Are you a childless woman partnered with a man who has children? Over the past decade, I've worked with and received volumes of emails from childless (or child-free) women who are partnered with someone with children. Their lament is common and understandable:
"I never knew it would be this hard."
"I'm treated like a second class citizen."
"My opinions and observations aren't valued because I'm constantly being told that because I'm not a mother myself, I couldn't possibly understand how to raise kids."
"No matter how hard I've tried to be a part of my partner's life with his/her children, I continue to feel like an outsider."
The feeling of being an "outsider" and wondering if it will ever go away is almost universal for every childless stepmother I've worked with (and many stepmothers with children as well).
There are solutions to these feeling of alienation but they may be hard to embrace because we are surrounded by a culture that is addicted to happy endings and one that stubbornly refuses to let go of the "Brady Bunch" myth and the elusive "blended" family.
The reality is this: If you are a childless woman partnered with someone with children, you are an "outsider". There is a ready-made biological system already in place -- a system that came into existence years before you made your entrance.
I've yet to meet a stepchild who felt the same way about their stepmother as they did their biological parents, even when the biological parent was absent (through death or abandonment), unhealthy or extremely dysfunctional.
Despite the logic that this seems to defy, it is vital that anyone partnered with someone with children remember that the loyalty binds that children naturally feel towards their parents, especially their mothers, are real and enduring.
This is why feeling like an outsider in one's stepfamily system is to be expected. You feel like an outsider because in a very biological sense, you are.
It is a humbling position stepmothers and especially childless stepmothers find themselves in. It's hard to not take it personally when stepmothers show real and genuine care for their stepchildren only to have those feelings rejected or pushed away.
If you find yourself in this position, know that you are not alone! Even stepmothers with children feel like outsiders when they are with their partners and their children. The following five tips may will help quell the lonely feeling that stepmothers so often feel:
1. Accept that feeling like an outsider when your partner is with their children is normal and natural. Accept that this has a high probability of never changing. (Mavis Hetherington's longitudinal study shows that fewer than 20% of young adult stepchildren report feeling close to their stepmothers). Know that you are not alone, and find support in other childless stepmothers who understand and can validate your feelings.
2. Make sure that your partner understands your feelings. Ask them to make every attempt to include you in conversations and activities with their children. Make sure that your partner is making sure that their children are treating you with basic common courtesy and respect, as you are doing for them.
3. Don't take it personally. A stepkid's rejection, indifference or non-involvement with you isn't about you. This would most likely be happening to any partner their father chooses and is more a projection of the grief and lack of control they may feel about their parent's divorce and subsequent repartnering. Remember the power of the loyalty binds that children naturally have and their understandable desire to be close to their biological parents.
4. Stay connected to you. Make sure that self-care and self-love are cemented into the core of who you are. Know that your worth and value comes not from the approval of others, but your own strong sense of loving who you are. Make sure you are taking time each day for you, i.e. exercising, meditating, yoga, etc.
5. Focus on your partnership. Be aware that there is a high divorce rate for second marriages; approximately 67% of remarriages with children end in divorce. Why? One of the top stressors is the relationship with the children. Of course, biological parents have the highest responsibility for the needs of their children. But this does not mean they should allow the needs of the children to smother the relationship. Focusing on the marriage serves as a good model for children as to what is needed to maintain a healthy and happy long-term relationship. It also helps ensure that they will not have to go through a second divorce. Have date night once a week!
Being a childless stepmother is a difficult role. Be easy on yourself and your stepchildren and make conscious efforts to drop that rope between your fantasies and the realities of stepfamily life. As you let go, you will feel more empowered and liberated.