Avoiding the Stepmother Trap

Family experts generally agree that the stepmother role is the most difficult stepparent role, although few stepfamilies consist of a father, his children and resident stepmother.

Researchers have found that stepmothers have higher stress levels and more dissatisfaction with the stepparent role than do stepfathers. One of the major sources of dissatisfaction is parenting stepdaughters. Competition seems to be the main source of the problem in this relationship.

Recently, a study conducted at Princeton University concluded that children raised by stepmothers received less health care, education and money spent on them than children reared by their biological mothers. They concluded, however that the findings should not be construed to supported the evil stepmother stereotype but that stepmothering creates a complex and bewildering set of role expectations that is very difficult to enact.

The complexity of the stepmother role has been referred to as the stepmother trap. In American society, mothers and stepmothers are assigned similar role expectations in families. They are expected to do the majority of the housework, childcare, and other household duties such as cooking and washing dishes. They are expected to provide loving and caring nurturance to their children. As with mothers, stepmothers are expected to contribute to the family’s economic status by working outside the home.

On the other hand, the stepmother role by its very nature is distant and poorly defined. Children may feel a sense of resentment toward the stepmother for what they perceive as taking the place of their biological mother. They may resist her parenting interventions and try to undermine her relationship with their father.

As a result, stepmothers are placed in a double bind of being expected to be loving and close while at the same time being trapped in a distant, ill-defined, and sometimes hostile relationship with stepchildren. The situation calls for extraordinary relationship skills, which may elude most stepmothers.

Janice, a stepmother to three children ages 15, 12 and 10, who was previously married but did not have children, says, “We’ve been married now for about three years. While I still love my husband and feel that our relationship one-on-one is very strong, I wouldn’t marry him if this was to do over. About 90% of our disagreements are over the children or his ex-wife. I feel totally incompetent at times in how to parent. In fact, I don’t believe it much matters what I do. I don’t know if the children really love me. Their mother, who actually left their father for another man, is everything in their eyes. They don’t give me credit for anything I do.”

While the role is difficult and many stepmothers have experiences like Janice, it is possible for the relationship to be very rewarding between a stepmother and her stepchildren.

Stepmothers may take the role of the “other mother,” giving them a role and status of the biological mother so that children have two mothers. While the role of the other mother can also be frustrating, it does not supplant the role of the biological mother and may reduce the competition between stepmother and the biological mother.

The most rewarding relationships between stepmother and stepchildren seem to develop when the children are young. The stepmother may fill a very important place in their lives. The love and nurturance they provide for their stepchildren can payoff in long-term deep and satisfying relationships.

If the stepmother has a baby of her own, known as the “ours child,” the relationship with her stepchildren can be either improved or harmed. It depends on how the new family member is introduced into the family and whether attention is further taken away from stepchildren.

Below are suggestions for avoiding the stepmother trap.

• Have a long courtship and get to know each future stepchild very well before marriage. Don’t marry unless there is a positive supportive relationship with all children.
• Become active in support groups as Parents Without Partners, who sponsor education for remarriage workshops.
• Explore with children the changes that remarriage will make in their lives, such as living arrangements and new relationships.
• Discuss family finances before remarriage and how this will impact children in the family.
• Allow stepchildren time to adapt to their new relationships.
• Realize that confusing feelings are normal for stepmothers. There will be anxieties over competition for love and attention in the family.
• Be prepared to be tested challenged, and manipulated in your role.
• Solicit the support of your partner in parenting matters.
• Treat your children and stepchildren with equal fairness.
• Acknowledge problems immediately and deal with them openly.

About Dr. Roberts

Dr. Roberts has worked for the past 25 years in the field of Child and Family Development. He has a PhD in Child and Family Development with an Emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy. He also has an EdS degree in Counseling and the MDiv degree in Theology. He directed the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Appalachian State University, Chaired the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Long Beach State, and chaired the Department of Child and Family Development at San Diego State University. Dr. Roberts is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Georgia and had his own practice before starting his long career in higher education. Dr. Roberts also holds the title of Elder in the United Methodist Church.
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