In our society divorce, remarriage and blended families are becoming more and more commonplace. Unfortunately, the already daunting task of merging two households is further complicated by the negative bias toward the stepmother/stepdaughter relationship. Regardless of the aspirations of most stepmothers to simply love their stepdaughters and take an active role in their lives, from a tender age the stories of our culture have predisposed girls to vilify and revile this important relationship in newly formed households. When this societal bias is combined with the raw emotions and insecurity inherent to combining families, stepmothers can face a minefield of angst in the “sanctuary” of their own home that requires courage and self-confidence to manage. It is important for society to have a better understanding of some of the issues faced by women in this situation, its causes and unique challenges as well as resources to address it and find support.
A common challenge is that many stepmothers want to be there for their stepdaughters, but the stepdaughters tend to make it difficult because they do not want the role of their biological mother replaced. In addition, stepdaughters feel if they are nice to their stepmothers then they are hurting and betraying their biological mother. This may cause the mother to feel rejection on behalf of her children. Often times, stepdaughters may feel that the stepmother has destroyed their family. “Rather than being seen as another loving adult, they may be seen as the enemy who is preventing their parents from reuniting,” said author Robin M. Deutsch who authored the article “Blended Families: What About Discipline?” There are so many dynamics that come into play when marrying into a blended family. Although complicated, stepmothers need to embrace themselves because the riskiest part will be dealing with their stepdaughter. According to the Neighborhood Counseling Foundation, there are vital differences between a nuclear family and a blended family.
Jennifer Godshall of Wesley Chapel, Fla., is a nurse practitioner and often cares for stepmothers and stepdaughters. “Stepmothers and stepdaughters are often caught in the ‘hormone’ rage. Women typically are more of the emotional species and can often over analyze what one has said or done. There often can be a competitive force that creates a struggle for the father in whom gets the attention. This is an unhealthy but common reality,” Godshall explains. “It’s important for the stepmother to communicate to her new stepdaughter that she is not there to ‘steal’ her father away, but she is there as a parent-figure to help in the family needs and to bring more love to the family.” Furthermore, Godshall stated, “The stepdaughter has to also understand that her father has chosen this new woman to be his wife and needs to respect his decision. Earning and gaining respect as well as trust is also time sensitive. It doesn’t happen just because the person married the child’s parent, and it doesn’t happen just because the child is a package deal with the parent.”
Personally, stated Godshall, “Being a stepchild myself, I experienced the struggles of not feeling as a ‘blood’ relative to my stepmother. This caused me to put up a wall of insecurity, which also put a barrier up for my stepmother to have to conquer. It does not seem fair at the time because of all the changes, but the dynamics of the family need just that…time. Time to get to know each other, time to get into their new routines of life, and time to make memories, etc.”
Sandee and Colonel Rick Lester of Spring Hill, Fla., started Resurrection Power Marriage Ministry in 1994. Since then, they have counseled many couples that have been divorced and are on their second, third or even fourth marriage.
Mrs. Lester stated, “One of the biggest issues that we always come across when working with stepmothers in blended families is how can they establish a relationship with their stepdaughter because step parenting can be very difficult.” Stepmothers can experience stress, anxiety, depression, rejection and other ailments due to the emotional trauma they may endure.
However, a recent poll (figure below) conducted by Karen León describes the relationships stepmothers have with their stepdaughters.
“First of all, it is difficult for children to accept that their parents are divorced. For the most part, I feel there is something deep in our soul that wants our biological parents together. No matter what the issues were it is still a natural feeling for a child,” explained Mrs. Lester. “When you bring stepparents into the blend the stepchildren tend to disrespect them. They do not want to listen and there is a lot of resentment because the stepmother is not their biological parent. This can cause tension, bitterness, and resentment between the parents because they do not always agree on how to discipline the children.” In addition, a recent poll conducted by Karen León (figure below) confirms that ninety-four percent of stepmothers actually feel stressed in their parental role.
