The women have a "dirty little secret." They come to my office, leave messages on my phone, call me on Skype and send emails from all over the country. As a psychotherapist who specializes in working with stepfamilies, I've long ago come to terms with the reality that being involved in a stepfamily can be a complicated and painful affair, especially for stepmothers. Some of them are mothers and some are not. Their words and tone come across as a whisper, a hush. "I need to confess this to someone," they tell me. "I feel so bad about this, but I don't, um, I really just don't, well, you'll think I'm a crazy person for saying this, but I just really don't love my stepchildren."
These women are surprised and more than relieved when I say, "Well, why would you? They aren't your children. If I took you to the nearest mall and pointed out a group of kids and told you that you needed to love them, you would think I was the crazy one. It's quite normal that you don't love your stepchildren. Just because you fell in love with their father doesn't mean you will automatically love his children."
They thought they were the only ones.
For those who aren't involved in stepfamilies, these confessions may seem blasphemous. We are a culture that seems hell bent on happy endings. "The Brady Bunch" continues to, without rationale or reason, serve as the template for modern stepfamily life. The expectation for a "blended" family is automatic.
The reality is that second marriages with children have a 65-70% divorce rate. My clinical practice has taught me that much of this failure derives from the unrealistic expectations so many couples bring to stepfamily life.
Many stepmoms feel "thrown under the bus" when it comes to their partner's children and that the kids are prioritized over them. Their stepchildren treat them with disrespect and their partner's continual refusal to correct their children or teach basic good manners does not bode well for the marriage.
Many men naturally feel protective of their children and have strong desires that their new partner love their children "as their own." But let's be honest. It's tough enough for parents to always have feelings of love for their own children, especially when they are in the throes of teenagehood. Imagine how difficult it would be to love someone you are not related to, especially if they treat you with contempt or indifference
In the best of situations, it can take a minimum of four years for stepkids and stepparents to feel comfortable with one another. Children will almost always prefer their biological parent (even if they have been abandoned by them or they are deceased), yet many fathers insist that the women they marry love his children unconditionally.
What is a requirement in the stepfamily system is that that all members of the family treat one another in kind and respectful ways. Stepmothers can treat their stepkids in loving ways but it doesn't mean that they have to "feel" the love. Nor should they feel guilty for not feeling something as profound and intimate as "love."
Many divorced fathers feel responsible for their children's pain and may unconsciously desire that their new spouse be a combination of Mother Teresa and Mary Poppins. However, stepmothers cannot be expected to be the first-aid love doctors or step-martyrs for the stepfamily and they cannot be responsible for cleaning up the mess left by the first marriage.
Many stepkids do not like or love their stepparents, despite their parent's strong desire that they do so. I single out stepmothers because the research and clinical experience shows that stepmothers are often the dogs that get kicked. "Only about 20% of adult stepkids feel close to their stepmoms", according to the groundbreaking work of Mavis Hetherington involving 1,400 families of divorce.
The good news is that stepfamilies can enjoy peaceful and respectful home environments. Marriages can flourish. The couple can realize that modeling a healthy marriage is an excellent way to be an excellent parent.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU DON'T LOVE YOUR STEPKIDS:
1. Know that it's normal to not automatically love your stepkids. Remember that in only a minority of stepfamilies does love, after six to eight years in the new family, come naturally.
2. Let go of whether or not your stepchildren like you or not. One of the most powerful lessons any human being can learn is to let go of how others feel about them.
3. Practice basic good manners and compassion. Act and treat your stepchildren in loving and respectful ways. Remember that the transitions between two homes, the loyalty binds they have for their parents and the loss of their parents being together adds up to a lot of grief, often unacknowledged.
4. Set boundaries with your partner. Let them know it is unacceptable for you to be treated with disrespect in your own home. Insist on Basic Etiquette 101 in your home. Work on creating House Rules and present them to the children as a team.
5. Fathers, let go of your fantasies about creating one big happy family. Unrealistic expectations lead to premeditated resentments.
6. Focus on your marriage. Be honest. You are with your partner despite the fact that he has children, not because of it. Have date night and nurture the relationship daily. The children in your home have already experienced divorce at least once. Try to prevent it from happening again in their lives and yours.