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10 Stepmonster Myths We Need to Bust Now
By Wednesday Martin, Ph.D.,
Author of Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do

Stepfamilies are the new normal: experts tell us that they will outnumber first families in the U.S. by the end of this year. Incredibly, one in three Americans is a step of some sort -- a stepchild, stepparent, or stepsibling.

But when it comes to stepmothers especially, our attitudes and expectations are out of sync with reality, and we tend to confuse fact with fiction. This isn't so hard to understand. After all, Disney and the Brothers Grimm prepare us from an early age to fear having -- and becoming -- a stepmother. And researchers have mostly focused on how remarriage with children affects the kids, and on the dynamics of stepfather families, leaving stepmother reality little understood, and women with stepchildren shrouded in stereotypes. That leaves us to fill in the gaps in our knowledge with assumptions.

Some research-based facts can help us bust the stepmonster myths, and better support the one in two women in the U.S. -- whether she's our wife, friend, sister, mother, or ourself -- who will end up involved with men who have children.

MYTH #1: STEPMOTHERS ARE WICKED. THEY ARE TOUGHER ON THEIR STEPCHILDREN THAN MOTHERS ARE TOWARD THEIR OWN CHILDREN.

Not so, studies show, and they are not stricter disciplinarians. This in spite of the fact that more stepmothers than mothers report that they "rarely have fun" with their stepchildren and rated themselves "worse/stricter" parents. That is to say, stereotypes aside, even though stepmothers have a harder time, they are generally "nicer" and more lenient when it comes to discipline, not crueler or more demanding.

In addition, studies show that stepmothers are actually the least empowered, most vulnerable members of the stepfamily. Often a stepmother is the "stuck outsider" in the stepfamily architecture, struggling to find her footing as children express normal but hurtful resistance to getting a stepmom, and as her husband fails to invite her to the center of the family culture, putting the relationship with his wife last out of a sense of guilt.

Finally, since stepmothers tend to take on the role of family counselor and marriage therapist when they marry or partner with men who have kids, they are primed for exhaustion, depletion, anxiety and even clinical depression as they face the bumps and challenges of stepfamily life.

MYTH #2: DIVORCE AND REMARRIAGE, AND ACQUIRING A STEPMOTHER, ARE BAD FOR THE CHILDREN.

Divorce and remarriage (getting a stepmother) do not harm children; parental conflict (between mom and dad) does. Over and over, research confirms that children with behavioral and emotional problems after divorce started having problems long before divorce took place, as a result of parental conflict.

MYTH #3: IF A STEPMOTHER TRIES HARD ENOUGH, SHE'LL WIN OVER HIS KIDS WITH NO PROBLEM

Regardless of her personality, her desire to befriend them, and the years of patience and effort she invests in "winning them over," the stepmother can only have a close relationship with her stepchildren with her husband's support in the household and their mother's wholehearted approval. Bottom line: when there is conflict between a stepmother and a stepchild, look to mom or dad to understand why. Most likely, mom is giving the kids subtle (and explicit) messages that it is okay, perhaps even required, to keep an emotional or physical distance from dad's "new wife." Or dad feels too guilty to communicate that stepmom is loved and here to stay. How can kids of any age "come around" in this context? Getting along is a concerted effort, requiring something of everyone.

MYTH #4: THE BLENDED FAMILY IS THE NEW PARADIGM.

The National Stepfamily Resource Center urges that therapists and the media stop using the term "blended family." The "blended" paradigm sets up expectations that usually cannot be met and elicits feelings of failure and guilt.  As Francesca Adler-Baeder of the NSRC says, "Making blending the standard can make us feel we're falling short when really stepfamilies are just different."

Stepfamilies are less cohesive and less close than first families, studies show. And stepfamily members bond best one-on-one (stepmom and stepchild, father and child) rather than as a big group. But they can still be healthy and happy setting for kids and adults alike, and it helps when they don't feel judged as somehow deficient compared to a "real" first family. Plenty of women and their stepchildren have reported satisfaction with a polite and caring if somewhat distant relationship. Being best friends, being "just like a mother to them," and "blending all together" are almost never realistic standards.

