Selected Articles

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!

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.

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.

Share |