There are over 19 million people walking around depressed today, in America. A large number of those depressed 19 million people are mothers. Many experts and society as a whole, acknowledge the fact that moms are the glue that holds the family together, and are often overworked and overextended. As a matter of fact, they sell t-shirts with a quote that says, “If mama ain’t happy, then nobody’s happy.” Television experts like Dr. Phil and Supernanny, Jo Frost, often encourage moms to take some time for themselves, learn to say NO (without guilt) and not feel bad for occasionally having feelings of dislike toward their children. They express that it’s just the resentment of being pulled in so many different directions that causes those types of feelings, and as a mom you need to set some boundaries in order to have balance. We’ve all heard this before, right moms?
That being said, as I stated in my Super Stepmom Syndrome article, what we don’t see a lot of is the same support for stepmothers. Historically, stepmothers have just been expected to accept any and everything because they chose to marry a man with children, and therefore chose to marry his kids and his ex-wife. It’s something that they shouldn’t complain about and realize that it’s not about them, but the kids who are torn apart by divorce. We’ve all heard this before, right stepmoms? My question is then why shouldn’t mom be expected to just suck it up? After all, she chose to have children in the first place and it’s supposed to be about the kids, right? Why does she get to complain and then receive sympathy with kids that she chose to create, but stepmom has to just suck it up with kids who are not her own?
According to Linda Nielsen, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at Wake Forest University, stepmothers feel more stress than stepfathers and are overall the most stressed member of the stepfamily. In her research she indicates that 4 factors contribute to this stress: (1) our society’s attitudes about step/mothers and motherhood; (2) the mother’s and stepmother’s personalities, attitudes and circumstances; (3) the father’s attitudes and his relationship with the mother; and (4) the stepchildren’s gender and mental health.
As I stated above, stepmothers are expected to just accept everything without expressing themselves and are often told that they are evil and wicked if they do lose a grip every now and then. They are often battling an intrusive ex-wife as research indicates that ex-wives remain bitter for longer (years after) the divorce and are in fact the most intrusive. Their husband is still dealing with his guilt over the divorce and is often times an overcompensating, disney land dad and refuses to set healthy boundaries for his children and/or his ex-wife. Finally, age and gender definitely play a role in the step-parent/stepchild relationships in the stepfamily. For example, studies show that the stepmother/stepdaughter relationship is the most problematic relationship in the stepfamily, and can contribute to the dissolution of the remarriage and family if not handled properly.
All of the above mentioned and more, as you can imagine, creates a significant amount of stress for the stepmother and has enormous potential to send them to a downward spiral of depression. Being expected to please everyone without being able to express how you feel is an unrealistic and totally unfair expectation to place on ANYONE! Stepmothers need to have their role acknowledged and supported if we are to work at decreasing the alarming rate of second divorces in America. She can’t be expected to walk on eggshells, especially in her own home, just to pacify everyone else. It will only leave her feeling totally isolated, resentful and depressed, just like those mothers that I mentioned above. The stepmother needs support, too; support from her husband; support from her friends and family and support from society as a whole!
I realize that everyone in the stepfamily has their challenges and own crosses to bear; however, the stepmother receives less support and understanding than ANYONE in the stepfamily and that just has to change. Everyone else is allowed to act out and freely express themselves without judgment, because society has more sympathy for them, and historically, stepmoms have been deemed as wicked. We sympathize with dad because he doesn’t get to see his children as often. We sympathize with the kids because they’ve just experienced the loss of their family. We sympathize with ex-wife because she is just trying to “protect” her children. We then we dump all of those emotions, responsibility and aftermath of a divorce that she didn’t create, mind you, on the stepmother and say, “now you deal with it and you better do it all with a smile. There’s no wonder that so many stepmoms are reaching for antidepressants and anxiety medication. And we wonder why so many are just angry all the time.