MYTH #5: STEPMOTHERS AND STEPFATHERS HAVE IT EQUALLY TOUGH.

Stepmothers are much more likely than stepfathers to experience rudeness, hostile behavior, rebuffs, and rejection from stepchildren. Resentment against them tends to be more intense and more sustained. This is especially difficult for women, since their self-esteem and happiness (unlike men's) are inextricably bound to their success in relationships. In addition, women with stepchildren have to deal with stereotypes and biases about wickedness, as well as expectations that all women are maternal, that men with stepchildren do not. And finally women feel pressures that men do not to "blend" everyone together and create happiness and love post-divorce and remarriage, and to do it quickly. It is not surprising, then, that stepmothers are at high risk for anxiety and depression.

MYTH #6: JUST BE NICE AND LOVING AND IT WILL WORK OUT!

In fact, warm and loving stepmothers cause the most severe loyalty conflicts for children. University of Missouri stepfamily researchers Marilyn Coleman and Larry Ganong found that the more appealing, attractive, and kind a stepmother is, the more hostility and resentment she will get from her stepchildren if they feel guilty, sensing that befriending her would be a betrayal of mom.

MYTH #7: IF HIS KIDS DON'T LIKE YOU, YOU'RE NOT BEING NICE ENOUGH.

The woman with stepchildren is likely, at some point and perhaps long term, to find herself the family "fall guy" in spite of her kindness and efforts. Stepchildren frequently take their anger, hostility, and disappointment with dad out on his wife/partner. Stepmom is more expendable, an outsider in the family architecture, so blaming and resenting her is easier than confronting dad, who is more loved and respected.

And in a dynamic called "conflict by proxy," stepchildren of any age often play out their mom's negative feelings toward stepmom, experiencing and expressing the mother's emotions for her.

In these situations, effort has little to do with it; resentment and dislike of stepmom is structural. It can't be fixed by stepmom's "trying harder."

MYTH #8: IT'S UP TO THE STEPMOTHER TO MAKE IT WORK WITH HER STEPCHILDREN.

The woman with stepchildren is just one piece of the stepfamily puzzle, one player in the stepfamily system. In truth, stepfamily relations will be successful only if every player in the picture -- husband and wife (or partners), kids, and ex -- is considered responsible and accountable for the outcome. The man with kids must be clear about giving his marriage priority, supporting his wife and letting everyone know that they are now a team. In this way, he brings her from the outside to the inside of the family structure. The ex-wife must let her kids know that it's okay to like their stepmom and that she won't fall apart if they have a relationship with her, loosening the loyalty binds they feel. And the stepkids must be held accountable for any bad behavior toward stepmom, shown that it won't fly, and that they don't have "veto power" over dad's choice of a partner.

There is little a stepmother can do on her own to "make it work." Holding her solely or mainly responsible is misguided and biased.

MYTH #9: BEING A STEPMOTHER GETS EASIER OVER THE YEARS.

It's not over when they're eighteen. Or even when they move out of the house. While it's true that tensions generally abate when stepkids move on, literally and figuratively, many women are surprised to discover that, in spite of our expectations to the contrary, stepmothering can actually get more complicated over time.

An event like a stepchild's graduation or wedding, where an ex and the entire extended family are present, can stress the stepmother and her husband, reopening old rifts and renewing the sense that she is an outsider. Stepchildren's partners and spouses add a new level of interpersonal complexity (and sometimes difficulty) to the mix. Finally, when a woman has both grandchildren and stepgrandchildren, even the most enthusiastic and loving woman may feel spread thin by all her obligations. Or guilty because she loves her own grandkids best. If she has no grandchildren of her own, this can intensify her sense of regret or exclusion. Finally, some stepchildren may not move on from their hostility or resentment even when they reach adulthood. Their failure to resolve old issues from their parents' divorce and father's remarriage may continue to be expressed as resentment toward their stepmother.

