Selected Articles


By Rose Marie Hoffman*
STEPFAMILIES Quarterly, Summer 1995

Overwhelmingly the literature paints a bleaker picture of life as a stepmother than as a stepfather. In fact, some have argued that stepmother-stepchild relationships have the potential to be particularly problematic for both stepmothers and stepchildren. This is particularly true when the stepchild resides with the father and his new wife.

Consider for a moment the obstacles residential stepmothers likely encounter. We know that after divorce noncustodial mothers maintain more frequent and consistent contact with their children in comparison to noncustodial fathers. As such, mothers are more likely to interfere, consciously or unconsciously, with the development of a bond between residential stepmothers and stepchildren. In addition, children's attachment to their mothers is believed to be stronger than their attachment to fathers. This stronger attachment may make it more difficult for children to accept another mother-figure in their lives than for them to accept another father-figure.

Still another complication is the "invisible burden of fantasy" that Papernow (1993) noted, which is characteristic of the earliest stages of stepfamily development. This fantasy weighs even more heavily on the residential stepmother who often seeks to provide the stepchildren with their first experience of effective mothering. Expectations held by the stepmother and by the stepchildren are more likely to be either overly hopeful or overly negative rather than realistic. Either position can hinder reasonable development of good relationships.

Unguided by norms, role clarity, or realistic expectations, the stepmother works to "make up for the past" experiences of the stepchildren, only to come to the awareness that she is overwhelmed, frustrated, and less committed to them than she believes she should be. In turn, her stepchild(ren) may react to her frustration, recoiling from their own thwarted fantasies and unmet expectations. The lack of role models for women who become stepmothers means that women have nowhere to turn for meaningful advice. Residential stepmothers are simply far fewer in numbers than are residential stepfathers.

The lack of role models also can be problematic for stepchildren. For children it also means that fewer of their friends are in similar family structures, so there are fewer children with whom stepchildren in stepmother families can identify. Furthermore, the few models that do exist are often restricted to popular fairy tales where the relationship between the stepmother and stepchild is characterized by an innocent child hated and abused by a "wicked" stepmother. Another factor that makes being a residential stepmother more difficult is the set of circumstances that led to the biological father gaining custody of his children. In general, fathers are awarded custody by the courts when the biological mother is abusive, dysfunctional, or has abandoned the child. Other fathers obtain physical custody through more informal means, commonly as the child experiences adolescence and conflict between the biological mother and child escalates. In either case, turbulence more likely precedes the formation of a residential stepmother than a stepfather family.

Despite the changing roles of men and women, women bear the primary responsibilities for everyday care, maintenance, and nurturing of children. Stepmothers are not excused from these responsibilities. Yet, stepmothers report lower marital satisfaction when they assume primary responsibility for the care of stepchildren. In addition, stepmothers report greater dissatisfaction with their roles and exhibit higher levels of stress than do stepfathers. It's likely that the expectations for women around child care, unrealistic as they may be, impose added stress and strengthen the potential for difficult relationships within the residential stepmother family. In fact, some research has documented the greater confusion, more problematic interaction, and poorer adjustment of both stepmothers and stepchildren in these families.

Some scholars have identified factors associated with better stepmother-stepchild relationships. Research indicates that residential stepmothers do better if they adopt a less active disciplinary role than their husbands, while working toward establishing a more positive relationship with stepchildren. This is not to suggest that "anything goes," or that total disengagement is the best approach to parenting by stepmothers. Evidence suggests that when fathers assume more responsibility in limit-setting behaviors, the stepmother reports more marital satisfaction. Importantly, we also know that when fathers and stepmothers agree about childrearing issues and behaviors, stepmothers feel better about their marriages. This good feeling can and often is reflected in more positive relationships with stepchildren.

Findings regarding the role of consensus between stepmother and father on childrearing point to a critical need for spouses in stepfamilies to support one another in parenting children. Because a strong marital relationship is vital to building a healthy stepmother-stepchild relationship, couples must start here to enhance stepfamily functioning. A key is in building a working alliance between the spouses that helps to clarify the stepparent role. It is logical that getting clear about what her role is to be should mitigate against conflict between spouses that may potentially ensue from undefined and unagreed upon role expectations.

An appropriate sign of stepfamily adjustment is engaging in behaviors that are mutually satisfying to adults and children. This can be accomplished by exploring diverse ways of behaving as stepparents, rather than attempting to fulfill unrealistic expectations built on a first-family model.

* Rose Marie Hoffman is a doctoral student in the Department of Counseling and Educational Development at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Before enrolling in her doctoral program, she was a school counselor and specialized in work with children of divorce and remarriage.


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