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The Trials of Being a Stepmother

There's no doubt that being a stepmother is one of the most difficult roles any adult will ever assume. So much pain can be avoided if you can agree on some very basic definitions of that role, and be alert to sensitivities with it.

To handle this situation with the utmost efficiency, both the biological parent and the stepmother should begin with an open and candid discussion about the fears and expectations regarding the relationship with the kids. Each should know what the other expects concerning the stepmother's involvement in guiding, supervising and disciplining the kids. Once you understand what each other's expectations are, you have a place to start shaping what the stepmother role will be. I always think it's important to first identify what you can agree on and thereby narrow your differences. How you ultimately define the stepmother role will, of course, be up to you. The following are my recommendations based on what I've seen work, what I've seen fail and how I think it's best to set up and define the stepmother role:

1. If you as a biological parent are having frustrations with the stepparent and what they're doing in relation to your kids, I encourage you at a very early point to stop complaining and start specifically asking for what you want and need. If, for example, you feel they're spending more time playing games with their kids, ask them specifically, for example, to play three board games per week with your youngster. Specifically ask for what you specifically want.

2. If you're the stepmother in a truly blended family, where both you and your spouse have kids being merged into a "yours, mine and ours" scenario, you must take great care not to be perceived as playing favorites through a double standard in which your kids enjoy a better standard of treatment than your step children. The truth is, however unpopular or politically incorrect it may be to say, you'll very likely have decidedly stronger positive emotional feelings for your biological kids than for your step children, at least in the beginning. You'll need to cloak this difference in emotional intensity. As time goes on and you share life experiences with your step children, there will be a leveling of emotions toward all of the kids. In the meantime, you should be hypersensitive to the need to deal with each in a like fashion. It can be very helpful in the early stages to actually quantify and balance the time, activities and money spent on biological and non-biological kids.

3. In relating to all the kids, the stepparent should seek to define her relationship as that of an ally and supporter. Whether the stepparent is the same or opposite-sexed parent, their presence can play an important balancing role in terms of modeling and information-giving about life from the male or female point of view. The role of ally and supporter is in no way to be construed as an attempt to replace the biological parent.

4. It's important that the stepmother not have unrealistic expectations about their level of closeness or intimacy with the step children. Relationships are built, and it takes time and shared experiences to create a meaningful one. The stepmother should also be aware that the youngster may be experiencing a fair amount of emotional confusion — and may in fact feel guilty that they're betraying their biological mother by having a close and caring relationship with their stepmother. Great care and patience should be taken to allow the youngster an opportunity to work through those feelings.

5. It's my strong belief that unless you as the stepmother are added to the family when the kids are very young, it will most likely be very difficult for you to discipline your spouse's kids. Every situation is different, but in most situations, disciplining your non-biological kids is fraught with danger, since it's likely to create resentment on the part of your spouse. Again, this isn't always the case, and if that's not the circumstance in your family, that's great, because it can give the biological parent an additional resource for handling discipline issues. While I don't believe it's very likely a workable situation for a stepmother to be a direct disciplinarian, it's extremely important that the stepmother be an active supporter of the biological parent's disciplinary efforts. Both biological parents and stepparents should discuss the rules of the house and negotiate an agreement for what standards the kids will be held to. This element of family life should be subject to the same negotiation and joint ownership as any other family situation.

6. The stepmother should actively support the youngster's relationship with the biological mother no longer in the home. If you are in the role of stepmother, you should make it a priority to nurture a relationship between you and the biological mother and to find every possible way you can to support a relationship between her and her kids. By taking the high road of facilitation, you'll find it easier to overcome feelings of resentment both on the part of the biological mother and the kids she no longer has daily access to. This may require some real internal commitment on your part, because supporting your step children's relationship with their biological but absent parent may seem tantamount to also supporting that parent's relationship with your spouse. Don't let jealousy or envy of the bond they share with their kids or the working relationship and history with your current mate because you to be less than supportive of that relationship.

7. The stepmother, although not actively initiating direct discipline, should certainly work to maintain the normal boundaries that exist between an adult and a youngster. Although it may be the biological parent who delivers an initial consequence for misbehavior, it's important that the stepmother be active in support of that decision, and care should be taken that proper respect and acknowledgment of the stepmother be given. In other words, a stepfather is not simply one's mother's husband. He is in fact an adult and an authority figure in the home.

In summary, let me say it's true that it's difficult to see things through someone else's eyes if you haven't walked in their shoes. Whether you're the stepparent or it's your spouse who's in that role, talk frequently about how it's going and what the experience is from the other's point of view. If both of you have good intentions and a loving heart, this can be worked out. The key is to remember that the kids are passengers on this train. They didn't get an opportunity to choose whether they wanted a new family member, so great care and patience should be taken to help them adapt to the situation.

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