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Tips for Future Stepmothers

 Becoming a Stepmother?

The prospect of creating a blended family can evoke feelings of excitement, relief, nervousness and worry in a future stepmother. Experiencing a wide variety of feelings is normal and common. Because building a successful blended family requires a lot of energy and commitment, it is important for the future stepmother to talk to her future husband about what they expect from each other and their new family, both before and after the marriage occurs. This enables them to discuss important issues and can help them avoid serious problems down the road. It is critical to have realistic expectations and goals for blended family life. Time spent wisely during courtship can lay a foundation for positive blended family relationships.

Beginning a new family requires careful consideration. Think about these questions:
  • How have you managed the strong feelings about your former spouse? To what extent do these feelings affect your present relationship with your potential new spouse?
  • What goals do you have for this marriage?
  • What values are important for you to have in common with your future mate?

People desire to get married or remarried for a variety of valid reasons. It is important for the couple to discuss their motives for wanting to marry, because they may be different. Likewise, an understanding of - and respect for - each other's basic values and priorities is essential to the success of any close relationship.

Losing a former partner through divorce is usually accompanied by strong feelings (e.g., sadness, anger, guilt, etc.). Each individual in the prospective marriage needs adequate time to heal before re-entering another marital relationship, or the adjustment to blended family life will likely be more difficult. The couple should assess their feelings about former spouses and honestly consider how those feelings are impacting their present relationship.

Employment—

An individual’s job frequently occupies a large percentage of his or her time and energy, making it something around which family life largely revolves. Consider these questions when thinking about your job:
  • Will your new marriage require a job change for you or your spouse?
  • How compatible are the demands of your career?
  • Whose job has priority in deciding where to live, working overtime, etc.?

Employment can bring many positive outcomes (e.g., financial support, friendship, self-esteem, etc.). However, employment can also be emotionally and physically demanding, time-consuming and stressful. When contemplating marriage, it is important for future spouses to understand each other's feelings about their careers and the amount of time and commitment they require. The life changes that a new marriage brings may tempt people to change or discontinue their current job. However, too many major changes at once can be stressful. Often it is recommended that future spouses continue in their same career path until they have made an initial adjustment to their new blended family.

Financial Issues—

It is essential that future spouses communicate about financial decisions and their personal philosophies about money. Each individual brings previous experiences and perspectives about family finances to the new marriage — often the expectations are vastly different. Consider these questions:
  • How much money does each of you make?
  • Who provides what proportion of support and living expenses?
  • How should money be allocated to kids?
  • What financial responsibilities do you have to other family (e.g., child support, maintenance, care for an elderly parent, etc.)?

Financial issues are a common source of stress in many families, but they can be especially problematic in blended families. Blended families are usually more complicated than first-time families because there are more relationships to consider and more sources of income. Child support payments can be a difficult issue in blended families. Child support obligations continue the link between former partners and are often a source of persistent problems. It can be stressful for people in one household to have to base their financial decisions on the needs of another household (e.g., it is not uncommon for women in new marriages to be frustrated because their spouses must pay a substantial amount of money to support their kids from a previous relationship).

Before getting married, it is important for future spouses to decide whether they will pool their resources or keep them separate. It is also highly recommended that they construct a tentative family budget. Although discussing financial issues will not likely eliminate all problems with money, it helps the two understand the specifics of each other's financial situation and provides the impetus for making important decisions together.

Living Arrangements—

A major issue for blended families is where they will live, and who will live with whom. Consider these questions:
  • Do kids live with you now, or do you anticipate they will in the future?
  • Do they have a special place for their belongings, even if they only live with you for short visits or holidays?
  • What living arrangements work best for your family?
  • Who should be responsible for which household chores?

In an ideal situation, the blended family is able to begin living together in a place they can call their own. Moving into a home in which a previous partner and/or kids lived can be uncomfortable and make the new members feel like outsiders. Creating a home together that is new everyone provides a fresh start for the blended family. However, a new home is often impractical, financially or otherwise. In any case, it is essential that all members in the family have spaces of their own, even if they do not live in the household all the time. Also, being able to choose how to decorate one's own room or space is usually exciting and can ease the transition into blended family life.

