For women without children, entering into marriage with a man who already has kids may feel like "I can finally have a family." But unfortunately, that often doesn't work out. Distance makes a difference, as does the ages of the children when the stepmom enters their lives. It’s especially hard to be accepted as part of the family when kids are older. Ages 10-14 are usually the most difficult.
Adolescents in general are self-absorbed. Relationships with parents they’ve known their whole lives are strained enough. If the teenagers live with their mother and Dad remarries, his new wife might be rejected out of loyalty to their biological mom. They may not allow themselves to see that this new woman is okay. Chances are she is quite different from their "real" mom, and any attempts to connect with her are shut down.
Insecurities can also arise if the older kids sense that Dad’s second marriage is a good one. Wondering why their own parents’ marriage didn’t work out might bring up questions. "Did he not try hard enough with my mom? Was it my mom who screwed it up?" These thoughts can create a lot of anger and resentment, usually remaining unspoken and unresolved. Blaming their parents or admitting that they made mistakes is too painful. So often the offending party becomes the newcomer on the scene: the stepmom. Regardless of how hard she tries to be accepted, the new stepmother’s efforts are rejected or ignored. She gets no credit for all the things she does. Not receiving acknowledgement on Mother’s Day can be a painful reminder that she is an outsider, not considered a part of the family.
As an emotionally-focused therapy (EFT) specialist who experiences this both personally and professionally. I am very aware of the helpless feeling at times when your wife feels disregarded. Although the family transition may be easier when kids have a good relationship with their father, Dad’s influence is usually minimal with teenagers. Typically he spends less time with these children as they become more independent.
Research reported in Dr. Diana Weiss-Wisdom’s book, Wisdom on Step Parenting: How to Succeed Where Others Fail, shows that only twenty percent of stepchildren feel close to their stepmothers. With this statistic, it comes as no surprise that Mother’s Day can be an awkward, uncomfortable holiday for stepfamilies. The non custodial family is usually most impacted, due to not having as much bonding time together. However, this designated holiday honoring maternal figures is most painful for stepmoms. Particularly those who have no biological children of their own.
What can a Father Do?
So how can the biological father help his wife through this dilemma? Dad is often torn with his allegiance. He understands the need to defend his wife who is in pain. But on the other hand, understands the conflicted feelings of his children. If he sides with his kids, his wife feels rejected and unsupported. If he tries to excuse them by saying "they’re not like that all the time," her painful reply is likely “but I don’t get to see that other side.”
Five ways to Keep your Marriage Strong on Mothers Day
What’s Most Important?
Dads, experiencing self-blame, have to be realistic. The statistic given in Wisdom’s book means that eighty percent of children do not have a close relationship with their stepparents. Given the chances that a strong connection between your children and the woman you love is unlikely, it’s time to regroup. Focus on the important bond that absolutely can and should be strengthened, your marriage.
Although I am offering advice from an EFT therapist and father’s point of view, there is a tough and perhaps controversial message here for all parents: Children are temporary. You raise them and do the best you can, but in the end, it’s really just about you and your partner. Your connections and loyalties have to be to each other to last the long haul. While you may not be able to change your children’s behavior, you can help your wife to not feel alone. She needs to know that she is loved and unconditionally accepted by you.
So Dads: On future Mother’s Days, make sure to celebrate your wife’s stepmother status and honor her importance to the family. With or without your children’s participation, make sure she knows that your kids are lucky she’s in their lives. Her presence brings you joy and pleasure and that strong emotion will benefit your children. Having a good marriage serves as a good role model. And because she hasn’t been with your children since the beginning, a stepmom brings a more objective viewpoint. If you trust her (and hopefully you certainly do), give her credit and let her opinions help guide you through the family interactions ahead.
With you by her side, stepmoms can handle Mother’s Day — and any day — because of your support.
Stuart is a Marriage and Family counselor with a private practice in Scottsdale, Arizona. Stuart's practice is exclusive to individuals, couples and families who are having relationship difficulties. Stuart's advanced training in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) helps families who are having difficulty feeling close and connected to one another. He assists families in finding ways to deepen their relationship by understanding what each persons needs in that particular relationship. He helps families develop a pathway to establishing a closeness where everyone feels important and special. For more information on his practice go to www.TheCouplesExpertScottsdale.com.
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Let your children know that you won’t tolerate them treating their stepmom badly, just like you would not tolerate her treating them badly.
Remember that this is not a competition for love. The emotional feelings you have for your wife are totally different from the way you feel about your children. Let your wife know she is special.
Cultivating a safe and secure relationship with your partner will require a lot of work. But it is absolutely worth the effort. Take the time to be vulnerable and share how important your wife is to you.
How you deal with conflict is always more important than the conflict itself. Learn to empathize and try to see the situation from her point of view. Allow yourself to be vulnerable here. Nothing is more important to you than her feeling loved, respected and special. No issue is worth making her feel unimportant, even when it comes to the children.