When Rachelle Katz, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of The Happy Stepmother, created her website, stepsforstepmothers.com, she was floored by the response. Thousands registered, eagerly sharing their experiences. These moms needed support — and wanted to be heard. “It seems to have opened a crack in an emotional dam for stepmothers around the world,” she says.
When families blend, everyone arrives with a set of rules, habits, even a family culture they’ve established in a previous life. As James Bray writes in his book Stepfamilies, no one enters stepfamily life problem-free.
“Children are bound to absent parents; adults, to past lives and past marriages,” says Bray. “These invisible psychological bonds are the ghosts at the table, and because they play on the most elemental emotions — emotions like love and loyalty and guilt and fear — they have the power to tear a marriage and a stepfamily apart.”
When Ushani Nanayakkara met her husband, Steve, his sons were 5 and 7, the same age as her own two boys. The couple eventually married and moved the brood into Nanayakkara’s Renton home, Brady Bunch style. Fourteen years later, they’re still together; the two oldest boys have gone off to college. “We’ve been really lucky,” she says.
Nanayakkara’s family beat the odds. Studies show that 60 percent of second marriages end in divorce, most within the first two years.
What’s their secret? For starters, Nanayakkara and her husband never made negative comments about the other’s ex-spouse. “You aren’t a substitute for the biological parent,” she says. “Kids love their parents, and anything that you do to put them down might turn the kids away.”
Setting up house rules
Carol Bailey — a stepmother herself — has worked with hundreds of stepfamilies in her practice as a Seattle family law attorney. She knows that it’s common for kids to resent the new stepparent, particularly if discipline was lax before the stepparent joined the family.
Parents can sidestep this kind of animosity by making sure the children know that both parents share rule-making decisions, she says. “Stepfamilies must establish clear house rules and be on the same page right from the beginning.”
Nanayakkara says that at first, this was a challenge for her family. “I was much more strict about bedtime, which resulted in huge battles.” She and her husband eventually settled on a bedtime ritual that worked for everyone: The boys were to be in their rooms for the night, but were allowed to read or quietly listen to music.
Enforcing the rules was most difficult when the boys were between the ages of 5 and 9. “They are testing the boundaries at this age,” she says. “Our rule was, I may not be your real mom, but I am one of the two adults in this house, and these are the rules when you are here.”
Connecting with your stepchildren
Forging a connection with stepchildren presents another challenge. Bailey says stepparents should act friendly and interested without “overdoing” it. “Don’t try to be the new supermom or superdad,” she says. “And don’t rush in and think you’re going to give the children all the things they’ve never had before.” Go slowly, Bailey suggests, and give the relationship time to develop.
Striking this balance can be particularly difficult for stepmothers of young school-age children, says Katz, because kids this age still need care and supervision. Stepmoms often take on all of the cooking, cleaning and chauffeuring. “They are so desperate to avoid being considered evil stepmothers,” she says.
Stepmothers and their partners should decide which parent is responsible for which tasks. “When roles are clearly defined, it prevents stepmothers from overfunctioning and keeps the expectations of their partners realistic,” Katz says.
Sometimes a shared interest or activity is the best way for stepparents to connect. Patrick Coleman, a 63-year-old Edmonds stepfather of two, had no children of his own when he married his wife, Cynthia, in 2009. Coleman, who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, has found that his interest in academics offered a natural way for him to stay involved with his stepchildren. Helping them with their schoolwork has brought him closer to his stepchildren — and they’ve been getting better grades.
Coleman enjoys spending time with his stepchildren and finds being a stepfather rewarding. “After getting married to a woman with children so late in my life, I feel blessed to be able to experience a family life of my own.”
Laura Mackenzie is a freelance writer. She lives in Redmond with her husband and two children, ages 7 and 11.
6 great books for stepparents
The Happy Stepmotherby Rachelle Katz
Stepfamilies by James H. Bray and John Kelly
Keys to Successful Stepfathering by Carl E. Pickhardt
Stepcoupling by Susan Wisdom and Jennifer Green
Stepmonster by Wednesday Martin
A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom by Jacquelyn B. Fletcher
6 Tips for stepparenting success
1. Don’t feel pressure to blend. The term “blended family” can put undue pressure on families to achieve a level of harmony that may not be realistic. Stepfamily relationships are complex, and it’s not a failure if a family doesn’t blend.
2. Watch out for loyalty conflicts. In stepfamilies, a united front on discipline is essential.
3. If the biological parent doesn’t consistently back up the stepparent, he or she will appear to be taking sides — with the children on one side and the stepparent on the other.
4. Try to get along with your ex-spouse. The relationship between the biological parents can have a big impact on the success of a stepfamily. If the relationship is good, then the focus is more on parenting and finding what works best for the kids.
5. Put yourself in your child’s shoes. The transition to becoming a stepfamily can be very difficult for children, and they will be sensitive. Try not to take their behavior personally.
6. Don’t wait to seek outside support. Seek help right at the beginning, before you start having problems. The best support is preventive. Don’t be naïve about the task at hand.
Source: Carol Bailey, family law attorney, Carol Bailey & Associates Integrative Family Law