It is also important that everyone be involved as much as possible in making decisions about household chores. Kids will be less likely to resent decisions made by stepmothers about chores and other responsibilities when they have participated in the decision-making process. Future spouses should keep in mind that there are many ways to perform household chores, and people from different families often have different expectations regarding who should be responsible for which tasks. Discussing these issues before the marriage occurs paves the way for a smoother transition to blended family life.

The Kids—

Building relationships with stepkids is a huge task, one usually requiring a great deal of time and effort. You should consider these questions:
  • Do you and your new spouse want to have kids together?
  • How well do you know and relate to each other's kids?
  • What do you want and expect from your stepson/stepdaughter?
  • What role do you want your future spouse to play in your kid's lives, now and in the future?
  • What types of custody/visitation arrangements do you currently have?
  • What types of rules and discipline do you want operating in your home?

It is absolutely necessary that people spend adequate time discussing their beliefs about child rearing, discipline, rules and other issues related to their kids before they decide to get remarried. Once the man and woman make the decision to get married, it is important that they tell their kids directly and give them an idea of the effect the remarriage will have on their lives. Kids will likely have many questions and concerns about the new family, and it is important to take time to address these questions in a serious, respectful manner. Making sure that kids are included in the wedding plans and other family-related decisions gives them the feeling of having some control over their lives.

Moms and dads need to realize that their kids will probably not view the remarriage with the same emotions as they do. Although the man and woman are looking forward to gaining a new mate, the kids may feel as if they are losing their mother to the new partner. This can be especially upsetting to kids if they took on greater responsibilities in a single parent family and developed a peer-like relationship with their parent.

Also, stepkids will probably not feel strong positive feelings for their stepmothers automatically, and vice versa. Although two grown-ups may love each other, they may not necessarily love each other's kids right away. Patience is necessary for all parties in a blended family, because it can take years for bonding to occur in blended family relationships.

Kids will likely be affected differently in the blended family, depending upon their age and level of development.

Preschool: Remarriage can be confusing to young kids. Their familiar routines will likely be disrupted, and they may require more attention and affection from their parents. It is important that they feel loved by both of their biological mother and father, as well as the new stepmother. At this young age, most kids will react positively to a stepmother who tries to establish a good relationship.

School-age: Kids in elementary school often have a wide variety of feelings when one of their parents remarries. They may feel anger and hostility because remarriage dashes their hope that their biological mother and father may get back together. Feelings of frustration may occur if they have to share their space or possessions with new stepbrothers/sisters, or if they are subjected to new rules and routines. If kids feel displaced by the new stepmother, they may try to attract attention by being "extra good" – or acting out. School-age kids may be embarrassed by the remarriage because they do not know how to tell their peers or teachers about it. Other common feelings include guilt, betrayal and uncertainty. It is important for moms and dads to reassure their kids that they are still loved and important. Like preschoolers, school-age kids need to maintain a positive relationship with the biological mother with whom they are not living.

Teens: Adolescents may experience many of the same feelings as school-age kids (e.g., anger, hostility and frustration). They may become withdrawn and seemingly apathetic to the new marriage. It is common for teenagers to feel displaced by the new stepmother. Because adolescents are striving for greater independence and freedom at this time in their lives anyway, it is likely that they will clash with a stepmother who attempts to take on a parental role and expects to play a part in disciplining the kids.

Although blended families are "instant" families, it can take considerable time for the stepchild to accept his/her stepmother and stepbrothers/sisters as family. Blended family members have had previous relationships and are likely to have different ideas in some areas about how things should be. It takes time to create a new, cohesive family unit. There will be many challenges among members in a new blended family, but by discussing issues related to kids, spouses will be better prepared to cope with the new family dynamics.

Parenting Ideas—
  1. Be realistic and patient in your effort to build a blended family.
  2. Be unified with your partner about rules, methods of discipline, and other important issues.
  3. Ease into the stepmother role by focusing on building a friendship with your stepchild before trying to parent him/her.
  4. Educate yourself about blended family life by reading books and articles about blended families.
  5. Get outside help when needed from a counselor or by attending an educational program for blended families.
  6. Have family meetings regularly to provide a time for people to communicate about relevant issues and concerns.
  7. Let kids choose what name to call the stepmother.
  8. Talk to other stepmothers who can be a valuable source of support and ideas.

