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We have all heard tales about wicked stepmothers, from Snow White to Cinderella; stories abound with the horrors that are stepmothers. We have all likely judged a stepmother at some point, but what makes stepmothers so wicked? The statistics say that half of all adult women in the United States are likely to marry a man with children and that 70% of these marriages will fail. In fact, divorce rates are 50% more likely to fail in remarriages with children than without. The greatest predictor of divorce in a second marriage is the mere presence of children from a previous marriage or relationship.
These statistics are not promising. Why, you might be asking am I just focusing on stepmothers? Stepfathers don’t seem to incite as much emotion as that of stepmothers. We don’t typically hear of wicked stepfathers. E. Mavis Hertherington, a psychologist and author of a three-decade study of families that divorced and remarried, notes that children often come to appreciate having a stepfather, but the relationship with stepmothers is more difficult.
Why is this?!? What is it about the stepmother-stepchildren dynamic that makes it so hard on everyone? There are roughly 13 million stepmothers in the United States, can they all be wicked? The answer to the latter question is of course, no, the first question is not so cut and dry. Stepmothers are a unique breed. They tend to be expected to take on a more active role in the lives of their stepchildren than stepfathers do. It seems to be a more natural fit for a man to take on the role of “friend” to the child. Stepmothers, however; are expected to be nurturers and much more active in the child’s lives. Some of the typical problems faced by stepmothers include: stress over relating to the bio-mom, disciplining children, handling difficult feelings toward stepchildren, confusion regarding their role, feelings of exhaustion, helplessness, and ineffectiveness.
In her book, Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do, Wednesday Martin, points out that women are often expected to be nurturers to already difficult and suspicious children and to impose some kind of order on the household, which is angrily and bitterly resented by many stepchildren. Stepchildren are incredibly powerful in the remarriage dynamic and can create divisiveness between spouses. The children are not to blame, but acknowledging the fact that they do and can affect a remarriage can help us to understand, as Martin calls it, stepmother reality.
This article is not intended to scare or dissuade women from marrying men with children, it is however; to inform and educate. I became a stepmother at the age of 27 and I had no idea what I was in for. The journey has been equal parts rewarding and challenging. The majority of the research regarding stepfamilies focuses on the children and this is important. Children don’t pick their stepparents and their welfare is paramount. What is missing from the stepfamily literature is the point of view of the stepmother. It is important to not only validate how difficult the journey is for stepmothers, but also to educate on ways to make it easier for all parties involved. Below are tips to help stepmothers on their quest to move away from the stereotype of wicked stepmonster into a much more comfortable and likeable role.
Ashley Womack has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s degree in counseling and is currently a doctoral student at Texas A&M University-Commerce. She is a licensed professional counselor intern and a licensed chemical dependency counselor. Ashley has worked in community mental health for several years and is now a therapist at Insight Counseling of Paris www.insightcounselinggroup.com . Her specialty areas include substance abuse counseling and child-centered play therapy. She is also teaches counseling classes at A&M University-Commerce.