Sunday, May 15, 2011

The plight of stepmoms on Mother's Day

I wrote the following personal essay for cnn.com:

Mother's Day is a sad occasion for many, but not all of the 15 million U.S. stepmothers who have stepchildren under the age of 18.

As it approaches, I am reminded how disappointed and hurt I used to be when my stepdaughter didn't acknowledge me on this day. From the time I married my husband when my stepdaughter was only 4 years old, I always felt she viewed me as his wife rather than as a stepmother.

This distinction may be acceptable to women who marry men with older children, but it bothered me because for years I spent every other weekend playing with her, cooking for her, and doing every other activity of a maternal caregiver. I really tried to develop a close relationship with but never felt I succeeded.

Being ignored is minor compared to the hostility and emotional abuse many other stepmothers experience, but my sense of failure grew each time I tried to grow closer to my stepdaughter and was rebuffed.

My husband inadvertently compounded my discomfort each Mother's Day by asking me what kind of gift I wanted.

His gesture of kindness felt like he was offering me a present for failing a class, which increased my feelings of shame rather than joy. Also, I hate pretense, and I felt that he was pressuring me to accept his view of our happy family unit.

He was unwilling to acknowledge my perception that my relationship with my stepdaughter was friendly yet superficial, and just not as intimate as I expected it to be given the time we spent together. I felt he valued his feelings more than mine, and I became angry that my feelings weren't given equal standing to his.

Being wished a Happy Mother's Day by my parents and friends also felt bad. How could I sincerely accept their considerate remarks when my stepdaughter didn't recognize or appreciate my efforts in this capacity? I felt fraudulent as a stepmother.

Thankfully, my feelings have changed and, now I am in a better place where I accept and understand why my stepdaughter will not reach out to me on Mother's Day. I just wish other stepmothers wouldn't have to go through similar or far worse emotional distress.

If stepmothers weren't so unhappy, the divorce rate for second marriages, as high as 60% to 75%, might be reduced. Let me share my journey with you.

When I first became a stepmother, I was surprised to find it to be so difficult because my stepdaughter has always been well-behaved, smart and respectful. No matter how hard I tried to get close to her, I felt like a distant relative.

I wondered if my experience was unique or similar to other stepmothers so I started a website (stepsforstepmothers.com) which featured an online chat room and a questionnaire for stepmothers to fill out.

Almost instantaneously, a vibrant community of stepmothers formed that gave each other encouragement and advice during difficult times. In less than two years from the inception of the website, more than 3,000 women answered my questionnaire sharing the challenges they faced.

At the same time, I also began a monthly stepmother support group comprised of a handful of women who could fit into my small office.

From these three venues, I gained a lot of information about the specific problems stepmothers encounter. More important, I received the necessary support from women sharing similar experiences. This helped me overcome my feelings of inadequacy and isolation.

Being understood by others is so important. Without a doubt, knowing that I wasn't alone, that there were other stepmothers struggling to find their rightful place in their new families just like me, was the best medicine to heal my pain.

While these women couldn't (and shouldn't) have solved my specific problems, they validated my feelings. While my family and friends cared that I was unhappy, they didn't truly understand what was bothering me.

These other stepmothers intuitively knew how I felt, and this made me feel much better even though my situation did not actually change.

These women also helped me understand that my desire to be acknowledged by my stepdaughter on Mother's Day was not unreasonable, but it might be too much for her to give me. They helped me understand the dilemma that many stepchildren face on Mother's Day.

Their loyalties may lie with their mother, and they believe she will be offended if they acknowledge their stepmother. I respect my stepdaughter's love for her mother, and never want her to feel any loyalty binds.

So, I worked on developing a thicker skin to shield myself from being hurt.

After doing some research, I also learned that only 20% of stepchildren feel close to their stepmothers. As much as I want a close, loving relationship with my stepdaughter or anyone else for that matter, I realized I can't force anyone to love or even like me.

My stepdaughter is entitled to select the people she wants in her intimate circle of family and friends. What I can do is appreciate those people in my life who want to be close to me and nurture these relationships.

By shifting my focus to the positives rather than the negatives in my life, I am now more content.

While my husband used to encourage my stepdaughter to wish me a Happy Mother's Day, she is an adult, and he can't control her actions. Both he and I worked hard to accept the fact that most stepfamilies are not perfect, and ours may never be.

"It is what it is," and accepting this reality relieved a lot of wear and tear on my brain as well as his. I used to believe that I must always persevere until my goals were accomplished even if they were insurmountable.

What a relief to know that I can be happy even if every aspect of my life isn't perfect.

This year I am looking forward to celebrating Mother's Day with my mother and will try to make it as special for her as possible. I have learned that when I focus my energy on her, I feel good.

This works for a lot of other stepmothers who choose to spend the holiday with their mothers or with women for whom they deeply care. Many also treat themselves to a massage, lunch with friends or flowers on this day.

By choosing to do positive activities on Mother's Day, we take responsibility for our happiness.

I hope my experiences can help other stepmothers have a more enjoyable Mother's Day.

3 comments:

  1. I read this article and it helped me and opened my eyes so much. I married a man who has three children all over the age of 20 (22, 28, 30). Being a step-family member is difficult, no matter the age of the children. I experience many of the things you mentioned....existing household dynamics, loyalty to the mother (who in my case is deceased), anger, severe dislike of my presence in the family,.... but also incredible love from the oldest daughter who as made me grandma to her children. A true gift and blessing. It is emotional extremes at times. Thank you for sharing and letting me "lean" on your words for support.

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  2. Great article. I have the opposite problem - my stepdaughter actually acknowledges me on Mother's Day and even made me a gift but my fiance doesn't consider me a "real mom" and while I go out and buy flowers for his mom, stepmom, grandma, and my mother, he doesn't do anything to acknowledge my role in his daughter's life. I think that hurts more than her not acknowledging it.

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  3. Not for anything but I think part of it is the language that is used in referring to us as "Step"Mother. I also got my partner's children when they were young 4, 7, 9. As their birth mother was in a different country and I certainly didn't want to usurp her place, I told them they could call me whatever they were comfortable with. But one thing I refused was to be referred to as their Step mother. I said and very clearly, that no one steps on me. If they must introduce me - it would be as their extra mother. Step refers to a position of submission or 2nd rate. We, as the extra parents of this world, are nothing like that. 30 years later, these girls have children of their own. Their dad and I split up after almost 20 years together and in fact their birth mom now lives here. We are a blended family - we shop together, we vacation together, we hang out and enjoy each others company. I respect them as the birth parents and I am included in all family events from births to graduations. My grandchildren call me Grammy. and I get to be the "fun" grandma. Our son (mine & his) is involved with his entire large extended family as is my oldest son who shares no DNA with them. I think it's time to put the word STEP to pasture and become the extra parent - because it does take a village to raise our children.

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