Relationships—

Relationships with others can have a significant impact upon the quality of life in a new blended family. Some questions to consider are:
  • How do you presently communicate with your former partner?
  • How do your spouse's parents feel about their step-grandparent role?
  • How much contact do your kids have with their other parent?

If at all possible, it is important that kids maintain positive relationships with the biological mother who lives elsewhere. No matter how good the relationship is between a stepmother and stepchild, a stepmother can never replace a biological mother. Kids need to feel that both of their biological parents care about them. Efforts should also be made to maintain contact between kids and their grandparents and other extended family.

It is also essential that spouses strive to have courteous relationships with their former partners. This can be difficult, but good relationships between biological parents greatly benefit the blended family. Although feelings of hurt and anger may persist, former partners should strive to make their kid's welfare their top priority in their dealings with each other.

Tips for Success—

There are many things blended families can do that will help them develop positive relationships with each other. The following are a few suggestions.

1.    Give one another time to adjust to new roles. Becoming a member of a blended family can be challenging because people acquire new roles that are likely to be unfamiliar. For example, there are considerable differences between being a birth parent and a stepmother, and these differences may require a lot of adjustment. Forming a blended family brings a lot of changes into the lives of all parties involved, and being flexible is crucial for the family's success. Building a strong blended family involves more than love and good intentions. Being a member of a blended family requires a lot of hard work, creativity and endurance. In most cases, time is a critical factor in the development of healthy blended family relationships. This makes patience important, despite trials and challenges. Remembering that many blended families do achieve unity, happiness and fulfillment can help you survive the rough spots. Discussing important issues with your spouse will help you lay a solid foundation from which you can build a happy and successful blended family.

2.    Family traditions strengthen families because they create feelings of solidarity and oneness among members. They can also help a family create a sense of identity. These outcomes are especially important in blended families, where members must make an effort in order to feel as if they are actually a family. Creating new traditions that are unique to the blended family can help create a new family identity. Holidays are opportune times for families to create new traditions. However, it is important to leave some traditions in place from previous families for the sake of familiarity and stability (e.g., a family celebrating Christmas could try one or two new recipes, while cooking a favorite dish of each family member). If they are accustomed to sharing the holiday with extended family, they might continue to do so but incorporate new activities into the day's events. This would help them find a good balance between change and stability in their traditions.

3.    Participating in enjoyable family activities helps members get to know one another better and strengthens family bonds. Possible activities include working on a project around the house, taking walks in the evening, and playing games together. Taking day trips and going on vacations can also help unify people and create lasting memories. All members of the family need the opportunity to assist in planning activities. This will help them feel more involved and they will be more dedicated to helping the activity be a success. By making family time a priority, everyone will be able to see that you are committed to creating a strong blended family.

4.    One of the most important things spouses can do in a new marriage is to continue to build their relationship. Moms and dads often feel greater loyalties to their kids because they have had a relationship with them for a much longer time. However, it is vital that spouses present a united front to the kids in their home. Kids can sense when parents are not in agreement, and they can use the situation to work in their favor by playing one parent against the other. In order to build unity, spouses need to be honest and open with each other and practice good communication skills. It is also important that they spend time alone together and nurture their friendship. A strong couple bond is essential to the success of the blended family.

5.    While spending time together as a family is important and beneficial, it is also essential that everyone interact with each other on a one-on-one basis. Because kids often feel displaced by a new partner and/or stepsiblings, spending private time with their birth parent helps kids feel that they are still important despite the changes in their family. It is also helpful for stepmothers to spend one-on-one time with their stepkids. Activities such as going out for ice cream or spending time in a park on a nice day can help both the child and the parent build a relationship and overcome the awkwardness that is often present among everyone in the family who do not know each other well. Letting the stepson or stepdaughter choose an activity with which he/she is comfortable (when possible) will increase the likelihood of a positive experience.

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