Thursday, July 22, 2010

Most Frequently Asked Questions

As a psychotherapist and stepmother, I know from both personal and professional experience how challenging stepmotherhood can be. In my psychotherapy practice, I work with many stepmother who ask me to help them with these basic questions:

“What is wrong with me? I have worked so hard to be a good stepmother, to develop good relationships with everyone in my family, but none of my efforts have worked, and now I am exhausted and depressed, and feel like a complete failure.”

First, I explain to them that the reasons they are struggling is not their fault; they have done nothing wrong. Their failures are not a result of any mistakes they have made but are related to the many challenges contained within the role of a stepmother. I tell them about the current research findings on stepfamilies and how this reflects the difficulties stepfamilies face nationwide. For instance, only 20% of stepchildren feel close to their stepmothers—a staggeringly low percentage! So if a stepmother struggles to bond with her stepchild, she’s not alone—most stepmothers struggle with the very same issue. When stepmothers understand the realities of stepfamily life, they realize that their problems are normal, experienced by many other stepmothers. This information is a huge relief for them and helps them to reframe their struggles with more objectivity, and most important, enables them to let go of feelings of blame and guilt.

“What can I do to feel better?”

The main complaints I hear from stepmothers are about how tired they are, how much they have to do, and how little time they have to devote to themselves. I help them realize they have choices about what they do. They can regain their vitality in life by reprioritizing their responsibilities and eliminating certain tasks.

Too many stepmothers feel they must fulfill all maternal duties when stepchildren are in their care, and most husbands also share this belief. I know I shared this belief when I first became a stepmother, but I quickly learned that there is a fine line between being a good sport helping out my husband and taking on the role of stepfamily chef, maid, or nanny, jobs that required hard work yet lacked any acknowledgement or reward. I recommend that stepmothers and their husbands discuss their respective expectations with each other, and be clear about what each one is willing and not willing to do. It won’t necessarily be easy for stepmothers to draw the line, but I encourage them to stick to their guns by explaining to their husbands that biological parents are responsible for disciplining and caring for their children. Giving up some menial tasks doesn’t mean that stepmothers won’t have a relationship with their stepchildren. In fact, once they let go of the traditional parenting responsibilities, stepmothers can focus on having fun with their stepchildren instead, which may even improve their relationship.

In order to feel fulfilled and content, stepmothers must take responsibility for their happiness by choosing activities that will promote their growth and development. When stepmothers start doing things that they enjoy, such as seeing friends, taking classes, or playing a sport, they start to feel better. One positive action can make a huge difference in restoring their mind-set that their behaviors, in fact, do matter in contributing to their overall happiness.

What do I do if I still feel like an outsider in my family?

If all efforts to feel like an integral member of a stepfamily fail, I recommend that stepmothers join an in-person support group or an online chat room. According to positive psychology, the single greatest predictor of success during a challenging time isn’t intelligence or past experience but social support. Fortunately for stepmothers, more peer support groups and online chat rooms exist for them to join. They can receive so much help from the sage advice and encouragement of other members who understand what they are going through because they have experienced something similar. In my experience of running a monthly stepmother support group, I have been so impressed how members help each other. Just a little understanding and support restores one’s spirit.

I hope my responses to these questions can help you to be a happier stepmother.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Another Nail in the Coffin for Stepmothers

When I first heard that Kyron Horman, the 7 year old boy from Portland, Oregon was missing, my initial feeling was concern for his welfare; I hoped he quickly would be found, and recover from this terrible ordeal. Upon learning that his stepmother, Terri Horman was the last person to see him, my next feeling was dread. In my gut, I just knew this was going to be another example where stepmothers get a bad rap. I worried that both the media and everyone who read about this story would immediately go to the default stereotype that stepmothers are evil and wicked.

My heart goes out to this poor little 7 year old boy; I can’t bear to think about his terror and loneliness separated from his family at such a young age, and I can’t imagine the anguish his family is experiencing. It’s a tragedy for everyone involved in this case including the police officers and citizens who are desperately trying to find Kyron.

I don’t know what happened to Kyron and have no idea if his stepmother is responsible for his disappearance, but I do know that Terri Horman should be perceived and treated as an individual without prejudging her as a wicked stepmother. Not all stepmothers are bad people. Did you know that there are between 11 and 18 million stepmothers with stepchildren under the age of 18 in the U.S.? Stepmothers come in all shapes and sizes, with different personalities - the vast majority of whom are loving, kind, and compassionate to their stepchildren. If Terri Horman is responsible for hurting Kyron, it isn’t because she is a stepmother, it is because she is disturbed and crossed the line between rational and irrational thought.

Unfortunately, stepmothers have already been damaged by the media sensationalizing Kyron’s disappearance and depicting Terri Horman as a wicked stepmother. This adds one more nail in the coffin for stepmothers, reinforcing the negative stereotype that has existed for centuries. Thus, the job of overcoming this erroneous stereotype becomes much more challenging.
The wicked stepmother stereotype has been firmly embedded in our culture for centuries, taught and passed along to very young children by fairy tales, such as Cinderella and Snow White. One way to overcome this stereotype is if parents would take the time after reading Cinderella to their children to explain to them that most stepmothers are loving and kind. Even though Cinderella’s stepmother was cruel, not all stepmothers are bad. Parents might then give their children some examples of good stepmothers whom their children know to contrast Cinderella’s wicked one.

Stereotypes matter. Unconsciously, they oftentimes influence us to hold beliefs and make decisions based on inaccurate information. This changes our realities because we act on information that we haven’t taken the time to verify as fact. If people believe stepmothers are wicked, how they treat them will naturally be affected, and not in a good way.

Stepmothers, too are negatively affected by the wicked stepmother stereotype, and would benefit greatly if it was neutralized. In my book, The Happy Stepmother I discuss that when women become stepmothers, they embrace their new role with enthusiasm and hope, and try to prove to family and friends that they don’t fit the stereotype. Frequently, they work too hard to fit into the family, exhausting themselves in the process, and hitting their heads against the wall in frustration when they are not accepted. Many stepmothers are rejected by stepchildren who maintain an emotional distance from them because they, too, also unconsciously believe the wicked stepmother stereotype. It is nearly impossible to form a close emotional relationship with anyone who holds an underlying belief that you are wicked. This is so sad for stepmothers.

I fervently hope that all of us will work towards changing the cultural perception of stepmothers as wicked. I also pray that Kyron will soon be found.