- Family and Parenting
The Not So Wicked Step-Mother, by Melissa Littles
The role of Stepmother at times can seem to be an impossible anomaly. When you care, you are overstepping, when you back off you are unfeeling. When you participate you are intrusive, when you don’t you are uninterested. When you provide you are trying to buy them, when you don’t you are self-serving. If you discipline, how dare you. If you don’t, it is proof of your poor parenting skills. Every positive effort can invite a negative reaction. Being a stepmother is at times like a continual “Catch 22”.
It is important to remember that in most cases, when entering a relationship which will potentially lead to you becoming a stepmother, you are in a way like a guest at a party. The problem is there are three hosts, and only one has invited you. Your partner readily offered you an invitation and proudly announced your arrival. Unfortunately, the other two hosts, namely the ex-wife and the children, never asked for your presence. From the moment you enter the room, you are in a sense the party crasher. So much for your grand entrance.
So you crashed the party...now what? Your first instinct may be to stake your claim at your right to be there, after all you were invited. Of course we all know this is not an effective way to win over an angry crowd.
Working in Family Law for twenty years has given me a great amount of insight into the dynamic of blended families. I myself, raised in a blended family, and being divorced, experienced my own daughter having a step-mother, actually several stepmother's over the years. What I have learned in both working with mothers, fathers, children and stepparents is the number one factor which is overlooked the most, is also the main factor which holds the true importance.....the feelings of the children.
Adults are prideful people. It is human nature. Women, specifically mothers, are very prideful people. We are also protective. Protective of our children, protective of our title, and protective of all that being a mother encompasses.
In all my years of Family Law, I would say that in the majority of new marriages, the number one source of conflict for most couples is in how the ex-wife relates with the new wife. Although I have seen cases where the ex-wife and new wife got along great, it doesn't happen that often. I do see it tend to gradually head down the path of civility, sometimes even the path of cordial friendliness, but it's most usually a long, winding path full of detours and road blocks. The number one source of conflict in that respect, can most always be brought back to pride.
I've experienced all kinds of stepmother's over the years. Not only because of my line of work, but also from the personal experience of being the ex-wife and having several new wives in and out of my daughter's life over the years. Additionally, I myself am a stepmother. It's interesting to see the differences looking in from all angles. In work, I have the advantage of having no personal interest in the dynamic, which makes looking at the whole picture unbiasedly much easier. It also gives me the perspective I need when dealing with personal situations of my own in being a stepmother and an ex-wife. It is hard to justify bad behavior on your own part when just earlier in the day you advised a client against engaging in the same bad behavior....hypocrisy rears its head quickly in that regard, and I consider that a blessing.
One of the biggest complicating issues for children of blended families is the insecurities of the adults in the relationship. These insecurities can manifest themselves in many ways, although the core issue is typically prideful insecurity expressed through anger, actions and reactions. Unfortunately, the impact of those insecurities almost always has a more negative impact on the children, rather than the adult target.
The role of the stepmother is a complex one, but a good rule of thumb is to always think about how your actions, reactions and words will impact the children. The "two wrongs don't make a right" theory should always apply. As a stepmother you may have the best intentions in your actions, but may still be taken completely out of context by the ex-wife and/or the children. If the ex-wife is expressing negativity about you to her children, you do not have to engage in the same behavior. It may be your gut instinct to defend yourself, however, you have to remember that your actions and your actions alone will formulate what your stepchildren think of you. Of course they will be influenced by their mother, that is a given. However, each time you react in a negative light in front of your stepchildren only confirms to them that their mother most likely has a valid point. This is not to say that you cannot address these issues with the ex-wife in some way which does not involve the children's knowledge, but that in itself is most likely to backfire as well, as they will most likely be subject to hearing about your reactions through the eyes of their mother later. I have learned, that the best defense against negativity as a stepmother, is to consistently be the person you want your stepchildren to see. One important thing to remember in that regard is that any time you disparage a child's parent, you are disparaging the child. They are a part of their parents, they will always be protective of their parents, they have every right and instinct to feel partial to their mother over you, regardless of their mother's actions. And their mother has every right to feel protective of her children. It is what mother's do. There is not a mother out there who hasn't had a least a twinge of contempt over the new wife. Those who say otherwise are not being honest. How we deal with the new blended family is entirely up to us.
