Tag Archives: Stepmonster
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?
I’ve been on unplanned blog downtime for a month or so now.
Life has felt very overwhelming. Kid stuff, ex stuff, relationship stuff, me stuff, Lovely Man stuff, our incredibly dense schedule, and the endless travel and separation from the Lovely Man that being an involved long-distance stepmother entails have all been taking a heavy toll on my “sparkle”.
There is lots of research out there on the high rates of depression experienced by stepmothers, presumably for all the reasons above and then some extras. Wednesday Martin talks a lot about this less than delightful aspect of stepfamily life on her blog, and in her book, Stepmonster.
I thought, apparently incorrectly, that being aware and educated about stepfamily life was going to keep me well. That knowing that I wasn’t alone, that almost every other stepmother on earth was experiencing or had experienced similar stuff could bolster me against the slow bleed of joy, the takeover of my old life by stepfamily dramas. In the end, though, it seems that even having the biggest stepfamily library in the Southern Hemisphere is not by itself enough insurance.
For other stepmothers and anyone else in the same place, I’ve come across a fantastic book, The Depression Cure by Stephen S. Ilardi. It’s all commonsense stuff, mostly, but it feels right.
So I’m fighting back and trying hard to rebuild a basic self-care regime of exercise, getting outside, avoiding rumination, seeking connection and eating better.
Part of my get well plan is also this blog, which my psychologist has suggested I return to as part of feeling like myself again.
I also need to recommit to speaking up about what is and isn’t okay with me, instead of being what conflict professionals call a “Care Bear” – someone who gives away more than is sustainable for them. It might seem all nice on the surface to be Ms-Endlessly-Supportive-Sucks-It-Up, but in the end, playing Care Bear is a guaranteed happiness killer.
Changing these habits is hard, and I have to take a deep breath each time I say something that goes against my fluffy pastel nice-girl instincts, but there have been some big wins for honesty in the last week or so.
It’s not easy on the Lovely Man, being part of all this while having a lot to cope with himself. I’m very grateful for his support.
So anyway, I’m back – a bit weak and watery at present, but hoping to be back in full voice ere long.
So, with just a couple of blips, my last week with the Boys turned out to be a good one.
I continued to focus on the strengths in my relationships with Boys B and C and to give Boy A lots and lots of space.
To give background, Boy C quite often has nightmares, coming into our room frightened at two or three in the morning maybe twice a week.
(The Lovely Man, bless him, always gives him a cuddle and puts him back to bed, or sits with him in his room until he’s sleepy and comfortable, depending on how quickly he feels safe again. I love Boy C dearly, but am ecstatic that kids climbing into our bed is a by-invitation-only event.)
The morning after his first nightmare this visit, I asked Boy C about his bad dreams and the “bad thoughts” he often has before going to sleep. He described his dream, and I listened.
The I asked him what he thought would help him have better dreams.
He said that at his Mum’s he has a dreamcatcher and that he thinks it stops the bad dreams.
Specifically, little Mister Precise Young Scientist said:
Well, it probably isn’t really actually true magic, but it helps me feel good about going to sleep and then I have good dreams.
I promised to buy him one, but the Lovely Man suggested that we make one instead.
Child of the Age of Googlearius that I am, the internet was mined pronto and spat forth reasonably simple instructions.
So I bought ingredients and, over a couple of afternoons, we set to work.
It was interesting observing my teaching style, and the different ways Boys B and C set about the various tasks.
I tried to use scaffolding, a set of teaching techniques where you show kids what they need to do for each stage and then let them do it, encouraging problem-solving along the way, thus building on their new skills step-by-step. They told me what they wanted help with and I played assistant to their creative directorship.
Boy C decided not to struggle through the traditional weaving technique to make the net pattern. Instead, he held the suede-covered ring and directed me precisely where to weave in each section of thread. His pattern turned out a bit chaotic but very effective.
