to do a stepfamily course together with your partner. The Lovely Man and I did one early on with Relationships Australia, and the group leaders really drilled it into us that demanding a stepparent love stepkids “like their own” is unrealistic, unhelpful and unnecessary.
And that was only one of the benefits – it certainly didn’t hurt for us to be told, over and over, that for the success of our stepfamily we needed to put our relationship first and have lots of one-on-one couple time…
Are you expected to love your stepkids, “like you own” or at all? Do you?