I was on National Public Radio the other day to talk about being a stepmother and paired with an “expert,” a woman named Rachelle Katz, who had written a book, The Happy Stepmother: Stay Sane, Empower Yourself, Thrive in Your New Family (Harlequin).
Dr. Katz is a licensed family and marriage therapist who began a New York-based Steps for Stepmothers website in 2004 to provide an on-line support system for a growing number of stepmothers. She also gives “coaching” lessons for handling the difficulties that stepchildren bring to the family dynamic. The book itself is a kind of “how-to” for the blended family.
Ms. Katz compiled over 3,000 profiles of women who answered a 120-page questionnaire about step mothering and her book addresses the most common issues in a positive, practical way.
I was on the radio show as an expert as well – I have the experience if not the counseling degree to talk at some length about being a stepmother. As an English professor, I wrote about the stereotypes of stepmothers. You know, the evil, conniving wicked witch who steals the helpless children away from their caring father. All of our favorite fairy tales – Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel. Snow White — portray these nefarious women.
So what are the steps to becoming a happy stepmother? Most of us who have been there and done that would settle for less: Harmony rather than happiness . To be a happy-enough stepmother seems a satisfactory goal.
Here are the three mantra’s of successful stepmothering, gleaned from Dr. Katz’s expertise and my life experience. Repeat as needed.
1. I’m the grown-up. I’m the grown-up. I’m the grown-up. Always remember that you are the grown-up. The children are . . . children. They are the ones who must be protected and safe. They are the ones who need you. I used to imagine my own (biological) daughter without me in the world. I would imagine my daughter coming home to a woman who was not her mother. Who was there to protect her? To show her how things worked? To model how to behave in the world? I needed to be that grownup woman for my stepdaughters.
2. They don’t have to love me. They don’t have to love me. They don’t have to love me. Your stepchildren don’t have to love you. Nor you, them. In fact, you don’t even have to like each other. What they have to do is treat you with respect. And you, them. New stepmoms sometimes expect too much. And then they try too hard. If genuine affection comes eventually, well, that’s icing on the family cake. The demands of a peaceable home and shared responsibilities – these can eventually create the nurturing environment where love may grow
3. The marriage comes first. The marriage comes first. The marriage comes first. The relationship with your husband should be the strongest bond. That comes first. If you adhere to “until death do you part” this time, then you’re going to be with your husband a lot longer than the children are going to live with you. Hopefully. This means, that you should appear in front of the children as a united front. Argue – especially about them – in private.
I once said that being a stepmom was one of the hardest things I ever did. “Really?” asked my younger stepdaughter, then age thirteen. But when she graduated from college, Katie hugged me and told me that I must have loved her father a lot to take on the role of stepmother. “And I’m glad you did,” she said. I’m glad, too.