“An issue I have experienced quite often when counseling mothers and fathers is when their new spouse goes to discipline their child(ren). They do not like that this individual is telling their child what to do and this is a huge issue,” Mrs. Lester said. Before couples come together and before they decide to get married, they need to take into consideration that it is going to be difficult when marrying into a blended family. In fact, the break up of most second marriages is usually due to the problems that come with raising stepchildren and being a stepparent.
Current divorce statistics and risk factors indicate the more marriages one has the higher the divorce rate becomes. It also reflects the risk factors involved and the impact it has on children and adolescents.
Mrs. Lester emphasized, “The divorce rate now is about forty-one to fifty percent. By the second marriage, it is sixty percent and the third marriage is seventy-three percent. So getting rid of this man thinking the next one is going to be better does not always happen like that because we are all pretty much the same. You have to learn and figure out how to live together. You cannot just change partners because it is not going to solve anything.” In fact, when there are children involved, it is very difficult. “We live in a society where we need to set examples for our children and teach them how to be married. If we are moving from relationship to relationship, what do you think they are going to do when they become adults? I don’t think anyone wants that for his or her child(ren) because it is very difficult” Mrs. Lester expressed.
Recently, David G. Schramm and Francesca Adler-Baeder published an article in the Journal of Family Issues titled, “Marital Quality for Men and Women in Stepfamilies: Examining the Role of Economic Pressure, Common Stressors, and Stepfamily-Specific Stressors.” “First, when women report experiencing high levels of stress associated with living in a stepfamily, they are much less likely to engage in positive behaviors such as initiating physical affection, sharing emotions and feelings, and complimenting their spouse.” Furthermore, Schramm and Adler-Baeder indicated that, “This finding has implications for counselors, advocates, and family life educators working with women in stepfamilies. It is important for professionals to know these stressors so they can be prepared when working with stepmothers.”
Kelly S. Plouffe, LMFT, CCTP, CHt is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Trinity, Fla. “I enjoy working with blended families because I am able to help both children and adults eliminate the negative effect that past events can have on one’s physical and emotional health. I utilize methods that have been researched to be the most effective and long lasting for my patients,” says Plouffe. “We hear a lot of clichés about the evil stepmoms. In fact, there has been research done to show that stepmoms do get the title of being the evil stepmother. Some of them live up to that, but often they don’t. Its the perception.”
“It is important for Stepmothers to take it very slow and not to be so forceful. They cannot force themselves into the stepmother role. Stepmothers have to be a supportive person that stands in the back saying I am ready to catch you if you fall and constantly reinforcing them that they are not taking the place of the mother. It is a great benefit that another individual cares for them,” advises Plouffe. “Also, stepmothers need to have a strong relationship with their husbands. They have to be on the same team because kids are able to split the parents. If they come as a united front it is a much better situation all around and it makes the relationship stronger.”
Alisa Schubert Yuasa author of “Stepmothers break out of Cinderella mould, get their own day” said, “A stepmother fills an ambiguous role in an already complicated family dynamic. Especially if she has no biological children of her own, a stepmother finds herself in an environment where she is expected to fill the role of caregiver and homemaker, all while being constantly reminded that she will never truly be a ‘mother’ to her husband’s children.” Nancy Vasquez of Spring Hill, Fla., knows this statement too well. At twenty-three years old Vazquez had an instant family of three and a very bitter ex-wife. There were two boys and one girl. The boys were receptive of their relationship on the other hand, the girl, at the young age of thirteen was going through her own personal pain. “She was daddy’s little girl and here I come interfering with her special relationship. Her mother was responsible for her mixed feelings towards me. I know it was just as difficult for her as it was for me,” Vasquez said.