Hopefully, with stepmoms like Wednesday Martin, author of Stepmonster, and myself included, speaking out and encouraging other stepmothers to do the same, things will slowly but surely begin to change. Stepmothers should feel free to say NO, just as we encourage mothers to do, without guilt or fear of being labeled as wicked. It must be understood that these women feel overwhelmed as well. It must be understood that unrealistic demands should not be placed on them. It must be understood, by husbands, that they need YOU to step up and be the partner that they married. It must be understood that these are women with feelings, and although they may not have directly experienced the divorce with you, they often times have to deal with the aftermath, and they need some support and understanding, too! They deserve to have a voice and a right to be heard in the stepfamily.
Stepmothers, I am once again encouraging you to aim for balance in your stepfamily life. You do not have to be everything to everyone, heal everyone’s pain and/or be everyone’s punching bag in order to be a good stepmother. You shouldn’t be expected or allow yourself to sacrifice your own mental health for the sake of everyone else’s. Below are ways in which you can protect your sanity and still be a good stepmother.
- Learn to say NO! If it’s your husband’s weekend to have his kids, but you both know he’s going to be at work all weekend, it’s okay to express that you need a break and would like for your husband to choose another weekend. His ex-wife should understand that the primary reason for establishing visitation is so that they kids can spend time with their dad and not you. You are not bound by the visitation order, so if you need a moment, request it and then take it – WITHOUT GUILT!
- Create a co-parenting plan with your husband regarding household rules and consequences, which you both agree on, and then stick to it. Children shouldn’t be allowed to use the divorce as a lifelong crutch. Allowing them to avoid rules and responsibility because YOU feel guilty as a parent is not parenting and only creates more problems for the child and the stepfamily. Co-parenting plans help avoid conflict with the kids and your husband regarding discipline, and help you and your spouse create and present a more unified front. It also helps to re-create some normalcy in their lives again.
- Constantly work on building and maintaining couple strength. Schedule date nights with your husband. Marriage is work and you have to work hard at remaining connected, especially in the stepfamily. During these times, make it a rule that you will not discuss ex-spouses, kids, stepkids or drama. Date night is a DRAMA FREE ZONE!
- Learn to let some things go. Remember that you don’t have to be involved in every single aspect of your stepchildren’s lives. For example, it’s okay to let mom and dad attend the parent teacher conference. It really isn’t necessary for you to be there. Instead of seeing it as some sort of slap in the face because you help with homework, too, use this time to either have some alone time with your own children or get your nails done, if you don’t have any children of your own.
- Accept the fact that you don’t need to be perfect. You’ll be surprised at how relieved you feel when you have more realistic expectations of yourself than what is imposed on you by public opinion.
- Realize and accept that you WILL NOT BE ABLE TO PLEASE EVERYONE! Your primary focus should be on your immediate family. No matter what some say, you did not marry your husband, his kids AND his ex-wife, and suggesting this is only implying that it is your job to keep them ALL happy – NOT. You married your husband and you are the ones who have to build a solid team in order to raise your children and live happily ever after. If ex-wife doesn’t like it – TOUGH. There are two people in our marriage, not three or four. I’ve never seen a husband, wife and ex-wife rocking on their front porch when they are 80 years old. Ex-spouses are co-parenting partners, but they are not and shouldn’t be allowed to be participants in your marriage.
- Finally, if you feel you are depressed seek the help of a medical doctor and then call a stepfamily counselor to help get you back on track to getting some balance back in your life again. It’s okay to ask for help!
My mother always told me that how you start out in any relationship is often times how you’ll end up. If you allow someone to walk all over you from the very beginning then that will be their expectation of you. She has always encouraged me to set my own boundaries and expectations of myself and others. So stepmothers, don’t start off allowing your husband, his kids or the ex-wife to think that you are going to be their punching bag. Setting boundaries for yourself and others is not wicked. As a matter of fact, it’s encouraged and expected in order for everyone to have some sort of peace of mind. And if an ex-wife or a husband has a problem with it, they are the ones who need to be examined, not you! The stepfamily can work and thrive, but the adults have to first have the same goal and be supported in their roles, even the stepmother.