"Why didn't someone tell me that I would always be second in line? Why didn't someone tell me that I would never have my husband completely to myself? Why didn't someone tell me that I'd feel so alone and alienated from friends and family who just don't understand my struggles? Why didn't someone tell me?"
Any woman who has thoughts like these is not alone in her struggles. As a psychotherapist and stepmother, I know from both personal and professional experience the difficulties faced by many stepmothers. We find ourselves depressed and exhausted from doing all of the work, without getting any of the rewards of motherhood. Despite attempts to bond with our stepchildren, we can be rejected and ignored, feeling like outsiders in our own homes even after years of marriage. Some of us must endure incessant phone calls and other intrusions from ex-wives. These and other problems, compounded by unsympathetic attitudes from family members and friends who believe "we made our beds, now we must lie in them," contribute to many stepmothers feeling angry, overworked and unappreciated.
What are stepmothers to do when our emotional lives tip out of balance? Until recently, psychotherapy has been our only resource. With no (or limited) traditional support groups, dealing with the daily frustrations of stepmotherhood could feel incredibly isolated. Now, thanks to the Internet, no matter where you live, you can find a supportive stepmother community. By participating in online chat rooms or discussion groups, reading blogs and online magazines, listening to podcasts and webinars, we no longer need to rely solely on professional assistance to overcome depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions we may be experiencing; we can receive help from our peers -- other stepmothers who understand what we are going through from having been in similar circumstances. According to positive psychology, the single greatest predictor of success during a challenging time isn't intelligence or past experience, but social support.
I stumbled upon the value of the Internet by accident. To gather research for a self-help book I was writing for stepmothers, I began a website, consisting in an online questionnaire for stepmothers to fill out. As a way to thank the women who participated in my study, I added an online chat room as a place for them to brainstorm, release stress, seek advice, and get reality checks from each other. In my wildest dreams I never imagined that my site would be part of a larger movement of stepmothers helping each other!
There are many online chat rooms and discussion groups that have been developed just for stepmothers. Most are free, and ask members to follow three basic rules:
- Be respectful of other members.
- Maintain confidentiality. What is discussed in the support group is not to be shared with outsiders.
- Be Non-Judgmental.
The Pros of Online Chat Rooms
When these basic rules are followed, online chat rooms provide a safe environment where members can explore their feelings, and get valuable feedback and support. It doesn't matter that members are often separated by thousands of miles. Access to the Internet provides them with instant companionship. For those who might be reserved or shy about discussing their problems in front of strangers, it offers anonymity. While problems may not be solved entirely by talking to a peer, feeling understood by someone walking in your shoes is nonetheless a very powerful experience that can be immeasurably helpful, as this stepmother shared in an online chat room.
The Cons of Online Chat Rooms
Most members of support groups try their utmost to respect each other, be non-judgmental, and give constructive advice. Unfortunately, there are occasions when some members who are very embittered by their experiences respond to another member's question or concern with negativity. Therefore, you must carefully consider if each suggestion you receive is beneficial to your situation before following any advice.
In other cases, some members may complain bitterly about their partners, stepchildren, and ex-wives. While online chat rooms may be the first place where stepmothers feel safe to release negative emotions, this outpouring of emotion is merely the first step to feeling healthier and happier. To release negative feelings with which they are burdened, stepmothers must be willing to take positive actions after expressing their frustrations. Some women, however, remain stuck at the venting stage, and can infect everyone with their toxic energy. When joining any online community, it is always important to monitor the energy of the group; if dissatisfied with one group, try another. Stepmother online chat rooms can be found on websites, Facebook and Yahoo! discussion groups, among other Internet venues.
Remember, online forums are public. Anyone in the world can read what you write including family members or strangers with serious emotional problems. To avoid harassment, when participating in any online forum it is important to protect your identity by choosing online screen names that others will not associate with you. For further protection, it is a good idea to slightly alter personal information, such as the ages and gender of your stepchildren, or the city where you reside. This can prevent predators from violating your personal space.
What to look for in a Good Online Group
The quality of online groups varies greatly, and it is important to select one that will help rather than harm you. In selecting a group, consider these factors:
- Make sure the group is active, and has several participants. Groups can be started with the best of intentions but some don't generate much interest and have few, if any members to keep discussions vibrant and fresh.
- Make sure the group is mostly positive in tone. Be careful of members who are angry and negative; their advice is skewed in an unhealthy direction.
- Make sure members are truly compassionate and considerate. Sometimes members can hold dogmatic beliefs, and be critical if others disagree with their points of view. Make sure members of the group do not pressure others to conform to their ideas.
- Make sure that a sense of community and democracy permeates the group; no one dominates the others in the group.
- Make sure the group has no hidden agenda of selling, endorsing, or promoting any products or service other than providing peer support.
- Make sure the group meets your needs, and shares your values.
We stepmothers now have the technological resources at our finger tips to help each other achieve more balanced, serene lives. With these advances comes a responsibility, to be kind and respectful to everyone with whom we interact in online chat rooms. We must be mindful that all of us are struggling, and that some of us are more fragile than others, and can be easily hurt by a dismissive or disrespectful comment. With this awareness, the Internet gives us the chance to make a powerful difference in each other's lives.
Consider joining a stepmother support group. Your input will be appreciated by other members, and, perhaps most importantly, you will be embraced with enthusiasm and compassion by others who know what you are going through. You will receive the guidance and encouragement you need from those who have "been there," as you embark on your journey toward a life of greater peace and fulfillment.
Online Chat Rooms or Discussion Groups:
Rachelle Katz, Ed.D., LMFT, author of The Happy Stepmother: Stay Sane, Empower Yourself and Thrive in Your New Family