"The kids come first." I hear this mantra every time I'm interviewed about my book Stepmonster, appear on a call-in radio show or just talk to people about divorce and remarriage with children.
Yes, I respond, it's undeniable that conflict between parents pre- and post-divorce can be emotionally devastating for kids. And that's evidence enough that exes should undertake the emotional gymnastics required to Put the Kids First. Don't put each other down in front of the kids--it's torture for them!
But it turns out that putting the kids first is not something everyone should be doing. Particularly stepparents. And especially stepmothers.
Sure, divorced and remarried parents need to carve out time for just the kids when they show up. But shunting the husband/wife relationship to the back burner whenever they are around is, it turns out, a recipe for marital and step-family disaster.
Research is painting a picture of step-family life that will surprise many. For starters, kids resent the addition of a stepmother much more than a stepfather, step-family researcher Mavis Hetherington found in her 30-year Virginia Longitudinal Study of 2,500 individuals affected by divorce and remarriage. And this makes step-mothering an especially draining and demanding role. Indeed, stepmothers suffer from depletion, depression and anxiety far more often than do mothers or stepfathers. That's likely why step-families crater more quickly and more often than first marriages--up to 72% of remarriages with kids end in divorce.
The long and short of it is that step-families are remarkably vulnerable to dissolution, and stepmothers, far from the wicked, powerful excluders we are used to thinking of them as, are usually the least empowered people in the step-family system. In response to these linked facts, many experts and therapists are now emphasizing the need to properly tend to the marriage in a remarriage with children. How does this benefit couples and kids alike?
1. Often, putting kids "first" is interpreted as, "When they show up, drop everything and make it all about them." But this policy merely keeps kids of divorce and remarriage in the status as "special visitor" or "little prince/princess," rather than integrating them into the life of the couple and the step-family, as true family members, the common goal. It's better to share with them some of your rituals as a married couple--gardening on Saturdays, or Friday movie night--and extending an invitation to join.
2. Women with stepchildren reported that their husbands, in a misguided attempt to "put the kids first," frequently withdrew all affection and attention from them when the children were around. For their wives, this understandably made these visits synonymous with losing out on closeness and feeling shunted aside. A little attention--be it hand-holding or a wink--sends a double message to the kids: "My wife matters to me, so treat her with respect," and "A marriage can be important and meaningful." It also props up the stepmom, often the outsider in the step-family architecture, so that she can sustain her energy for the partnership and his kids, even when they're rejecting or ambivalent.
3. If the kids are less-than-enthused about having a stepmother, or in a loyalty bind because mom has not given them permission to like her, Wake Forest University sociologist Linda Nielsen notes that it is particularly counter-productive for the stepmother to siphon energy she would otherwise put into self-care and care for her marriage to attempting to win their love and approval. Focusing on her partnership, her friendships and her work and hobbies will decrease her sense of resentment, and allow her to leave the door open for a time in the future when his kids might be ready for a more reciprocal relationship.
Given the astronomical rate of divorce in remarriages with kids, it's imperative that we rid ourselves, as individuals and as a society, of our dearly held but completely misinformed notion that the partnership has to come second when there's been a divorce with children, or else the children will be ruined for life. The truth of the matter is that the more we have our remarriages revolve around the kids, the more of an outsider the stepmother becomes, and the harder it becomes for the partnership to flourish and the relationship between stepmom and stepchildren to evolve into something meaningful.
It's often the case, Dr. Patricia Papernow notes, that the divorced and remarried dad feels loved, nurtured and supported by the very children who make his wife feel rejected, exhausted, and unappreciated. His job is to invite his wife or partner inside the family, to take a seat by his side at the head of the family table. The deep love he feels for his kids need not interfere with his ability to extend that invitation.