The High Incidence of Depression Among Stepmothers
The first thing I wonder is if people would be surprised to know that research shows that stepmothers in general have "significantly greater anxiety and depression than biological mothers"? The second thing I wonder is if the general culture at large even cares, and I suspect it doesn't. That's a shame. Divorce rates in remarriages with kids is high, between 62-74 percent. The culture should care about the depression all these "evil" stepmothers are feeling because surely there's a relationship between the depression and the high divorce rate.
Why would stepmothers be more depressed than mothers? After all, they knew it was a "package deal." Never mind the double standards inherent in the culture. A mother sitting in the bleachers at her kid's soccer game can lean over and say to the other mothers, "Ugh, I'm dreading the kids coming home for the summer. They're going to drive me crazy with their messes, friends and constant boredom." The other mothers will nod their heads in sympathy and agreement because they know what she's talking about. But if one of those women is a stepmother and says the exact same thing, oh my gawd, she's the Spawn of Satan, the Devil Incarnate and the proverbial Evil Stepmother!
The culture has maintained its ignorant and stubborn grip on the image of the evil stepmother. Only 20 percent of young adult stepchildren report even having positive feelings about their stepmothers. I say with confidence, given my decade-long work with step couples and stepmothers that the overwhelming majority of the remaining 80 percent are not evil. Many stepmothers report being depressed after years of trying to please, appease, walk on eggshells, tip toe around the ex, their partner's and stepchildren's feelings while often neglecting their own. If they don't love their stepchildren "as their own", they feel guilty and evil themselves, despite the fact that loving another human being isn't about consent or determination. God knows they've tried. But when one is met with continual hostility, when one's partner who feels torn between their children and their new partner doesn't intervene in their children's rude behavior, the isolation and loneliness that ensues is a prescription for a good-sized depression.
Stepmothers are left to stand in the desert scratching their heads to figure out what is wrong with them, what are they not doing right? They make cookies, go to their stepchildren's sporting events, act as chauffeur, alter their plans, lose their privacy, lose their freedom and time with their partner, all in the attempt to make sure that they never get accused of being an evil stepmother. Most of them do these things because they actually care.
I receive their calls and emails looking for help. They think they are the only ones who are depressed, feeling trapped and that surely something must be wrong with them. I can hear the sighs of relief when they hear the assurances that they are normal and sane and definitely not reincarnated caricatures from myths and fables from days gone by. They are depressed for good reason. They're often the lowest member on the stepfamily rung, the P.S., the annoyance, the person that everyone in the family "puts up" with and often wishes would just go away.
If you're not a stepmother and are reading this article, I'd ask you to re-think your view of stepmothers. Given the divorce rate and the high rate of remarriage, it's more than likely than you know one or two. Spend some time getting to know what their world is like. Take off the "evil stepmother" lenses and perhaps you'll realize how challenging this nondescript role is.
For those of you who are stepmothers and depressed, I understand and my hope is that by reading this you'll know you are not alone. You are in the good company of millions of stepmothers who lament, "I've always been so happy and confident and it's like I've lost all of that. I don't even know who I am anymore."
The good news is that there are solutions other than running to the nearest head doc and getting anti-depressants to get you through your day. Try these instead:
1. Stop with the over-caring, over-doing, wearing yourself to the bone in order to gain the approval of your stepchildren, your partner or his ex. Really, stop it right now.
2. Sit down and spend some time thinking about what you are willing to do for your stepchildren and what you're not and don't feel guilty about it. Your stepchildren are ultimately your partner's responsibility.
3. Be honest with your partner. It isn't about a personal attack on their kids. It's about trying to figure out a role that no one seems to be able to give any kind of real definition or structure to. It's a fly by the seat-of-your-pants experience, trial and error, give and take and everything in-between.
4. Have clear boundaries between yourself and your partner's ex. Do not feel you have to be their friend, engage with them or like them. Basic common courtesy when you are around one another is enough.
5. Have clear boundaries between yourself and your partner. Let them know what you're willing to do and what you're not willing to do and try not to be afraid of their responses. Speak from your heart and you'll have a better chance of being heard.
6. Take time for yourself in self-care, whatever that means for you. Women (and men) in general suck at this and it shows by the number of prescription bottles in their medicine cabinets.
7. Focus on your relationship. Take the time to nurture it. Make sure that Date Night is a weekly occurrence. It's important to model to the children the importance of couples spending time alone.
8. Find other stepmothers who will understand. Join a stepmom support group or create one yourself. Get some help from a stepfamily expert who won't dispense first family advice to you (this is common and profoundly unhelpful).
If the general culture truly cares about marriage and family values, it would do well to listen to the voices of stepmothers. Many stepmothers are filling a void without recognition or understanding. Contrary to the expectations of their partners and the culture, they aren't saints, Mother Teresa or Mary Poppins. They are more than likely strong loving women, albeit depressed, and the latter is what needs to go away.