There are plenty of mother's who make the mistake of letting their emotions get the best of them when facing the remarriage of their former spouse. As mentioned earlier, this can usually be attributed to pride. Pride comes in many forms. Anger, resentment, jealousy, insecurity and even hostility. While it must be noted that many mothers simply make a misinformed decision from the start that the new wife is a horrible person, regardless of the facts. Many ex-wives are so taken aback that the remarriage has happened they don't have time for rationale to kick in prior to raw emotion. As a way of protecting their own emotions and feelings over the situation, they predetermine nothing good can come from the new wife, and they are done.
There are situations when a mother will be completely justified in her feelings. Mothers have a keen sense of those who are around their children. Just as they can sense a "bad crowd" of friends, they can also sense a bad decision by their ex-husband in picking a new partner. I have counseled many a mother who is beside herself over the new "trophy" wife who is 20 years younger, monopolizing the father's time with his children, and exposing her children to "ungodly" things. I have had many a mother be absolutely spot on and have still told them the same thing. Legally speaking, unless there is something unlawful, unsafe or abusive going on, she is going to have to learn to deal with it. Dad will have visitation, things will happen you do not approve of, you will not spend your life in court over it, nor will a judge entertain it. I myself, have been in that situation. I was right, I knew it, I knew my ex, I knew he had made a horrible mistake, I wanted nothing more than to shout it from the roof top. But I didn't do it. I forced myself to take what I knew to be true from working in family law and I made myself stick to it.
My 4 year old would come home with a full face of clownish make-up, bright glitter nail polish which would not come off, toys I did not approve of, and stories of activities I would have never allowed her to engage in. She told me how her stepmother asked her to call her "Mommy" and was dressing her as a twin to her own daughter. With my blood boiling each time I heard another account, I forced myself to ask the same simple questions to my daughter...."did any of that upset you or is there anything that you don't like about her doing those things?" As hard as it was being a mother to hear my child quickly say "no, it's fun at Dad's, we play dress up and she tells me to come home and tell you all about it", I had to step back, take many deep breaths and say to my child..."I'm so glad you had a good time". Make no mistake, I was on the phone to her father the second I knew she was asleep, but after a few months I realized I was making a mistake in wasting any energy on that. It dawned on me the "trophy" wife had to be miserable. For someone to be that insecure to go out of her way each time my child spent time with her to formulate scenarios she clearly knew I disapproved of, and to send my child home with detailed instructions of how to relay the information to me, spoke for itself. And there was no amount of fun or dress-up or make-up or toys that could ever diminish the love my daughter had for me, and I knew that. So it all came back to pride. I had to recognize that my protective nature as a mother was really not necessary in that particular situation. Although there are situations where children genuinely are put in harms way or subjected to inappropriate circumstances, I knew for my daughter, that was not the case. And I knew I had to be the grown up and admit, I was only upset about how it made me feel. It made me angry, it made me feel insecure that my daughter was having so much fun doing things I did not allow in my home. They weren't dangerous, just ridiculous. Knowing this, I had to force myself to realize that if I started forbidding and voicing my dissatisfaction and allowing my child to hear my own personal opinions about the situation, it would only cause her anxiety, pain and confusion over how she perceived she was allowed to feel about her father and her stepmother. No child should ever be made to feel guilty about the relationship they have with their other parent. As much as I wanted to be a "mother bear", scoop up my baby and swipe the intruder with an open claw, I knew it would serve me better to use that energy to mother my child when she was in my care, and not try to "un-mother" someone who saw her only twice a month. Perspective is enlightening when not clouded by your own pride. Less than a year later when that marriage fell apart, I didn't have to say "I told you so", and even better, I could not be blamed for interfering, causing constant turmoil or being the source of any drama. It's hard for a mother to let go of control when it comes to her children, that was absolutely one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.
