by Chris Gonzalez, M.MFT.
Marianne sat weeping in my therapy room with her hands swatting away tears almost as fast as they fell. Never had anyone looked more defeated than she did that day. "I'm a failure, my family will never be normal and my stepson will never love me," she muttered in between teardrops. One-two-three in a row, like the cars of a freight train Marianne had bought into three of the biggest myths of step-mothering. Having been remarried for seven years, her step-mothering experience had been less than perfect; by her account, it had been a nightmare. Probing deeper into her beliefs about what a stepmother is and what one is not, we unearthed some powerful stepparenting perceptions that had been dominating her thinking...and dooming her to failure. She had swallowed hook, line, and sinker three of the most damaging myths of becoming a stepmother.
Stepmother Myth #1
"Stepmothers are Wicked"
Marianne is a nice and caring person and she knows it, or at least she thought that she knew it. However, lurking like a shadowy stalker in the back of her mind was the relentless pursuit of a famous fairy tale stepmother who was most certainly wicked. It was not so much that she envisioned herself as wicked as it was that she assumed everyone else's perception was that she was wicked, especially her new stepson. A classic self-fulfilling prophecy. In her fear of being perceived as the wicked stepmother, she wildly overreacted and made heroic efforts to be perfect. A mistake. Perfection can be a good motivator, but it is not a good goal. Perfection as a goal is only a set up for guilt. Building on her plan of perfection rigged hopelessly to fail, she allowed guilt to guide her interaction with her stepson. With one perceived failure after another fueled by guilt and a desperate felt need for perfection, it was inevitable (in her mind) that she was actually what everyone thought she was, a wicked stepmother.
I sat with her stepson in another session and asked him how he felt about his stepmother. Amazingly, his first words about her were that he loved her. Billy went on and on about what she did for him as I sat pondering if this was really Marianne's stepson. In the end, the conflict between Billy and Marianne ended up being commonplace for stepfamilies rather than the total disaster that Marianne believed.
Marinanne's perceived failure was born of an impossible expectation; that she could replace Billy's mother. There is no way a stepmother can fill the role of a biological mother. However, Billy did not want Marianne to be his mother. What he wanted was for her to be his stepmother. By seeking to be all to Billy that his biological mother was, Marianne violated Billy’s loyalty to his biological mother. Her "wickedness" loomed unnecessarily as she innocently and unwittingly violated a normal and healthy boundary for Billy. Far from being wicked, Marianne's well-intentioned efforts were simply misdirected.
Debunking the wicked stepmother myth centers on creating realistic expectations for yourself as the stepmother. Your true self is the loving, patient and compassionate image of God you were created to be. Replacing the biological mother and fulfilling the stepchild's every need is not likely to bring immediate success, if any success at all. Being a consistent and patient true self over time will earn you more points with the new stepchildren than any grand plans for being anything and everything for them. Waiting and being a solid true self over time will allow the stepchild freedom to invite you into a relationship of trust and confidence that you could never force, buy or bribe your way into.
Words of Wisdom
Whether you are in business, a teacher, in the medical profession, I dare say that in all the world, a more difficult job than stepparenting cannot be found. You know that you are a nice and competent person wanting to fill your role well. However, it seems the world has other ideas about what you are capable of doing. There is tension as a stepmother. Sometimes you are called on or expected to take a more active role in parenting than your new husband, but at the same time expected to keep your distance as they are his children, not yours. With a tension between parenting more directly than the biological father and keeping appropriate distance, you have entered the murky waters of an ill-defined role. The expectations for stepmother run the gamut from taking over the biological mother’s roles exactly as she did them to being a person who happens to live at the same house as the father.
The "wicked stepmother" myth may be the most powerful force in remarriage for new stepmothers. In your vulnerable state with your new husband’s children, it would be easy to believe you have fallen into the trap of the wicked stepmother myth. Conflict with your new stepchildren is inevitable, but that does not make you wicked. You may be the target that the stepchildren choose to lob their unreconciled and angry hand grenades at. You need to remember that anyone who filled the role of stepmother would be the target, not necessarily you the person. And think on this; your relationship with your stepchildren is born of the loss, either by death or divorce, of their mother. You are a reality in their life because someone else that really matters to the children is gone or dramatically changed.
The best way to debunk the myth of the wicked stepmother is to be a consistent and credible self at all times. Overreacting wildly to unrealistic expectations and the downright sabotage your stepchildren may deliver will only reinforce the myth that you are indeed wicked. Your response to the myth and how it is played out over time will either destroy the myth or reinforce it. You know who you are. Patient, kind, consistent and trustworthy are words that describe you. When you have lived these qualities over time, you will be a contagious and irresistibly good stepmother.
Stepmother Myth #2
"We Will Become A Normal Stepfamily"
There is no "normal stepfamily." Though this may come as a frightful epiphany, it can also be a relief beyond all conceivable measure. Ideals in marriage, family, remarriage and stepfamily remain as simply that, ideals. Too many people who remarry try to create the feeling of a biological family, only to fail miserably as loyalty issues surface and resentments build into a cascade of hurt feelings and failures.
Marianne thought that she could be everything to Billy that his own mother had once been. Success, in Marianne’s mind was attaining the feeling of a biological family within the context of a stepfamily. Part of her perception of what would make a successful family came from her own feelings of failure from her first marriage. Deep in her heart, she was making up for her past mistakes during this second go around. Much was at stake for Marianne in this second go-around. She would get it right this time. She had chosen the right man and she would be the right mother to his children. This family would be "normal."
