The Battle of the Moms in Stepfamily Life
One of my specialties and passions is helping stepfamilies. As both a stepmom and biological mom myself, I am able to understand blended family members in a meaningful way. I see the pain of all sides, including the struggle that dads and step-dads have, and especially the kids who are caught in the middle. One particularly complex dynamic that I find in my counseling office is that of the biological mom and stepmom. So often, I hear only one side of each story that is filled with compelling evidence that the other party is malicious and unhealthy. I’ve heard the terms “narcissist” and “high-conflict” and “borderline” thrown around all too flippantly, when usually there is simply not enough effort being made to seek to understand the other person and their experience. I want to take a moment and give some insight into what each woman is going through in this unnatural battle.
A stepmother has a particularly difficult role in blended families, the struggle of which few can understand. She is to be nurturing and caring to children whom she did not birth, but is concurrently seen as an intruder, who has taken over her husband’s family. She is often stigmatized and portrayed to be a villain, like in many Disney movies. She is expected to mother her step-kids and love them as her own, but also to “know her place” and not be too motherly. It can be so confusing and exhausting for a stepmom to figure out her function in her family. Often, she is under-appreciated for the sacrificial love she gives to her step-kids every day. She bathes them, feeds them, works to provide income for their home, takes them on fun outings, makes sure they are clothed well and that their hair looks nice for school, etc. And yet, she is sometimes met with resentment, distrust, and anger from their mother. Unfortunately, step-kids are often put in a place where their loyalties are torn. They feel guilty about loving their stepmother because it signifies a betrayal to their mother. When this happens, the very kids a stepmom tries to love on and connect with can withdraw or show anger toward her. This can be quite discouraging, inviting even the strongest woman question her life decisions and want to throw in the towel some days. I get it!
I also understand the plight of the biological mother. I have yet to talk to any mother who wants to share her children with a woman who her ex-spouse chooses to marry. No mother wants to miss out on any of her children’s day-to-day experiences, watching them grow and develop emotionally and physically. No mother dreams of, plans for, and carries a child in her womb for 9 months with the desire to have another woman be “mom” for half of that child’s life. Certainly, no mom wants to be forced to be away from her children and kept out of their lives, as if on the days without her children she does not count as their mother. No mom wants to feel threatened by another woman gaining the adoring affection of her children. Women struggle with comparison as it is, but to have her own kids compare her motherhood to someone else’s is another ballgame. Moms do not want to raise their children only fifty-to-seventy percent of the time. God did not design women to do that. He did not design marriages for divorce and He did not develop a blue print for broken families. So, none of this feels natural for anyone in this complex family system.
If I had just a few tips to help you feel more at peace, I would invite you to hear this wisdom:
1. Stepmoms: Focus on being the mother you want to be in your own home. But step back and allow the biological mother to have her territory outside of the home. Find a way to deal with the hurt or offense this may cause you. Perhaps you can talk to other stepmoms for support, or invest your energy into something that you can care for on more of a full-time basis. Practice ample self-care to prevent burnout and resentment from pouring so much of yourself into your blended family. When the biological mom seems difficult or conflictual, seek to understand her struggle, as well as that of your step-kids. It’s not as much about you as it is about the anxiety that comes naturally with a broken family system. You will experience much more freedom and peace if you let go of control over the situation, learn healthy boundaries, and focus more on yourself.
2. Biological moms: Put kids first when dealing with your ex-spouse or his wife. Always say and do what’s best for the children by thinking of their best interest, and not reacting out of your hurt and anger. Never put your kids in the middle of your battles or put your negative thoughts and feelings about their other family on them. This hurts children more than anything in a divorce. If your kids have a stepmom who steps on your toes at times, take a moment and pause. Be grateful that your children are well-loved and cared for by a motherly figure in their other home. Although she usually means well, it can feel offensive when she tries to be a good mom to your kids. But try and see the beauty in the fact that, despite the brokenness of the situation, there are two families who, together, are loving on your children and pouring into their lives.
Blended family life can be a difficult journey indeed, but it can also be very rewarding. It can produce immense self-growth and the joy of well-adjusted children who grow up in two positive and loving homes. If you would like guidance with your blended family, feel free to contact me, Jessica Patterson, LPC, at 512-238-1700 ext 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org.