Below are the situational factors which will determine what kind of relationship you have with your stepchildren.
All quotes are taken directly from the aforementioned review of the scientific literature relating to stepmothering, the full text of which is linked at the bottom.
Note that we are only discussing heterosexual relationships here; the social dynamics in households with same-sex parents are necessarily somewhat different … and also have not been as thoroughly explored in the scientific literature.
Factor #1: The Mother
As the survey states, “the single most influential factor” in the situation “seems to be how the mother feels about motherhood and about the children’s having a relationship with their stepmother.” Many mothers — particularly (1) white, (2) middle or upper class, (3) college-educated, (4) stay-at-home mothers who have (5) insecure relationships with their own parents — are extremely jealous and possessive of their children. (The mother of my own stepkids hit 4 of those 5 risk factors.)
This is something you will never be able to influence even a tiny bit, much less control. Absolutely nothing you can do, no reassurance you can give, is going to make her stop being jealous and possessive of the kids. Likewise you cannot influence or control the mother’s marital status (anything but remarried is a risk factor), her parenting style (indulgence, lack of supervision, disorganization, failure to admit children’s problems), her mental and emotional health (depression), or her feelings about finances, all of which play a major role in how the children respond to you. (Note about that last bit: “What matters is not how much money the mother herself earns or how much she receives from the father in child support, but how she feels about her financial situation. … Even when the mother has been well treated financially in the divorce agreement and even when she is well educated with a good income of her own, children can still receive … damaging messages.”
“In short, unless the mother wholeheartedly approves of the children liking or loving their father’s wife, the stepmother usually ends up stressed and hurt. Why? First, the children usually feel too disloyal or too guilty to let themselves like or enjoy their stepmother — let alone to love her. So no matter how hard the stepmother tries, the stepchildren reject her, keep their distance, or view her with suspicion.” Also “the stepmother is often blamed for whatever problems the mother or children are having. And ironically, the stepmother who tries the hardest and who is doing a good job as a stepparent often gets criticized the most.”
“The bottom line is that even the most loving stepmother seldom gets very far with her husband’s children unless she has their mother’s wholehearted approval — which unfortunately is rare.”
Factor #2: The Father
The paper spends a great deal less time on fathers than it does on mothers, which I think is unfortunate, as the father does (unlike the stepmother) have significant control over her relationship with his kids. It does, however, make several salient points.
Because you as his wife or partner have an important relationship with the father, there may be some chance you can influence these factors, though you will never control them. However, it’s also quite possible that nothing you say or do will change how your husband behaves toward you, the children, or his ex-wife. So don’t blame yourself for his choices.
“After a divorce, whichever parent feels extremely guilty is usually the one who gives children the upper hand and who continually excuses the children’s bad behavior.” (Of course, there’s no reason why both parents can’t feel guilty after a divorce, so these circumstances may apply to both households.) “[W]hen a woman marries a guilt-ridden father, part of her stress as a stepmother may indeed come from his being too indulgent or from his continually denying that his children have any shortcomings or any serious problems.”
The overindulgent, permissive divorced father is so common that it has its own popular label: Disneyland Dad. Disneyland Dads are toxic to the children’s well-being and the sanity of anyone trying to be a responsible, boundary-setting parent, be that the mother or the stepmother.
Equally important is that the father is “committed to creating a marriage around which his children revolve rather than a marriage that revolves around his children. … Of course this doesn’t mean that the stepmother and the father never put the children’s needs first or never sacrifice and compromise for the children.” But “[e]specially when his children dislike their stepmother, the father has to make clear that the kids will not be handed the power or given precedence over his marriage. As two fathers put it: ‘You have to come right out and lock hands and let the kids know they’re not splitting you up even if that means the kids want to leave.’ ‘Things didn’t improve until I let my daughter know that, even though I loved her, my ultimate loyalty was to my wife.’”
Obviously, a father’s hostile relationship with his ex-wife will negatively impact the children and their relationship with their stepmother; less obviously, the same is also true if the father allows his ex to behave as though they are still married: “phoning him for advice on personal matters, asking to borrow things from him, wanting him to celebrate special events like Thanksgiving with her and the children, discussing minor details of the children’s lives with him on an almost daily basis, dropping in uninvited to visit when the children are with him.”
Likewise, if the father has poor boundaries regarding finances, it hurts everyone’s relationships. “For example, most fathers who spend extra money for things that are legally supposed to be paid for by the mother from the child support money are not thanked by the mother or the children for being so generous and unselfish.” “[M]any stepmothers and their husbands end up feeling hurt and exploited because his children seem to want money more than love or friendship.”
Factor #3: The Children
The age and gender of your stepchildren will affect your relationship with them: teenagers of both sexes, and boys of any age, are less likely to have a positive relationship with a stepmother.
At least some of this, however, loops back to the natural mother; the way most mothers treat their sons after a divorce is more damaging to their relationships with both their fathers and their stepmothers than the way mothers treat their daughters.
Also and obviously, the mental and emotional health of the children is a major factor. “Children with serious, longstanding problems often get worse when either parent remarries.” Stepmothers are frequently scapegoats in this situation, “accused of actually causing the child’s problems [or] blamed for the child’s not overcoming his or her debilitating condition,” though neither is the case.
Factor #4: The Stepmother
Now we come to the part over which you have some control. Here is the cumulative scientific wisdom on the subject of how to behave toward your husband and stepchildren for maximum family benefit:
Contrary to popular portrayal, most stepmothers err on the side of being “too unselfish and too soft-hearted” and “trying too hard to please” their husband’s children. Your best bet is to adopt the attitude that “[m]y main goal and my main focus is to build an intimate, fulfilling relationship with my husband and to take better care of my own needs, not to bond with or win the approval of my stepchildren.” This approach improves “[t]he stepmother’s mental and physical health, her marriage, and her relationship with the stepchildren.”
“Along the same lines, stepmothers usually feel least stressed when they leave it up to the father to set policies for and discipline his children. This does not mean that the stepmother should never set limits or reprimand her stepchildren. But it does mean that when it comes to establishing guidelines and punishing stepchildren for such things as not doing homework or breaking curfews, the stepmother is less stressed if she leaves these responsibilities to their father.”
Unfortunately, if your husband is a permissive, overindulgent, or neglectful parent who refuses to step up and provide adequate guidance, discipline, or supervision (see above) you are in a double bind: the children will suffer, your home life will be a disaster, and — unless you happen to have the complete support of the children’s mother — you will be helpless to repair the situation.
I do recommend that all prospective stepmothers read the 22 page paper in full. It does have parenthetical citations, but is written in very clear, comprehensible language. Enter your email and you will be given instant access to this ebook and all the others in our database.PIN THIS!