Boy B was more hands-on and decided to make a starburst shape with his weaving. He also made plans to extend his dreamcatcher with a second, smaller ring hung from the main woven section.
Both Boy B and C chose headache-bright fluorescent feathers for the streaming tails of their dreamcatchers. Here is Boy C’s, photographed with my iPhone.
I was so impressed with how the Boys handled this project. Both of them showed a lot more patience with the process than I expected. They persisted, Boy B even completely rewinding the suede thonging around the ring to get a more even finish.
I felt really proud, too, when the Boys suggested that they would like to give the extra dreamcatcher I made as a trial run to my nephew, D, as a present from the two of them.
Seeing their catchers above their beds makes me smile; they hang as a momento of a time when we really enjoyed each other’s company.
It was interesting to watch Boy A’s reaction to my less engaged approach to him during the week.
He obviously noticed the difference; not because I was cold or nasty or left him out, but because I stopped seeking his approval and putting him front and centre, and so created less opportunities for him to demonstrate his feelings towards me.
My new choices made the situation much easier on me and even, I suspect, on him.
So, for instance, when I bought dreamcatcher materials I bought three sets, just in case Boy A wanted to be involved, but when I was setting up the crafting table I said to him, in a very low-key way:
There’s enough if you’d like to do one, too, Boy A, but I thought you probably wouldn’t.
No thanks, it’d be a bit….
and let the sentence trail off.
Previously, I would have been all:
Rah! Rah! I really want you to do one! It’ll be fun! I chose your favourite colour!
And his response would have been a much more direct and explicit rejection of me, the whole stupid idea and even, most likely, his suddenly-no-longer-favourite colour.
After all, as Wednesday Martin says in her (life-changing) book Stepmonster, for a child in a loyalty bind, the internal emotional pressures of feeling like they are betraying their mum can be exacerbated by a stepmum they find fun or warm or who seems to want to befriend them.
I’ve seen Boy A loosen up and obviously enjoy my company from time to time in the past; I’ve also seen him “snap-back” into highly rejecting behaviour afterwards, once he realised the terrible thing he had done what had happened.
Without my efforts to bridge the gap with him, he seemed more relaxed. I was more relaxed. There was even a funny moment where he was looking with interest at some nature pictures I’d emailed the Lovely Man – until he realised they came from me. The sudden change in his face was so comical that I said, very lightly:
Gosh, Boy A, it’s amazing how much cooler the animals in the pictures were before you heard that, hey?
He nodded, trying very hard to hold back a tiny wry grin, despite the almost audible siren of his inner voice wailing
DO NOT SHOW ENJOYMENT! DO NOT LIKE THIS WOMAN!
I think we both had a little inward chuckle at that.
Quite often in the past, my attempts to connect with Boy A have resulting in dismissive behaviour and even hurtful complaints about me to the Lovely Man. Certainly he was very much aware that I was trying hard to build a relationship with him, and in true loyalty bind fashion, the harder I tried the more he felt as though he had to demonstrate that he couldn’t possibly accept me.
This week, while it wasn’t suddenly happy families, at least we had something a lot closer to peace.
And in stepfamily terms, that’s almost a dream come true.
Recently a friend of mine (You know who you are, Miss A!) became involved with a great guy…. who has two young kids living with their mum in another country.
Now, I’m pretty open with my friends and family about the reality of stepparenting as I experience it. The last thing anyone needs when they are just getting into an exciting new romance, though, is a lot of warnings about this problem and that difficulty they may – or may not – encounter.
Remembering how starry-eyed (admittedly in a slightly anxious way) I was about the idea of the Lovely Man’s kids prior to meeting them (I love kids! Kids love me! They’re so cute! It’ll be fine!), and how unseemly I found the occasionally cynical comments of other more experienced stepparents, there might be a place for offering resources that will give a new stepmum something to draw on during the confusing early phases, but without overwhelming her with horror stories.