Again, out of the goodness and tenderness of her heart flowed the purest of intentions. All Marianne wanted to do was feel normal. However, she again set herself up for failure. Stepfamilies often have a hard time feeling normal because there are so many different structures of stepfamilies. Unfortunately, the most familiar structure of the biological family, is not an option. More often than not, it is the stepmother who takes on the brunt of the burden to produce the sense of emotional normalcy in the blended family. This task is not just difficult; it is impossible. The biological family cannot be the measuring stick for the blended family. Feeling normal as a stepfamily hinges on one crucial question, "What is a normal stepfamily?" Answering this question does not produce the same stock and cliched answers as pondering what a normal biological family is.
Stepfamilies often times tread unknown roads. The path is not worn and smooth like the biological family path once appeared to be. Becoming a normal stepfamily occupies a sense of discovery and experimentation. As a stepmother, you are an explorer and an adventurer on this road. Making allowance for the rough road will, in time, produce a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Normalcy will become more and more what you discover rather than what you are supposed to be.
Words of Wisdom
Remarriages and stepfamilies must define for themselves through discovery who they are and who they are becoming. Trying to identify the ideal and copying it would be like the boy in school who copied answers off the test of the really smart kids sitting next to him. He received an A on the test, but did not learn a thing. Sure there are some guidelines for blending a family, but there is not just one kind of stepfamily.
Here are some guidelines for stepmothers:
- Acknowledge that the stepchildren have experienced loss.
- Be a learner and a student of your new stepchildren.
- Be a learner and student of your new role as stepmother.
- Make your marriage a great marriage.
- Cooperate with the biological mother and avoid power struggles with her.
- Slowly create new family traditions.
- Read books on stepfamilies. I recommend Ron Deal’s book called, The Smart Stepfamily.
Remarriage Myth #3
"My Stepchildren Will Never Love Me"
Marianne believed 100% that Billy did not love her. Early on in the first year of their newly formed relationship, Billy gave Marianne the one-two punch that crushes the heart of every stepmother. In a heated moment of conflict, Billy said, "...you're not my mother!" and, "...I hate you!" Seven years later, doing the very best that she knew to do, Marianne still filtered every conversation, conflict, and interaction with Billy through those two painful statements. In reality, Billy did love her as his stepmother. And, even though Billy had never told her that he hated her since that first time years ago, in Marianne's mind, it was as if he were saying it everyday.
To stack the deck even more to Marianne's disadvantage, her well-intentioned perception of love dealt her a losing hand every time. To her love meant being everything to Billy that his biological mother was. Again, perfection was her goal. So, success meant that when she was perfect, her stepson would respond by treating her like the perfect son and the whole family would sail into the sunset happily ever after.
In a stepfamily, love evolves differently than in the biological family. It takes many forms of expression. Some days, love is gushy and feely. On other days it is that intangible restraint that keeps one person from knocking the other into next week. The range of expressions and definitions of love widen as stepfamilies are formed. Love is not an ideal; rather, it is performing intentional and gracious tolerance and acceptance despite the imperfect context of other people, and the imperfect context of yourself.
Becoming a stepmother is for the brave of heart and solid of self. Having no legal rights (unless an official adoption occurs), you are left to the power of relationship and love over time. Earning relationship rights with your new stepchildren will be far more powerful than any legal rights can mandate. Swimming in the ocean of patience, forgiveness and willingness creates a context for a relationship with stepchildren that can be a splendid and rewarding surprise, despite the occasional rough waves and stormy seas. In changing some perceptions of what she thought was success for being a stepmother, Marianne discovered very quickly that she really was doing a good job and that her expectations contributed to her feelings of failure more than any other factor. Coming to that realization provided her a real sense of liberation and success as a stepmother.
Words of Wisdom
Your new husband loves you, but that love does not necessarily create any sense of obligation within his children to do the same. In fact, they may decide to hate you as a tactic to get their biological parents back together. Again, it is not necessarily you they hate, but the role you occupy. No child is born with the glorious dreams of having a stepmother. However, when reality crashes down the walls of the ideal, children often resist reality and fantasize about the ideals as if they were still possible.
Your sense of self and capacity for love will be challenged. In all likelihood, your investment of love for your new stepchildren will far outweigh the returns, at first. A good rule for loving your new stepchildren is that love keeps no record of wrong. When this principle is applied, your investment of love towards your stepchildren is like planting bamboo. For a painfully long period of time, it appears that nothing is happening. Even with diligent watering and fertilizing, it can seem like all is lost. But suddenly, a miracle happens and quickly grows a seventy foot tall bamboo shoot. The love you have for your stepchildren will not go unnoticed. And besides, success in love is not that you were loved, but that you loved at all.
Most stepchildren grow to love their stepmothers in some way. Expecting a perfect mother/child relationship is not only an unrealistic goal, it is often an encroachment on the biological mother. The goal is not to replace the biological mother, but rather to develop a loving relationship with clear and defined boundaries wherein all the parties know and agree to the expectations for each other. Respect for each other and allowing space for stepchildren to be stepchildren is the name of the stepmothering game.
You are strong and able to take on the challenge of stepmothering. You are in love with your husband and he loves you. It might be easier if it were just the two of you. However, there are his children and they did not choose you. Besides, they have a mother and she is not you. Yet there you are, not the mother, but the stepmother. You can be sure that when the word "stepmother" is spoken, a silent "wicked" lurks just before it in the shadows of the minds of his children. Initiated into the raw end of a famous fairy tale, you receive a label before you receive a relationship. A quiet and vulnerable, "No Fair!" cries out from the most tender location of your heart. Stay strong and remain solid. You can beat the myths.
Chris Gonzalez is a marriage and family therapist with the Better Life Counseling Center in Jonesboro, Arkansas (www.betterlife.org). He writes a feature column for the Jonesboro Sun and gives seminars on the topics of marriage, family, and faith. Chris and his wife Gail have two children, Sierra and Canaan.