FANTASY EXPECTATIONS OF LIFE AS A STEPMOTHER
Emily Visher, Ph.D.
Stepfamilies Quarterly, Winter 1994
I woke up suddenly one morning because I had just been dreaming that John and I were getting married and we couldn't keep our children from fighting with us and each other. What a relief to realize it was only a dream and that the family I love so much still existed! Thinking of other stepmothers just starting out, I grabbed a pencil and wrote the following in an attempt to put my nightmare behind me.
When I remarried 34 years ago, I not only tripped over unrealistic expectations, I literally fell flat on my face at first - and even today one or two of those expectations keep sneaking up. Thirty-four years ago I became the mother/stepmother of the house. I entered the door unarmed with any information on the subject and full of the most unreasonable expectations one could imagine!
- My stepchildren would continue to think I was wonderful. They had seemed to think so before we were married.
- My stepchildren would be very similar to my own children. Of course they weren't. How could they be? They'd grown up in a totally different environment.
- The community would be warm and welcoming to me. We did have a new home, but it was in John's territory. I can realize now that to his friends and acquaintances I must have appeared like a strange Martian suddenly dropping out of the sky.
- The whole bunch of us — and there were a bunch, (10 at full count)--would be delighted to do all these wonderful family things together. But my children had been used to having me to themselves, and John's children had had very special times with him when they had trotted off to the zoo or the beach to have a full day of his undivided attention.
- John and I would agree, of course, on how to keep a house, raise children, deal with ex spouses, juggle in-laws. But we found ourselves on a shakedown cruise that went on and on with no land suddenly popping into view.
And I have found that I was not alone in my expectations! Even though there is at least some sharing of feelings and information, stepparents and remarried parents are still tripping over the same, or similar expectations - plus others I haven't mentioned.
Even though society is changing, I believe that women are still seen as setting the emotional tone for the family, being the person ultimately responsible for children and household. Men are taking more and more responsibility in these areas, but they are usually considered "helpers." This still puts the woman in the role of keeping the household (and people therein) under control and running smoothly. As a result, I think that women have unrealistic expectations similar to those I had, though we all respond to them in our own particular ways. In trying to have a household that runs smoothly, women knock themselves out to keep the place neat and tidy, the children well behaved, gourmet meals on the table, and perhaps work 6-8 hours a day outside of the home, too.
There is pressure, pressure, pressure, and everyone tends to react negatively. This means little or no appreciation coming in — even from a husband or partner. After a time, the well of goodwill and giving is completely empty. There is no more to give. And if you've never had any children before, it is even harder. There are no little darlings of your own whom you just know, at a gut level, love you. Too, you have not learned slowly and steadily that children are noisy and messy, they hate to wash dishes, feed the dog, make their beds, and some say "no" or "I forgot" at every opportunity. To add to it all, the children's father may have little patience and understanding of how you're feeling. He may have very different feelings after growing into fatherhood with these children who think he's just the greatest! Usually the older children are, the harder it is to work out stepfamily rules and roles.
Changes and transitions are unsettling at best, even when they are ones we want. In remarriage, there are many changes and therefore many losses to deal with. The older the children in any family, the more input they want and need, the more settled they are in their ways, and the more they need connection with their peer group. In stepfamilies, they have not chosen all the changes they face, so they often feel helpless and rebel earlier than in nuclear families. They tend to get out on their own more quickly - often returning later to relate to the family as young adults, so long as the door has been left open.
Let me offer a few suggestions that I feel help remarried mothers/stepmothers in stepfamilies.
- Remember that it takes time for relationships to develop. Just let happen what is going to happen between you and your stepchildren. Be around at times if they want to talk to you, watch TV with you, pull weeds with you, but let them approach you at their own pace.
- Really plan regular times to do something fun together with your partner. If you wait for some "free time" to turn up, you'll never make it out of the house together!
- If you've had no children, talk to women who have. Read Dr. Spock or take a course on child development, just to get some idea of what to expect at certain ages. • Read articles and books and attend lectures and classes about the special structure and challenges in stepfamilies. Share these with your partner.
- If you are a remarried mother you are in a great position to help the family come together as a household unit because you belong already in both groups - the couple group, and a parent-child group. Stand back, don't get caught in the middle, and let the new relationships grow. Stepparents and stepchildren get to know each other by going to the store together, taking a walk together, reading a story together, working out ways of working together. At other times, you can do things alone with your biological children to deepen and maintain those relationships.
- Decide as a couple on 3-4 specific house rules that are important and that you both can agree on - and let the other things go. No two people do things the same way. Trying to deal with any more than these 3-4 specific items simply frustrates everyone!
- As much as humanly possible, let your children and stepchildren relate to their other biological parent without hearing negatives about that person. They are still related to that parent and therefore feel as if they are being criticized when that person is criticized. As a result, they usually end up behaving in ways you don't like.
- Let everyone help plan fun things to do so you will get away from daily tasks and have new traditions of your own. This will make for pleasant memories in the future.
- All families, of any type, in any culture, have their moments of joy, moments of sorrow, moments of anger, and moments of love. To expect only the positive leads to disappointments and self doubt.
Stepfamilies can be great, especially when you don't trip over the terribly unrealistic expectation that they will be the same as the Brady Bunch or the family of your youthful dreams. I wish I'd realized this earlier!
* Emily Visher, Ph.D., is the co-founder with her husband John, of the Stepfamily Association of America. Emily is a Board Member emeritus of SAA, author, lecturer, and frequent contributor to this quarterly publication.