Are you a current or prospective stepmom? For most people, taking on the role of stepparent is an entirely new experience, and presents challenges even the best prepared stepmom couldn't have imagined. Have your partner's children been adversarial? Maybe they shut down and you feel like you can't connect with them. Do you feel lost about how to deal with the changes that are swirling around you?
My mother and I, who both grew up in divorced families and dealt with stepparents of our own, interviewed more than 200 adult daughters of divorce for our forthcoming book, Love We Can Be Sure Of. While they spoke about many issues, their dealings with their stepmoms were especially poignant. Their stories may help you.
"My dad remarried when I was ten, and I did not get along with his wife. I think the major problem was that I didn't respect her. My dad's not rich, but pretty comfortable, and he took care of her every financial need. He treated her like a queen, but didn't give my mom the same treatment when they were married. It was hard seeing her sit in my mom's place at the dinner table and sleeping in the same bedroom that he once shared with my mom." -- Nicole, age 25
When two people divorce, they usually haven't been treating each other well for some time. When a man divorces and finds a new partner, it can feel like a breath of fresh air. He will treat you, the new stepmom, with the love, affection, and adoration you deserve. But this can be hard for his children to swallow because they may not have witnessed their father treating their mother with that same love.
"My stepmom always tried to reach out to me, but I didn't want much of a relationship. She wasn't the type of woman I would have wanted for my dad. He dated other women I liked much more, why did he have to choose Linda? She always told me she wasn't trying to take my mom's place, as if that's what the problem was. The real problem was that I didn't like her." -- Michelle, age 28
Sometimes, with stepmothers and stepchildren, there are conflicts of personality. If they met outside a stepfamily, they still probably wouldn't want to spend time together. During our interviews, we discovered many stepmoms very much wanted to be liked by their stepchildren. When this wasn't achievable, they found being respected by their stepchildren was a more realistic goal.
"When my dad married Shari, everything just went downhill. Although she never outright told me, I know that she would have preferred it if my brother and I were never in the picture, and it was just her and my dad. Every time we have a family gathering, even to this day, there is tension in the air. There's Shari's side of the family and my mom's side of the family, and they want no part of one another." - Katie, age 30
When you fall in love with someone, it's not pleasant hearing details about their ex. In a perfect world, the person you fall in love with will love you and only you. But when you start a relationship with a man who has kids, the reality is that he loved a woman before you, and started a family with her. If you don't embrace this history, children pick up on it, and the work of earning your stepchild's respect becomes that much harder.
For these women, the memories of discord with their stepmothers feels as fresh as it did when they were children. Maybe you're thinking, "I don't want my stepchild to think of me like that!" The truth is that no situation is black and white. Very seldom are these conflicts the result of an evil stepmother and an innocent stepchild. For the most part, people do the best they can with difficult circumstances. Here are some strategies we've found that work:
1. To love the child, you must accept the mother. Even if you don't verbalize your hostility, a child will pick up on it if you don't like his or her mother. You may not outright hate your husband's ex-wife, but you might feel uncomfortable with her or with the role she used to play in your husband's life. Fundamentally, this child came from his or her mother. If you dislike his mother, you are sending a message that you don't care for him or her as well. Whenever you get the chance, find opportunities to reinforce to your stepchildren what you find positive about their mother - even if your husband's ex is not your cup of tea.
2. Give your stepchild something to respect or admire in you. You don't have to pull out all the stops to make your stepkids like you. Let's face it: when you're not related by blood, and you don't really get along, there's not much motivation to make a relationship work. Being genuine and upfront with your stepchildren will help earn their respect.
3. Strive to create a new kind of family. It's important for kids to feel that even though their parents divorced, they still have a family. Remember that as a stepmother, you made a conscious decision to marry a man with children and become part of an extended family. This includes your stepchild's mother. Your stepchild did not choose this. You did. Now is the time for you to step up and do everything you can to be inclusive. This may mean embracing your husband's past, even if it's not the most natural thing for you to do.
Women who become stepmoms and desire a cooperative relationship between themselves, their stepchildren, and the biological parents, are to be lauded for their efforts. Building a stepfamily is no easy task. It requires a special woman with thick skin and a strong heart. Stepfamilies do not form overnight. With time and determination, they can be built, and when done successfully, the effort is worth it.