After marrying a man with adolescent daughters, Dr Wednesday Martin discovered that creating a happy stepfamily takes more than kindness and good intentions. Her response was to write Stepmonster: A New Look At Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel And Act The Way We Do, exploring the stepmother/stepchild relationship. Here she tells Rebecca Alexander what she’s learnt about what makes for happy step-parenting
What led you to write about stepmothers?
I wrote this book out of curiosity and personal desperation. Like most stepmothers, I was very isolated. I didn’t know other stepmothers, and the information available was extremely bland, and was based on how you should act, how you should feel, what you should be doing with your step-children, instead of explaining the reality of what women actually encounter. It’s a bit like driving with the wrong map – you’re driving around London but you’ve been given a map of Leeds. You’ve been handed a first family map. And you can’t drive around a second family with a first family map, because first families and second families are different. And this can lead to enormous confusion and frustration.
Most parents would agree that parenting can be a tough job. What additional pressures do step-parents, and particularly stepmothers, face?
Women with step-children deal with a tremendous amount of negative judgment. Part of it is because of Walt Disney and the Brothers Grimm stories, where wicked stepmothers abound. Part of it is because society believes that it knows exactly how stepmothers should feel and act and what they should do, so they inherit this social pressure. The third reason is that they feel pressure from their husbands or partners to ‘blend’ everyone together and make a beautiful family. And finally, they feel internal pressure from themselves because they believe that if you’re a good woman and a good person and a good wife, then a step-family will happen easily. None of those things is true.
Isn’t the same true for stepfathers?
Step-parenthood is no cakewalk, whether you’re a stepmother or a stepfather. However, the research shows that children and young adults are generally more open and less rejecting and hostile towards a stepfather. This may be because stepfathers do not feel the same pressure to blend the family as stepmothers do, so they are less likely to activate a child’s loyalty binds. Also, when you are a stepmother, there is a mother and ex-wife in the picture, and the interactions between you can create conflict.
You just mentioned a child’s ‘loyalty bind’ – what is this?
It’s the feeling that if a child gives their stepmother a chance, it will break their mother’s heart into 1,000 pieces – that they’re betraying their mother. A stepchild can feel a loyalty bind whether they’re four or 64 – it’s very common. Most children post-divorce are in a loyalty bind.
Can loyalty binds be loosened?
Yes. Mothers can explain to their child or children that it’s all right to give their stepmother a chance. Fathers can tell their children that they don’t have to love or even like their stepmother, but that the rule in their house is that they must be polite to her. And stepmothers can help by saying something like ‘I know you already have a mum, and that’s a really special relationship. And I’m not your mum, I’m your dad’s wife/partner. But we’ll find a way to be friends – we can have a different kind of relationship.’ When you say this to a little child, you can see the confusion and loyalty conflict melt away – they understand you’re not trying to step on their mother’s toes. Also, never say a negative word about the children’s mother, even though it can be hard.
What other steps can stepmothers take to build their relationship with their stepchildren?
Whatever the children’s ages, take up shoulder-to-shoulder activities rather than eyeball-to-eyeball activities. This could be doing a giant jigsaw puzzle, doing some arts or crafts, or watching a film together, or driving your stepchild in the car. You’re not concentrating on talking to each other or building a relationship, which is a lot of pressure. Instead, you’re doing a low-pressure, easy, fun thing, and thereby building a connection. It’s much better than sitting down and having a heart to heart or trying to do something really special, like taking them for tea at the Dorchester. That’s a lot of pressure.
What are the positives about being a stepmother?
Often teenagers will turn to their step-parents during their most difficult developmental years when they’re feeling upset and dejected, and build closeness during times when they don’t trust their parents or their teachers. If you’ve been hanging back, not pressuring them or trying to behave like a parent, doing shoulder-to-shoulder activities, then in the teenage years that relationship can blossom into one of the most special relationships in the step-parent’s and stepchild’s life, precisely because you haven’t put labels or expectations on it that it’s supposed to be parental. That’s the really great news.