(It’s interesting that the process of becoming a new stepmum can perhaps be equated, in this respect if no other, to that of a first-time pregnancy. Ideally, you get support; more often, I gather, everyone wants to tell you their grisliest war stories!)
So, mindful of Stef’s great post 10 things to know about step-parenting, Jacquelyn Fletcher’s post on How To Be A Stepmom’s Friend and my own “What I Wish I Had Known” series, here are five practical, useful ways I think women who’ve “been there” could consider offering help to new stepmothers.
1. First up, be gentle!
Dr Patricia Papernow described the various stages of stepfamily development. Specifically relevant to new stepmothers is the first “fantasy” stage, driven by the expectation that everything will work out beautifully and the new family will be “just like” a nuclear family, full of love and rainbows and unicorns.
While this stage may be terribly unrealistic, it’s also the last chance some women will have for a while to feel really positive and hopeful about their stepfamilies, so personally I’m not going to go around bursting any bubbles. Chances are it will wear off soon enough!
Offer to be there to talk. Preferably without implying that you’re expecting any 3am panic calls.
2. If it hasn’t happened yet, encourage her not to put too much pressure on herself about the “big” first meeting with the kids.
Personally, I nearly drove myself over a precipice of stress and anticipation leading up to the first time I met the Boys and the Lovely Man was also extremely concerned about how it would all play out, so I internalised waaaay too much of an “end of the world” perfectionistic standard for the encounter.
More recent experience and confirmatory accounts from other stepmums have since shown me that the much-hyped first meeting isn’t usually that crucial. There’s often a bit of a honeymoon period in terms of the stepkids’ reactions to Dad’s new partner anyway, and for many kids it also seems to take a while to sink in that you’re there for the long haul.
So I would reassure women in this position not to beat themselves up too much about the first meeting. Barring accidents, it’s the meeting after that and after that and after that, i.e. once a comfort zone has been established, when any problems are most likely to show up.
3. A copy of Wednesday Martin’s Stepmonster, or your own favourite stepparenting book.
It’s probably best to avoid giving anything too gritty. I remember reading Cherie Burns’ Stepmotherhood early on and finding it painted stepmother reality in tones of panic-inducing darkness before I was ready to give up those charming fantasies of instant mutual love and appreciation. Or even to recognise that I had them.
Apparently, research shows women read twice as many books about stepfamily dynamics as men. There’s a good chance that a new stepmum will be really, really wanting to “get it right”; good books will at least give her a heads-up on what she might expect and how normal it is to feel [insert disconcerting emotion here].
4. A chatty email with links to a few online resources “just in case you’re interested”.
Maybe NOT to the sites that describe horrible knock-down, drag-out battles with an evil ex, though – more the supportive, resource-focused ones. Down the track sometime, Jacque Fletcher’s Stepmom Circles podcasts on a CD to listen to in the car or on her iPod might be a thoughtful gift.
You could also mention, in passing, a stepfamily course or group that you have found helpful. If the new stepmother is interested or becomes interested later, she’ll know to ask you for contact details.
5. Advice – or not?
As most of us have experienced firsthand, stepmothers tend to get overwhelmed by advice, most of which is pretty counterproductive.
“Act like an aunt.” “Don’t try to be their mother!” “Be a mother-figure.” “You’d better love them like your own!” “They’ll resent you forever – learn to deal with it.”
Role ambiguity, anyone?
To avoid advice-induced overwhelm, try to limit giving advice unless asked, maybe to a single idea you’ve found really useful.
(Note: However much you might be tempted, screeching “Run! Run like the wind!” won’t work and will just induce a sense of “I told you so” if hassles do arise down the track.)
As a fly-in, fly-out stepparent myself, the only advice I gave my friend was not to assume that because her new partner’s kids lived overseas they wouldn’t be a massive part of his and her day-to-day lives.
On the contrary, I’ve found that the kids are ever-present in our life as a couple. Which I guess would only come as a surprise to someone who doesn’t have kids themselves!
What would you offer a brand-new or soon-to-be-stepmother?