In being a stepmother I try always to think about two things when interacting with my stepdaughters...I think about how my actions with my stepchildren would feel to me if I were their mother, and I think about how my actions will make my stepchildren feel about me as a person. I have made plenty of mistakes along the way, I have allowed myself to react to things I shouldn't, I'm human. For the most part though, I try to make sure my stepchildren know I respect their Mother's role as their mother, and I respect my role as being their stepmother.
The line from the movie "The Stepmom" is so true..... "Mommy, if you want me to hate her, I will". Children love their parents. Children love their mothers. It is just as much of a struggle for a child to feel comfortable in expressing their feelings for their stepmother as it is for the mother to accept it. A child will feel torn and guilty about liking their stepmother if they have any idea that their mother is in anyway upset by the stepmother's presence in their life. Instead of being defensive of this as the stepmother, for me at least, I choose to be overly sensitive to it.
My stepchildren are teenagers. I came into their lives as teenagers, so that in itself lends a whole different dynamic than marrying someone with small children. For me, I am simply who I am. I am not their mother, nor do they need me as a role model of a mother, they have one. I am there to be supportive of them, to listen to them if they need me, I am involved in their activities because I am proud of them and interested in seeing them grow as women. I spend time with them because I enjoy their company. They know the rules in my house, and without having to "mother" them or "wicked stepmother" them, we have all come to an understanding of what is acceptable and what is not. I have told them that I respect the fact that having a stepmother is nothing they wished for. They had no say in the matter, they didn't choose me, they didn't choose to have a little brother, they didn't choose for their own parents to stop loving each other. Their lives were permanently changed not only once, when their parents divorced, but again when their father remarried. They had no choice in that and I do not take that lightly. I respect their past before I entered the picture, and I am not ever going to make them feel as if they can't talk about the past, or the present, when it comes to their mother. Likewise, I will never "stake my claim" and pound the issue of me being in their mother's role now, so to speak. I am not in that role and never could be.
You have to be able to have a relationship with the children and a marriage with their father which is completely separate of their mother. You have to be secure enough in who you are to their father to acknowledge he loved their mother, and loved her deeply, and had children with her and a family, and years of fun times before the bad times. You have to be secure enough and motherly enough to feel genuinely bad that they divorced. It worked out great for you after the fact, but these children lost their family. Respect that. Don't allow divorce statistics to diminish the impact of divorce on the children. Be who you are and build your relationship on that.
Being a good stepmother is in a way being a good mother first. Being able to always look at your role as the stepmother taking into consideration the feelings of the children first is key. There are plenty who would say they could care less about the ex-wife, her feelings, or how you being the stepmother and new wife makes her feel. They are divorced now and it's not your problem as the new wife. You may think stomping your foot and demanding respect in your new role is justified. The honest truth is, if you are truly secure in your role as the new wife and stepmother, you will never have a need to stomp. You may not like the ex-wife, you may not agree with how you are treated or spoken of by her, you may have every legitimate right to feel that way. However, how you react to those emotions and situations in front of HER children will determine how HER children view you in the long run. The bottom line at the end of the day is you will be judged by your own actions. Always thinking as a mother first will help you remain focused on the true importance....the feelings of the children.
As a final note, I am absolutely honored to have my stepchildren in my life. They both bring such a joy and energy into my world that is unique to who they are. They are both beautiful, intelligent, driven sparks of life. They make their father in part, who he is. They drive him to be a dedicated father they are proud of. They drive us both crazy at times, but I cannot imagine life without them. The fact still remains....I crashed their party. The blessing is, I have been able to stay for the dance.