This has been one of those hectic weeks where I've found myself busier than usual coaching women on how to survive their marriages with stepchildren, or more specifically, how to survive their stepchildren and stay married. Why am I the go-to person for such things? Well to start, after being a stepparent for 20 years, I have earned my stripes holding down the fort with our great big yours-mine-and-ours family. Between myself and my husband, we have eight children: one in elementary school, one in middle school, three in college, and three who are in various stages of their journeys through adulthood. In short, when it comes to stepparenting experience (which also includes two ex-wives and one baby mama), you name the issue, and I have been there, done that - and survived it all.
Everyone's heard of stepmonsters: those evil second, third (forth?) wives who cruelly shuffle stepkids off to the sidelines and compete for their dad's attention. This isn't about them. I'm talking about stepmoms in crisis who are really trying to make it work. They all wonder why, after knocking themselves out for their 21st century Brady Bunch, they still end up with stepkids who treat them like they are auditioning for The Little Rascals Reality Show. On top of that disrespectful drama, toss in an already frustrated stepmom overhearing the little darlings bandy about the dreaded stepmonster jab one too many times - and snap. Off goes the wedding band, pop goes the Xanax, and out come the tears.
What most of these exasperated stepmothers don't understand is that children who turn them into stepmonsters often do it as a coping mechanism because their little hearts have been ripped out by divorce. Here's a true story I often share with women to help them grasp exactly why their stepchildren act like they don't like them.
I first came to understanding the complicated emotions of stepchildren many years ago when an unusually introspective child explained to me how her stepmonster was created. She told me her parents separated when she was about six years old. She said the experience was extremely traumatic for her - destabilizing on every level. She hated going back and forth between the two homes. When she was with her mom, she missed her dad, and when she was with her dad, she missed her mom.
After a year or so, her father married a terrific lady. The little girl instantly adored her stepmother. Her stepmother adored the little girl too, calling the child her daughter. This sounds ideal, so what could have been the problem?
The problem was that this child was still never really happy. Every time the little girl would find herself getting close to her stepmother, she would suddenly get a stomachache and become physically ill. Then one day, after being reprimanded for something by her stepmother, the little girl had her big ah-ah moment. She realized that feeling angry with her stepmother made her feel better inside. That was her turning point. She liked that feeling. And from that day on, in the little girl's mind, her loving stepmother transformed into her very own wicked stepmonster. If her stepmother asked her to clean her room, she would choose to be angry at her new stepmonster and hold on to that feeling until once again she forgot why she was angry. Whenever she felt herself becoming close to her stepmother, she would just seize another reason to be angry. This cycle continued well into high school.
As the little girl got older, she grew to understand that her horrible anxiety was caused by her conflicted emotions. Any loving feelings toward her stepmother made her feel as if she were being disloyal to her mother, and those feelings of betrayal triggered the terrible anxiety that made her feel ill. How's that for an ah-ha moment? Not just for the child, but for every mother or stepmother who is wondering how divorce really affects the children.
My advice for all stepmothers is to remember this story. Most children will not be able to articulate such complex feelings of love, loss, betrayal and affection. Hang in there and try to understand how difficult it is for the children - not just you. You see, a child of divorce often has a hurt so deep that even the Herculean effort of a great stepmom will not have enough power to fix a hole in the broken heart of a stepchild.
All you can do is love them. Be patient with them, and try to understand that although they may direct their anger at you, the real issue is with their parents. Remember, no matter how much you try to be a perfect stepparent, you can never do enough to make up for what they don't get from their biological parents. Be kind and be sensitive. And never try to out mother their mother. You are now the one married to their father - you don't need to shove how great you are in their mother's face. As time goes by, and the children realize they can't break up your relationship (and their parents are never going to get back together), they almost always come around.
I can tell you first hand that if you and your husband stand strong together, eventually you will all end up grateful to have a big happy family. If you have children and are contemplating divorce, keep my story in mind. And remember: You may think divorce is the best thing for you, but rarely is divorce the best thing for your children.