Friday, May 7, 2010

Sagas of a Step-Mother: Tips for Getting Along with your Step-Children's Mother

Being a step-mother is difficult. Sometimes I think being a step-mother is even more difficult than being a mother. The word “step-mother” carries many negative implications and connotations. It implies you’re not a real mother. It implies that you’re second-rate.; that you’re somehow, in some way, inferior to the “real mother”. Terms like ‘evil step-mother’ or ‘step-monster’ are commonly used to refer to step-mothers. When a woman, regardless of the circumstances, moves into the role of stepmother, she starts out fighting a losing battle.

Almost immediately after becoming a step-mother, a woman must prove herself. Sadly, with all eyes on her, she must prove herself worthy of the demeaning title she has acquired. To her husband, she must prove that she can handle the responsibility of playing an active role (regardless of what that role may come to be) in his child’s live. To her step-children she must prove that she will be a constant in their father’s live, and therefore a constant in their lives. She must also prove to her step-children that she is worthy of their love and respect. She must prove to her step-children that she is not the enemy. To her new in-laws she must prove that she can fill the shoes of the ex-wife, the ex-sister-in-law, ex-daughter-in-law. To the ex-wife, or the “real” mom, she must prove that she is not a threat.

That, I ultimately believe, is the key to forming a positive relationship with your step-children – proving to their mother that you are not a threat to her glorified title of mom. The children will take their cues from their mother. If she accepts you, then you are golden. If she tells the children that it’s ok to love you, then they will do so openly and honestly. If she does not feel threatened by your new role in her children’s lives, then no one else will either. The problem is that most likely she will feel threatened by you, at least initially.

Mothers naturally, instinctively, are protective of their children. If you are a step-mom who also has your own children, you will most likely understand, and even be able to relate, to this primitive instinct to protect your child. For a childless step-mother, this may be a more difficult concept to understand (but it can be done). Therefore, when you arrive on the scene, most “real” mothers’ protective instincts will kick into high gear and you are perceived as a threat to the safety and well-being of their children. And, if the children’s mother still has not come to terms with the demise of her relationship with your husband, you will be perceived as even more of a threat.

There are so many different dynamics that can play into the relationships in a blended family. Step-mothers, like any New Breed Mom, each have their own set of unique circumstances contributing to their current situation. In some cases this may include “baggage” in the form of an ex-wife who has not come to terms with the failures surrounding her past relationship with your husband. If this situation hits home for you, there is a bigger issue than the children’s mother being cautious of a new woman having an influence on her children, and the suggestions that follow would most likely not apply to you – at least not at this point of your step-mother – mother relationship.

Suggestion #1: The safety and well-being of the children must always be the number one priority. Don’t speak negatively about the children’s mother when they are in earshot. Even if what you are saying is true, you will only serve to make your step-children see you as the enemy – not to mention it will insight feelings of hostility, anger, and resentment. Do not, under any circumstances, make the children feel put in the middle of adult conflict. Children are emotionally fragile, especially if they have been through a divorce. Developmentally, young children are egocentric; meaning that when there is conflict, they will blame themselves.

Suggestion #2: Know your place while also setting healthy boundaries. Don’t get argumentative or confrontation towards the children’s mother – period. It is not your place to tell her if she has made a mistake or if you and your husband don’t like the way she is handling something concerning the children. But, you also must not be a doormat. If there is tension brewing, or if she outright makes a snarky comment towards you, address it in a clear, calm, and direct manner. (Ie. I can tell that you are angry I am attending Suzie’s parent-teacher conference. I am not trying to step on your toes. I simply want to be aware of Suzie’s school progress so that I can help her with her homework. ) Be sure to choose and appropriate time and place when addressing concerns. In the example above, it would not be appropriate to make this statement in front of the teacher, but would be appropriate to make this statement in the privacy of the hallway when only you, your husband, and his ex are present.

Suggestion #3: Make an effort to be pleasant to your step-children’s mother even if she does not (initially) reciprocate. This is a difficult thing to do. New step-mothers are often coping with feelings of jealousy, inadequacy, and condemnation concerning their interactions with their step-children’s mother. No matter how difficult it might be for you to go out of your way to say hello or attempt to make small talk with your husband’s ex while attending child-related activities, it will eventually be noticed and help to make life easier on everyone involved.

The information and suggestions above only begin to touch the tip of the iceberg when discussing the complicated dynamics that are involved in step-parenting and blended family relationships. For woman, the experience of being a step-parent is, by nature, much more emotionally-ridden that it is for men. To gracefully (or not so gracefully) step into the role of a “step-mother” requires the skills of a New Breed of Mom.

Additional Resources on Step-Parenting – Author of Stepmonster


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