By Rachelle Katz, Ed.D., LMFT, Author of The Happy Stepmother: Stay Sane, Empower Yourself and Thrive in Your New Family
Being a stepmother can be one of the most challenging roles in society, and one that often receives little support, understanding, and appreciation from others. In my book, The Happy Stepmother, I share 10 steps to thrive despite the frustrations that come with stepmotherhood, but here are 10 tips you can try right now to become a happier stepmother today:
Enjoy time with your stepchildren: Stepchildren should be assets, rather than liabilities, in your life. To have good relationships with them, you need to spend quality time with them and interact in meaningful, pleasurable ways. Since quality relationships are built from one-on-one interactions, spend private time with each of your stepchildren. Find common interests and activities, such as a hobby or a sport, to do with them. It is easier to develop a caring, loving, and friendly relationship with your stepchildren when you don’t have the burden of parental responsibilities and can simply enjoy your time together instead.
Allow your partner to actively take care of his children: If you want to have a good relationship with your stepchildren and your partner, don’t automatically become the primary housekeeper. Of course, you may do some tasks for your stepchildren, just as you would for other family members, but you will become resentful if you feel you must fulfill all maternal duties for them, especially if you don’t feel appreciated for what you do. You aren’t shirking stepmother duties if you don’t cook, clean, and do their laundry. Those are your partner’s jobs, even if you are staying home to care for your own biological children. In most cases, stepmothers should operate more as babysitters or aunts than as parents. This will leave you more time for activities that provide you with the most meaning and pleasure.
Allow your partner to discipline his children: Remarried fathers need to step up to the plate when it comes to teaching their children appropriate behavior. Most mental health experts agree that it is your partner’s responsibility to discipline his children; if you do discipline them, your stepchildren may resent you. Many stepmothers complain that their partners are too lax about providing structure and boundaries for their children after a divorce. When stepchildren misbehave, first focus your attention on your partner rather than the children. Let him know, gently and calmly that you feel he needs to assert his authority in order to help his children grow and develop, and feel secure and protected, as well as to ensure that the family dynamic does not spiral out of control. If he isn’t capable of being a strong parent, then your life, his life and your stepchildren’s lives will suffer.
Establish House rules: In order to ensure mutual respect in the stepfamily, it is essential for you and your partner to develop a set of rules that everyone in the family must abide by. If your stepchildren are old enough, they can even participate in setting up these rules and consequences. Often, parents are amused to find that their children establish stricter punishments for breaking a rule than the adults would have done! When everyone in the family knows the house rules, you and your partner can back each other up when a transgression occurs. Working together as a team is important for you as a couple, and teaches children that they cannot “divide and conquer.”
Have a weekly date night with your husband: To be content as a stepmother and survive the stresses of stepfamily life, your relationship with your partner must be the most important priority in your life and his (right after your own well-being which should always come first.) Having fun together strengthens your relationship and makes it easier to get over the crises when they occur.
Accept that your feelings for your stepchildren and the feelings that your stepchildren have for you are “good enough”: Oftentimes, stepmothers feel pressured that they must love their stepchildren, and expect their stepchildren to reciprocate that love in return. Love is an emotion that can’t be forced. If you love your stepchildren, that’s wonderful, but if you don’t, that’s also acceptable, as long as you provide kindness, compassion and respect to them. No more and no less should be expected of you. When you remove expectations that you must love your stepchildren, it will be easier just to be nice to them — and in a genuine way. This can lead, eventually, to love.
Model good behavior: Our first challenge as stepmothers is to accept and welcome our stepchildren by being warm, kind, and respectful. The integration of a stepfamily begins with you and your partner. As mature, responsible adults, you have the job of laying the groundwork for the new family. You are the front-runner for modeling respect and compassion.
Don’t Take It Personally: Most of us as stepmothers try our hardest to be kind, considerate, and loving to our stepchildren. If our efforts are rebuffed, we naturally feel extremely hurt. Stepchildren may reject your attention and warmth for various reasons. Perhaps they feel that since they already have two parents, they don’t want a third one in their lives. They may be afraid their mothers will be hurt if they become close to you. They may not trust that your relationship with their father will last, and do not want to experience loss again. Or, they simply may not share your interests or temperament, and find it hard to relate to you. Any of these obstacles can take a long time to overcome, and the situation might not change at all despite your best efforts. Whatever the case, you need to accept things as they are for your own emotional welfare, and not take stepchildren’s rejection of you as a personal attack.
Create your own holiday traditions: Holidays can be particularly painful for stepmothers who may be excluded from special occasions, such as weddings or Christmas, even after years of marriage to their partners. Other stepmothers can feel like outsiders at holiday gatherings. If you experience feelings of dread prior to certain family events, start your own traditions. Have an annual Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Easter gathering. You will have more control when you host your own holiday celebrations.
Take Charge of Your Own Happiness: As a stepmother, it is of paramount importance for you to take care of your own emotional needs first and foremost, before everyone and everything else in your life. When you commit to making your emotional welfare the number one priority in your life, you will be giving yourself the best shot at happiness. Attaining happiness requires hard work and a willingness to expend energy creating a meaningful life. We do this by focusing on what we want and then taking action to get it. Take charge!
© 2010 Rachelle Katz, Ed.D., LMFT, author of The Happy Stepmother: Stay Sane, Empower Yourself and Thrive in Your New Family
Rachelle Katz, Ed.D, LMFT, writes from a place of both personal experience — she’s been a stepmother for nineteen years — and professional expertise. A psychotherapist with twenty-five years of experience in private practice, since 2004 she has empowered thousands of women through her Web site, www.stepsforstepmothers.com.