MYTH #10: A STEPMOTHER'S NEEDS SHOULD TAKE A BACK SEAT TO THE STEPCHILDREN'S. THEY'RE CHILDREN, AFTER ALL.

Stepchildren, particularly adolescents and preadolescences, are the main initiators of conflict in the stepfamily. Experts agree that rather than pour her energy into attempting to win the approval and love of her stepchildren, a woman who is rejected and rebuffed will do better to focus on herself and her marriage. After all, his kids already have two parents to take care of them and put them first. Stepmom, research shows, does best when she leaves the parenting to the parents, solidifies her partnership, and takes occasional time away from her husband's kids and even her husband to be with friends and family of her own. This provides relief and rejuvenation, solidifies her sense that she has many successful relationships, and prevents stepmaternal burnout.

SOURCES

Myth #1: David Cheal, Ph.D., Human Resources Development Canada study. Mavis Hetherington, For Better or For Worse (2002); Constnce Ahrons, We're Still Family (2004).

Myth #2: Robert Emery, Ph.D., University of Virginia, and Rex Forehand, Ph.D., University of Georgia, 1993 research review; Andrew Cherlin, Ph.D., Science (cited in Rutter); Hetherington (2002); Ahrons (2004).

Myth #3: Linda Nielsen, Ph.D., Stepmothers: Why So Much Stress?; Jamie Kelem Keshett, Gender and Biological Models of Role Division in Stepmother Families and Love and Power in the Stepfamily; Ahrons, 1994; Artlip, Artlip, and Saltzman, 1993; Beer, 1992; Berman, 1992; Einstein, 1994.

Myth #4: Interview with Francsca Adler-Baeder, Ph.D., of the National Stepfamily Resource Center; Coleman and Ganong in Pasley and Inhinger-Tallman, eds., 1995; Hetherington and Kelly, 2002; Interview with Patricia Papernow, Ed.D.; Constance Ahrons, 2004.

Myth #5: Mavis Hetherington, For Better or for Worse, 2002; Quick, McKenry, and Newman, 1994; Ihinger-Tallman and Pasley, 1987; Sauer and Fine, 1988; Duberman, L., 1973, 1975; Morrison and Thompson-Guppy, 1985.

Myth #6: "Guidelines for Stepfamilies," adapted from Stepfamilies: Myths and Realities by Emily and John Visher, at www.three-peaks.net ; Marilyn Coleman and Larry Ganong, "Stepfamilies from the Stepfamily's Perspective", Marriage and Family Review 26 (1997), pp. 107–21

Myth #7: Anne C. Bernstein, "Between You and Me: Untangling Conflict in Stepfamilies," Spring 1993, www.stepfamilies.info/education/Articles/counseling/conflict.php.

Myth #9: Grace Gabe and Jean Lipman-Blumen, Step Wars: Overcoming the Peril and Making Peace in Adult Stepfamilies , 2004; Sarah Corrie, "Working Therapeutically with Adult Stepchildren," Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 37, 2002, pp. 135–50.

Myth #10: Patricia Papernow, interview; Linda Nielsen, "Stepmothers: Why So Much Stress?"; Francesca Adler-Baeder and Brian Higginbotham, "Implications of Remarriage and Stepfamily Formation for Marriage Education," Family Relations 53, 2004, pp. 448–58; James Bray and John Kelly, Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage, and Parenting in the First Decade, 1998; E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly, For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, 2002.

©2009 Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., author of Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do

Author Bio

Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., is a social researcher and the author of Stepmonster: a New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do (2009). She is a regular contributor to Psychology Today (www.psychologytoday.com) and blogs for the Huffington Post and on her own web site (www.wednesdaymartin.com). She has appeared as a stepparenting expert on NPR, the BBC Newshour, Fox News and NBC Weekend Today, and was a regular contributor to the New York Post's parenting page. Stepmonster is a finalist in the parenting category of this year's "Books for a Better Life" award.

A stepmother for nearly a decade, Wednesday lives in New York City with her husband and two sons. Her stepdaughters are young adults.

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