Many of the stepmothers I counsel express frustration and concern about feeling like an “outsider” the first few years of their remarriage. It’s normal for stepparents to feel that they’re left out or overlooked at times because children of divorce often gravitate to the adult they’re most comfortable with. This literally leaves stepmothers feeling like an “outsider” in their own family.
For instance, when Lori, 47, married Brad, 49, he had two teenagers, Brianna and Becky, who gave her the cold shoulder at times. Since she had always wanted children of her own, she was blindsided by how they resisted her attempts to get close to them and they seemed to resent her loving relationship with their dad.
According to E. Mavis Hetherington, psychologist and author of the landmark three-decade University of Virginia Longitudinal Study, being a stepmother can be extremely challenging without much of a payoff. She discovered that whereas most stepchildren will come to appreciate and accept a stepfather, the situation with stepmothers is more difficult and the stepchild’s resentment is more intense. She found that most stepmoms are expected to be nurturers who are responsible for the daily running of family life even when they might have preferred to take a back seat.
If you are a stepmother, going through this list of common blunders will help you come to terms with the realities of your role. You may not relate to all of them, or you might want to add one or more slip-ups to this list. Remember that there are different types of stepfamilies and one shoe does not fit all.
7 Common Mistakes of Stepmothers
Mistake #1: Trying too hard to be liked and to win over your stepchildren.
It’s perfectly normal for a stepmom to want to bend over backward to win the approval of her stepchild. However, giving in to their every whim can create an unfortunate dynamic. Lori reflects, “I tried buying gifts for my stepdaughters and that was a bad idea. This back-fired when their mom caught wind of it, sent me a nasty text, and told Becky that I was being inappropriate and trying to become her mom.” Having realistic expectations about the fact that it can take stepkids a few years to warm up to a new stepparent and gifts or bribes won’t speed up this challenging process, can help you come down to reality.
Mistake #2 You expect to be an instant family or to have instant love.
Most experts agree that it can take stepfamilies several years to successfully blend. And yet, people expect to look and feel like a first-time family straightaway. When Lori got engaged to Brad, she envisioned that her two stepdaughters would appreciate going on shopping trips and having a make-up and hair day. While these activities appealed to Brianna, Rebecca wasn’t interested in “girly” things and rejected Lori’s invites saying “You can’t buy my love, you’re so clueless.”
Mistake #3 You and/or your spouse tolerate disrespect from your stepchildren.
Many stepchildren resent having a new stepparent and see him or her as a rival for their parents’ attention. This can create an unfortunate situation where they might be rude, even if they’re generally polite and well-behaved. Lori remembers that Becky rarely said thanks when she picked her up from dance class and would yell at her if she was five minutes late and even call her names such as “stupid.” Rather than responding with anger, Lori learned to pause, take a deep breath, and say something such as “You seem upset with me but I won’t tolerate disrespect.” She also coached Brad about the importance of intervening and not letting his daughters speak disrespectfully to her even if she made mistakes or they were in a bad mood.
Mistake #4 You try to be your stepchildren’s parent and discipline them too soon.
When stepparents try to discipline their stepchildren before they have established trust it’s a recipe for disaster. Instead, try to be a caring adult friend and once you have earned their respect, you might be able to give them corrective feedback in a non-critical way. This is especially true of teenagers and children who are actively involved with both of their biological parents. Do your best to tread lightly and try to establish a bond based on shared activities that you both enjoy. For instance, when Lori and Brad first got married, she made the mistake of showing anger and disappointment to Rebecca and Brianna when they failed to make their beds before school. Their response to her ranged from ignoring her to saying some version of “You’re not my mom and can’t tell me what to do.”
Mistake #5 You have unrealistic expectations.
Many stepparents feel immense pressure to claim their rightful place in their new family. My husband Craig often said that his biggest shock as a stepparent was that he did not earn his stepchildren’s respect just by virtue of marrying me. He clearly had to earn it day by day by being there. Janette, 47, a veteran stepmother says, “It doesn’t matter if they are five or fifteen, they are someone else’s child. Your marriage won’t flourish if you expect that things will go smoothly in your stepfamily. Instead, expect ups and downs and appreciate the times when things seem calm and everyone appears to be enjoying themselves!”
Mistake #6 Comparing yourself to other stepmothers.
Keep in mind that whenever you compare yourself to others, it’s likely that you will fall short. That’s because as women, we tend to be self-critical and are raised to feel that we are not “good enough.” As a result, you might undervalue your own contributions and overestimate the value of other stepmoms. For instance, Janette used to compare herself to her friend Sandy, until she realized this made her feel worse and their situations were different. In fact, Sandy’s stepson was young when she became his stepmom and so bonded with her somewhat easily, compared to her teenage stepdaughters.
Mistake #7 Taking it personally when your stepchildren prefer their biological parent.
The role of a stepmother is tricky and most likely will get easier over the years. However, the key to success for a stepmom is not to take it personally when your stepchildren prefer to spend time with their biological parent. If you remember that being an adult friend and mentor to them over the years will pay off, it’ll help you cope with hurt feelings. Lori reflects, “I tried not to take it personally when Brianna said she wanted to watch the new episodes of Project Runway with her mom even though she knows I love fashion. It’s not about me, I’m the adult and she’s the child. Instead, we streamed it on Netflix when she came for the weekend had a blast watching it a second time.”
Although Lori’s sensitivity and caring for her stepdaughters represent the norm for most stepmothers, the myth of the “wicked stepmother” is prevalent in our culture. We’re flooded with stereotypes of self-absorbed stepmothers who manipulate, ignore, or even worse, disrespect or try to harm their stepchildren. It’s important for you, as a stepmom, to dispel these myths and realize that it’s normal to make mistakes and to feel like an outsider in the early years of a remarriage. Keep in mind that there’s no such thing as instant love in a stepfamily and trust and caring will increase over time if you’re patient and have realistic expectations.