'You're not my mother!' Those heart-wrenching words can cripple any stepmom. Here's how to keep your sanity...
You love your partner, and he loves you, so everything else (kids and all) will fall into place, right? Not exactly. His children might not accept you, you could feel like you are competing for time with your partner, or you could bash heads with the “real” mom in the story. Stepmoms have a bad rep thanks to cartoons and movies (remember Cinderella?) but in reality they can play an important part in their stepchildren’s lives. So how does a stepmom find her role in the family without rocking (or overturning) the boat?
What's my role?
“Everybody screams ‘swim!’ and walks away from you.” This is how it feels to be a stepmom, according to one woman in the book Stepmonster by Wednesday Martin. Wednesday admits that the role of a stepmom is overwhelming– “you have to blend, to love, to come together, to fix it, to take the high road, to put the kids first, to have a sense of humour in the face of repeated rebuffs.”
As a stepmom you are tasked with managing a new set of family relationships, keeping your own relationship with your partner steady and trying to form a bond with a child who may be confused (or outraged) by your presence.
“Stepmothers may feel anxious and inexperienced not knowing what to do with their stepchildren. They may also feel unsure of their role– whether they should they act as a mother or a friend,” says London-based child and adolescent psychotherapist Mary-Anne Tandy.
However, Jade Paterson, a counselling psychologist from Johannesburg, stresses that the job of the stepmom is an important parental role.“Your partner’s children fromprevious relationships are not just add-ons – they are going to be a significant part of your life.
Your feelings towards and interactions with your stepchildren will contribute to their developing sense of selfworth,” she says. It will take time to gain acceptance and find your place in the family. But, says Jade, even if your parenting role is brushed off (by the child or mother), you must never underestimate how profound your impact can be.
There is no denying that being a stepmom is an “ever challenging and complicated role,” says Mary-Anne. Feeling threatened, jealous or like the odd one out is all part of the stepmom package. Jealousy often arises due to the close father-child relationship.“It may feel childish, sillyand even shameful. But it’san understandable, humanresponse,” assures Mary-Anne.Bad feelings are also rampantaround your partner’s ex.
“These problems between grown-ups should be kept separate from the children. Inspite of your loyalty to your partner, it is important that you respect what the mom means to the child,” says Jade.
Stepmoms can also feel enormous guilt because they may not initially love their stepchildren. This too is normal, stresses Mary-Anne. “Just because you have fallen for someone it doesn’t mean that you will automatically feel the same about their children.”
This can create a pressure to overcompensate – hiding how you really feel and giving into the children’s wants. Cape Town registered counsellor Heidi van der Merwe warns that trying to win children over by allowing exceptions to normal house rules or buying their love and affection is not helpful.
Rather have the courage to open up about these feelings to your partner. If you are strong as a couple and present a united front, this leaves less room for conflict or a build-up of emotions.
A child's resentment
Among all your adjustments, it’s difficult to remember that the child is also experiencing uncertainty. “Children tend to act out their emotional experiences and this can be mistaken for naughtiness or manipulation. A child’s behaviour tells us what is going on emotionally,” explains Jade.
Don’t overreact or take this personally, suggests Mary-Anne. While it is easier said than done, she says it’s worth holding on to your compassion and recognising that the child is struggling too. Remember, children need an accepting space to express any sad or disappointing feelings they may have – without the father or stepmom being defensive.
“Part of helping children adjust is to find an authentic way of acknowledging the difficulties and perhaps even unfairness of the situation. Instead of defending your own role, try help the child to feel like they are an important part of the new family structure. If you are sensitive to helping them feel more secure, they will be less likely to perceive you as a threat,” says Jade.
Finding your place
Your threat status increases if you do things the children traditionally did with their mom. Heidi suggests stepmoms establish a unique relationship with their stepchildren: “If the stepmom assures the child that she is not there to take over the role of the biological mother, a new bond can be established.”
Heidi also says that stepmoms should wait for the child to give cues as to whether they are ready to establish this new relationship – don’t push it. She recommends starting slowly with kind gestures of assistance, like offering to take the children to soccer, but not demanding the right to do so.
Try sharing new experiences so you create a bond with the child. “By starting afresh, setting new rules and establishing new boundaries, children learn that this new family unit does not threaten to break the bond with mother and father, but rather exists alongside in a supportive role,” says Heidi.