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Editor’s note: This article is the second in a series on blended families and the issues they face. Be sure to read part one: “Blended families are a complex challenge.”
SALT LAKE CITY — The most complex role in every blended family is the role of stepmother. The very word "stepmother" is preloaded with negative connotations. I’d like to have a talk with the person at Disney, who has cast all stepmothers as evil, cruel and unloving. I believe they have made it hard for even the best-intentioned person to rise above that stereotype.
This role is not an easy one either; Jeannette Lofas, a stepparenting expert and author of the book “Step Parenting” explains why it is more complex than being a biological mother. Stepmothers have to battle many of the following challenges:
- You have to deal with a biological mother who might resent you even being in her children’s lives. She might not appreciate what you do for them and may even try to turn children against you or sabotage your marriage to her ex.
- Children who don’t want you in the family and feel jealous about any time their dad spends with you. If he ever chooses you over them, they will start to resent you.
- The children often treat you like a maid (which they may also do to their biological mother) but they are often even more ungrateful toward you.
- Your own needs often must be sacrificed to keep everyone else happy. Not getting your way and being flexible and gracious about it gets hard.
- Your husband feels guilty for the divorce, so he will often choose the kids' happiness over yours.
- You may feel resentment about the amount of money your husband gives his ex and his children, which you are your children don’t get.
- You may feel your husband doesn't see your children’s needs as important as his children’s.
- Your role is a kind of substitute "in the place where the mother was supposed to be" and you know how children treat substitute teachers at school. They often treat stepmothers the same way.
These are just a few of the common complaints and challenges, but there are many more. Feelings of failure, rejection and never being good enough, feeling mistreated, taken for granted, walked on or resented are common. But with some education, time and patience, you can create beautiful relationships with everyone in your family.
Here are some tips and ideas to make your role as step-mother easier:
- Remember you will never be "mother" even if their biological mother is deceased. Lofas says that word and role will always be sacred, and you will do better if you don’t try to replace her. Remember that kids are grieving the loss of the family they had, and this means they are in pain. It is hurting people who hurt people. So, any negativity directed at you really isn’t personal. It is going to take time for them to work through their grief, heal and open their hearts to a new family member. This will require thick skin, patience, and resilience. If you are struggling with this role, find a coach or counselor who can help you maintain mature behavior and mental toughness.
- Don’t disagree with the biological parent in front of the kids. Discuss rules, consequences, parenting styles, and the rules of the house in private and present a respectful, united front to the children.
- Leave most of the discipline to the biological parent when possible. If you must discipline, make sure you are following the agreed upon forms and techniques.
- Spend time strengthening your relationship with your spouse. For you to show a united front to the children, you must have a strong and healthy relationship. I highly recommend reading relationship and parenting books together and getting professional help a regular part of your life.
- Understand that biological fathers often have guilt around the divorce and fear losing their relationship with their kids if they discipline them. This could be frustrating for you, but the way you handle this could make or break your marriage. Get professional help so you learn to discuss these issues with compassion and love.
- Allow your husband to do some things with his children without you. Take this time and pamper yourself or get some "me" time. Of course, you should plan some activities all together too, but a healthy blend is usually best.
- Take the role of a favorite aunt or close family friend, if needed. Be a safe space they can come when they need someone to talk to. Be very slow to judge or advise and really good at listening and asking questions. The more you show them you really like them and who they are, the more they will like you. This is the universal law of friendship: We like people who like us. Tell stepchildren, often, how great they are. Point out their talents and good qualities.
- Expect, at times, to feel rejected and unwanted by his children. These feelings happen for most stepchildren at some point. This comes from love for their mother and grief around the loss of their family. They must be allowed to feel, process and experience these feelings, but their father should make sure they know respect and kindness toward you is not optional. Your best response to rejection is to completely ignore it. Maintain a happy, positive demeanor toward them. Do not pull back and act mad or hurt; this kind of dramatic behavior will only make them lose respect for you.
Be a strong, resilient, mature adult who understands the complex feelings a child will have toward a stepparent. Rise above it all and trust in your value and this journey. It takes years for a stepfamily to fully jell, but the less reactive you can be the better.
If you have trouble with being triggered and creating drama when you feel rejected, insecure, or mistreated, it is your responsibility to get some professional help and work on your triggers. Do this at the first sign of trouble, and you can do this.
To learn more tools to help you thrive in a blended family, consider attending The Smart Stepfamily Conference, Jan. 24-25 in Lehi. For more information visit starcompassfamily.com/ssfconf.
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