Angela talked about one aspect of children and marriage in her post this morning. When you and your spouse have children together, it becomes far more challenging to balance your priorities and give your marriage the attention it needs. There’s another place where children and marriage intersect: step-parenting. When you fall in love with someone who is already a parent, or when you’re a parent who falls in love anew, the stepparent role is a difficult one to navigate.
Wednesday Martin’s book Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do can help. As you can tell, this book is targeted at women. There’s a real reason for that. While being a stepfather is no walk in the park, stepmothers are burdened with impossible cultural expectations and tropes. Our children grow up thinking of Snow White’s as the archetype of a stepchild, the witch-queen as the model of a stepmother. That’s a hard narrative to overcome. The title of the book is a reference to this perception of stepmothers. When we hear “stepmonster” we often can’t help but envision a stepmonster.
Martin is herself the stepmother of two who has managed to make it work, although it hasn’t been easy. As she writes in the introduction to Stepmonster, “Step-hell was for stepmonsters, and I wasn’t going there. Until I was.” She talks about how integrating a stepmother and stepchildren is inherently disruptive. The husband/father will get caught in the middle, especially if the children had been accustomed to having his time and attention to themselves.
Martin points out that most research and writing on integrating existing children into a new marriage focuses on the children. The effort to make things work is expected to come from the stepmother. Little heed is paid to the stepmother’s needs and challenges. Any failure in a stepmother/stepchild relationship is blamed on the stepmother, although I think all of us know that our children are not always angels. A stepmother is not a mother. Yes, there are occasions in which a stepmother fills the role of adoptive mother, but these are rare compared to the stepmother who doesn’t quite have the right to discipline the children, the stepmother who is expected to love her stepkids as her own even though there’s no expectation that they should love her in the way their love their own mother.
Possibly my favourite passage from the book is this one. It captures so well the unrelenting complexity of divorce, children and remarriage.
Though well-intentioned, the increasingly widespread belief that remarriage with children should be child-centric and change-free as possible can lead to stress for everyone involved. It is easy to see how it might be stressful for the woman with stepchildren. But research also shows that high levels of closeness and involvement between exes are as confusing and counterproductive for children as are high levels of conflict. Children are likely to wonder, “If you like each other so much and get along so well, why did you get a divorce?” and feel profoundly perplexed about what exactly makes a good relationship.
Why I Read Stepmonster
I wasn’t the target audience of this book. It is intended for stepmothers and stepmothers-to-be. I picked it up, however, for insight into how I could ease my daughters’ relationship with their father’s new (and now ex-) wife.
My kids hadn’t really even begun processing the reality of my divorce when their father remarried. We divorced in June of 2012, he moved in with his new girlfriend in September, and they were married in February of 2013. I needed to make this okay for my kids. I had reached out to my ex’s then-girlfriend, mother to mother, she having two young daughters of her own. We needed to put all four children first in this messy family reorganization. She was wonderfully receptive, but I didn’t feel like I could talk to her about my kids’ treatment of her without disrespecting my ex’s boundaries. So, I did what I do, looked for blogs and books that would help me understand the other side of this story. Stepmonster was the answer.
What I Learned from Stepmonster
Stepmonster has a lot of lessons for the brand new stepmother or the woman considering getting serious with a partner who already has children. A stepmother is not the stepchild’s mother. It’s okay not to have the unconditional adoration of a mother. A stepchild is not a stepmother’s child. It’s okay for the child not to have the love and trust in his stepmother that he has in his mother. The father/husband has a role to play. It’s not fair or appropriate to expect stepmother and stepchild to figure out where the boundaries lie. A father/husband has an active responsibility in making things work, respecting his new wife’s need for respect and boundaries, understanding his child’s misgivings about this replacement of her mother.
What I took away from this book was the role I could play. Martin didn’t really spell it out, but reading between the lines, I could see that I needed to do everything in my power to avoid feeding the stepmonster image of stepmotherhood.
I talked to my ex’s girlfriend, letting her know that I recognized that she would be an important part of my children’s lives, asking how I could help. I thanked her for every gesture she made to bring my children within her family, and she made many. She even went toe-to-toe with my children’s father, insisting that they needed to feel like they always had a place in their home, even if they were there only rarely. She insisted that they be allowed to have toothbrushes at their apartment. She set up a second bunk bed in her daughters’ room with my daughters’ names on it. She took my daughters to visit her parents at Thanksgiving, and her mom treated them no differently from her own granddaughters.
I’m not a jealous type, so that came easily. I know that some mothers fear that a close bond between children and their stepmothers threatens the mother-child bond. I just don’t see it that way. My kids have plenty of love for both each other and me. Why couldn’t they love their stepmother too?
In part, I’d learned from my own experience as a stepchild. Well, I’ve never knowingly met my stepmother of 20ish years, so perhaps it’s overstating it to call myself a stepchild. But I do know that the bitterness and venom that my mother spewed about my father’s girlfriends and the woman he eventually married did nothing but make me resent my mother and perceive her as being petty and selfish. It certainly didn’t make me love or trust her more.
I promised myself that I would not allow myself to feed into what Martin calls the “typical stepmother conundrum”: “the husband’s ex who wants it both way, giving us responsibility but not granting authority.” It was easy to keep boundaries with my ex; I was accustomed to taking care of business without his help, since he’d been deployed overseas for half our marriage. I was always the one who fixed plumbing issues and sealed the countertops, so I didn’t look to him for that stuff, although there was one time while we were waiting out the 90 days for our divorce to be finalized that he helped me look for my keys. (The cat had decided that they were toys and shoved them under a stool.) Our boundaries weren’t without issue, however. Our elderly neighbours were irate on observing me packing up my house to move without my ex helping watch the kids or lift some of the heavier boxes. I didn’t know 80-year-old Hispanic women possessed the colourful language I heard on that subject!
When There’s Another Divorce
Martin cites the following statistics: the divorce rate for couples in which one partner comes in with a child or children is 65%. When both partners already have children, it’s a depressing 70%. Only 5% of survey respondents considered stepchildren to be an asset to their marriages.
Stepmonster gives some advice on beating those odds. Just as in our post Finding Time for Romance When You Have Kids this morning, she argues that the marriage has to come first. Time alone is essential. Convincing your partner of this isn’t easy, but it’s critical. Having a child together is a wonderful thing, but it won’t decrease tension at all. It will increase it. A stepchild might adore his half-sibling, but that doesn’t mean he won’t resent what that sibling represents.
Unfortunately for me and my daughters, there wasn’t much in Stepmonster to help guide me on how to handle Daddy’s second divorce in less than 2 years with my kids. When J expressed her disappointment at the loss of her stepmother and stepsisters, Daddy told her, “You just need to forget them.” I knew that wasn’t the answer. I didn’t need a book for that! I reached out to my ex’s new ex and asked her if she’d be willing to maintain casual contact between her daughters and mine. She agreed.
On the bright side, post-divorce isn’t nearly as much work as a good marriage!
Any stepmothers out there? Does this book sound like something you’d want to read?
Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 7-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. She lives with them and their 3 cats in the Austin, TX suburbs and works full time as a business analyst. She retired her personal blog, Double the Fun, when the girls entered elementary school and also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.