Why Stepmoms Have Such a Bad Rap

Creating a blended family and attempting to be a resource and a role model for a child who is not your own is a tough situation for anyone, but it can often be even tougher for women. The role can be thankless and demoralizing and the already-difficult job isn’t helped in the slightest by societal expectations that stepmothers will overstep boundaries, play favorites, and generally act in unacceptable ways. Put simply, stepparents, and stepmoms, in particular, get a bad rap.

My guest this week is Jean McBride, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Colorado, who has spent her career working with families in transition. Jean specializes in divorce adjustment, parenting after divorce, remarriage, and stepfamilies. She teaches an online course as well as divorce classes, and she’s the author of two books, Encouraging Words for New Stepmothers and Talking to Children About Divorce.

In our last conversation, Jean and I talked about her philosophy on blending families effectively and she shared a few suggestions for how to make the experience as harmonious as possible. This time we discuss why step-parents, and stepmothers, in particular, have such a bad reputation. Jean will also tell us what loving step parents can do to sidestep the unfair expectations and thrive despite a situation that can feel like they’re being set up to fail.

 

Step-Parenting is Harder for Stepmoms

According to Psychology Today, step-parenting is not only hard, but it can also be harder for stepmothers than for stepfathers, for several reasons. One reason may be that the new husband implicitly or explicitly expects the new wife to establish order in the blended household, setting up the stepmother for a clash with stepchildren who may already be suspicious and resentful of her. In addition, women, in general, tend to feel more stressed and depressed when there is tension in the home. Women also tend to feel more worried and guilty and tend to be more involved in the lives of the people around them. Also, her stepchildren may feel guilty towards their biological mother for allowing the stepmother to parent them, and so they may resist her well-intentioned efforts.

“Absolutely,” Jean said. “That was why I wrote my book, Encouraging Words for New Stepmothers. In the book, I say that being a stepmother is like setting your hair on fire and trying to put it out with a hammer. It sometimes feels that way. It’s a very hard job.”

Jean says that stepmothers step into a situation where they’re expected to parent, but also where the role has already been filled by a mother who, as often as not, does not want to share.

“I think mothers are not as good at sharing their children as fathers are,” Jean said. Stepmothers want to do a good job, they try really hard, but often they’re just shut out.”

Besides, stepmothers are women, while stepfathers are men. Research shows that women tend to nurture anger and hard feelings longer after a divorce than men, who are more likely to expect forgiveness and smooth sailing. This means that an ex-wife may be very resentful of her ex-husband’s new partner, and may try to create waves in the new relationship.

 

The Archetype

There’s also something to be said for the image of the wicked stepmother, the so-called “stepmonster”, a stereotype which is baked into most of our psyches from an early age after repeated viewings of Disney films.

“It’s sort of an archetype in our society,” Jean said, “and people don’t even realize that they have it. They just think that stepmothers are going to be mean or wicked.”

Stepmothers often accidentally feed the archetype by making huge mistakes while trying to do the right thing.

“There’s just a lot to overcome,” Jean said. “I always advise stepmothers that your job is not to get the baby’s first haircut. Your job is not to get the child her first bra. Those are things that mothers really want to do.”

And sometimes stepmothers may be trying to navigate all of these difficult situations with a child that they really don’t even like.

“We all have the benefit of learning to love our children as they grow up and from the get-go,” Jean said. “But if you’ve inherited a 13-year-old stepson with piercings and tattoos and an attitude, that’s a challenge.”

 

What About Stepfathers?

All of this is not to say that stepfathers have it easy. Stepfathers certainly have challenges, too.

The biggest one, Jean said, is that men often try to step into a blended family and become the disciplinarian

“We kind of have to earn that trust with our kids,” Jean said. “They don’t know it exactly, but they sort of give us permission to discipline them. We never want to tell them that, but that is really true.”

Another challenge for stepfathers is that there’s a tendency for them to spend more time with their stepchildren than they might with their biological children, if they have them, Jean said.

If you missed the first post in this series, it’s well worth a read. Jean shared her brilliant philosophy on co-parenting with us. Be sure to join us for the other posts in this series. We’ll learn some encouraging information for anyone in a blended family and what some best practices are for handling the holidays and other tricky times.