Vasquez experienced the stress stepmothers have endured while raising stepchildren. For many years, she experienced fear, anxiety, and rejection. Vasquez was not able to establish a relationship with her stepdaughter because of the ex-wife’s insecurities. When her stepdaughter would come over, she was bored and withdrawn. Her stepdaughter would always call her mother and keep in touch with her. “However, after many years of marital problems, trying to keep my husband happy, and trying to please my stepdaughter I found it necessary for my own well-being to let it go. It was time for me to worry about my two children and myself. I stopped trying so hard to make other people happy especially when they did not appreciate my efforts. Unfortunately, it took me over twenty years,” stated Vasquez.
“Stepmothers do not have it easy when it comes to raising their stepdaughters,” stated Helen Browning of Land O’Lakes, Fla. Browning has been a guidance counselor for the past twenty-five years. Throughout her profession, she has worked with blended families and has seen some of the roles stepmothers have in a child’s education. Although there have been instances where the stepmother or significant other is not to be involved in the child’s upbringing, she also has had the opportunity to see the opposite occur. “Stepmothers offer unconditional support because they love the child as if they were their own,” Browning said. A report titled “Childless Stepmothers: Communicating with Other Stepmothers about Spouses and Stepchildren” authored by Elizabeth A. Craig, Jacquelyn A. Harvey-Knowles, and Amy Janan Johnson, which appeared in the Qualitative Research Reports In Communication stated that, “Stepchildren, spouses, stepmothers, and support communities are equally responsible for reacting and responding to relational dynamics. Hence, all are accountable for advancing the family environment that exists.” Browning’s main goal as a guidance counselor is to have family members communicate effectively so the child can be successful, both in school and at home.
Maritza Lastra of Land O’ Lakes, Fla., expressed that not all stepmothers are evil. Mrs. Lastra has been married for twenty-two years to Ozvaldo Lastra. When they met they both had children from previous marriages. Mrs. Lastra said that, “When it came to parenting they never looked at one another’s child as if they were stepchildren. We both loved the children equally and we mutually agreed on their upbringing.” Both Mr. and Mrs. Lastra knew the expectations they had for their family. Although Bianca resided with her mother, her father also had joint custody. Mrs. Lastra took care and loved Bianca as if she were her own daughter. Even when her husband travelled for business, Mrs. Lastra still took care of Bianca. It was important for Mrs. Lastra to ensure that Bianca continued with her daily routine. As Bianca got older, her relationship with her stepmother continued to grow. Carol Pereira author of “Evil Stepmother?” Count Me Out; Mothers Day Special” appeared in Daily News & Analysis (DNA). Pereira stated, “Never mind the stereotypes we are up against-each day-because no matter how good you think you are, you can never win with how you are being viewed. So I do the best I can. I try to do things the way a mother would, holding back opinions when it matters and giving them when needed; supporting her decisions, backing her up, defending her and presenting a united front at all times.” Until this day, this is the kind of relationship Mrs. Lastra continues to have with her stepdaughter, Bianca Lastra.
Bianca Lastra of Miami, Fla., was raised by both her mother Lois Lastra and her stepmother Maritza Lastra since she was a toddler through adulthood. Unlike other stepdaughters, Bianca was afforded the opportunity to have the love from both sets of families and support to continue growing and becoming the woman she is today. While Bianca was growing up, she saw the conflict her peers would experience with their stepmothers. Luckily for her, that was not the case. As she got older, she learned to appreciate the benefits of living in a blended family. “I am very grateful for having each of them support me and not letting their differences get in the middle of my well being,” expressed Bianca.
Currently, this issue is raising many concerns because there are many stepmothers in society that are experiencing difficulties raising their stepchildren. For support, stepmothers are visiting blogs to interact with other stepmothers who are experiencing similar, if not the same situations.
Mrs. Lastra emphasized that, “Although there are stigmas attached to the title, the role of a stepmother is definitely not an easy one. Stepmothers can begin to build trust with their stepdaughters by communicating and being honest with them. Although, this process may seem risky and does not happen overnight, it definitely has its rewards in the end.”
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