Wednesday Martin is the author of the new book STEPMONSTER and she is a parenting expert/columnist and stepparent herself, so she has many insights to offer.
STEPMONSTER shatters many myths about stepmothers and reveals what it's *really* like to be a stepmother. Martin addresses myths such as: if there are problems, it's the stepmother's fault; if she is patient and loving they will come around; if you're likable they will like you; just keeping working at it and your family can be as cohesive and close as a first family, etc. Martin discusses how a woman with stepkids is usually the excluded outsider in the house, vulnerable to depression, burn-out, etc., rather than the empowered monster of myth.
And the most important myth to bust: the myth of the "blended" family. This expectation harms women, marriages, and children more than any other one! By letting this myth go, stepfamilies with find greater happiness and much less stress.
"MYTH BUSTERS" from STEPMONSTERS
MYTH #1: STEPMOTHERS ARE TOUGHER ON THEIR STEPCHILDREN THAN MOTHERS ARE TOWARD THEIR OWN CHILDREN.
Not so and they are not stricter disciplinarians. This in spite of the fact that more stepmothers than mothers reported that they "rarely have fun" with their step/children and rated themselves "worse/stricter" parents. That is to say, stereotypes aside, even though stepmothers have a harder time, they are actually "nicer" and more lenient when it comes to discipline, not crueler or more demanding.
MYTH #2: DIVORCE AND REMARRIAGE - AND ACQUIRING A STEPMOTHER -ARE BAD FOR THE CHILDREN
Divorce and remarriage (getting a stepmother) do not harm children - parental conflict (between mom and dad) does. Over and over, research confirms that children with behavioral and emotional problems after divorce started having problems long before divorce took place, as a result of parental conflict.
MYTH #3: IF A STEPMOTHER TRIES HARD ENOUGH, SHE WILL BE ABLE TO WIN OVER HER STEPCHILDREN
Regardless of her personality, her desire to befriend them and the years of patience and effort she invests in "winning them over," the stepmother will not be able to have a close relationship with her stepchildren without their biological mother's whole-hearted approval. Bottom line: when there is conflict between a stepmother and a stepchild, look to mom to understand why. Most likely, she is giving the kids subtle (and explicit) messages that it is okay, perhaps even required, to be nasty to dad's "new wife."
MYTH #4: STEPMOTHERS AND STEPFATHERS HAVE IT EQUALLY TOUGH.
It's true that being a stepparent can be difficult and thankless for men and women alike. But stepmothers are significantly more likely to experience rudeness, hostile behavior, rebuffs and rejection from stepchildren than stepfathers. Resentment against them tends to be more intense, and more sustained. This is especially difficult for women, since their self-esteem and happiness (unlike men's) is inextricable from their success in relationships. In addition, women with stepchildren deal with stereotypes and biases about wickedness, as well as expectations that all women are maternal, that men with stepchildren do not. It is not surprising, then, that stepmothers are the family members most at risk for exhaustion, clinical depression and suicidal thoughts.
MYTH #5: IF YOUR STEPKIDS DISLIKE YOU, YOU MUST BE DOING SOMETHING WRONG.
In fact, warm and loving stepmothers cause the most severe loyalty conflicts for children. University of Missouri stepfamily researchers Marilyn Coleman and Larry Ganong found that the more appealing, attractive and kind a stepmother is, the more hostility and resentment she will get from her stepchildren if they feel guilty, sensing that befriending her would be a betrayal of mom.
In addition, stepchildren frequently take their anger, hostility, and disappointment with Dad out on his wife. Stepmom is more expendable, an Outsider, so being nasty to her is easier than confronting Dad, who is likely more loved, and whose disapproval is more feared. This dynamic in which stepmom is the Fall Guy, and takes the heat for anger at dad, is very common in a remarriage with children.
Finally, in a dynamic called "conflict by proxy," stepchildren of any age often play out their mom's resentment at stepmom, experiencing and expressing mother's emotions for her.
In these situations, effort has little to do with it; resentment and dislike of stepmom is structural. It can't be fixed by stepmom "trying harder."
MYTH #6: IT'S UP TO THE STEPMOTHER TO MAKE IT WORK WITH HER STEPCHILDREN
The woman with stepchildren is just one piece of the stepfamily puzzle, one player in the stepfamily system. Too often, she takes on the role of family therapist and marriage counselor, exhausting herself and setting herself up for a fall. In truth, stepfamily relations will be successful only if every player in the picture-husband and wife (or partners), kid/s, and ex-is considered responsible and accountable for the outcome. The man with kids must be clear about giving his marriage priority, supporting his wife and letting everyone know that they are now the team. In this way he brings her from the outside to the inside of the family structure. The ex must let her kids know that it's okay to like their stepmom, and that she won't fall apart if they have a relationship with her, loosening the loyalty binds they feel. And the stepkids must be held accountable for any bad behavior toward stepmom, shown immediately that it won't fly, and that they don't have "veto power" over dad's choice of a partner.
If all the other players aren't doing their part, there is little a stepmother can do to "make it work." Holding her solely responsible is misguided and biased.
MYTH #7: BEING A STEPMOTHER GETS EASIER OVER THE YEARS
It's not over when they're 18. Or even when they move out of the house. While it's true that tensions generally abate when stepkids move on literally and figuratively, many women are surprised to discover that, in spite of our expectations to the contrary, stepmothering can actually get more complicated over time.
Events like a stepchild's graduation and wedding, where an ex and the entire extended family is present, can stress the woman with stepchildren and her husband, reopening old rifts and renewing the sense that she is an Outsider. Stepchildren's partners and spouses add a new level of interpersonal complexity (and sometimes difficulty) to the mix. Finally, when a woman has both grandchildren and step-grandchildren, even the most enthused and loving woman may feel spread thin by all her obligations. Or guilty that she loves her own grandkids best. If she has no grandchildren of her own, this can intensify her sense of regret or exclusion. Finally, some stepchildren may not move on from their hostility or resentment even when they reach adulthood. Their failure to resolve old issues from their parents' divorce and father' remarriage may continue to be expressed as resentment toward their stepmother.
MYTH #8: A STEPMOTHER'S NEEDS SHOULD TAKE A BACK SEAT TO THE STEPCHILDREN'S. THEY'RE CHILDREN AFTER ALL.
Experts agree that rather pour her energy into attempting to win the approval and love of her stepchildren, a woman who finds herself in the position of being rejected and rebuffed will do better to focus on herself and her marriage. After all, his kids already have two parents to take care of them and put them first. Stepmom, the research shows, does best when she leaves the parenting to the parents, solidifies her partnership, and takes occasional time away from her husband's kids and even her husband to be with friends and family of her own. This provides relief and rejuvenation, solidifies her sense that she has many successful relationships, and prevents stepparental burn out.