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The Real Stepmothers
By Rachelle Katz, Ed.D., LMFT,
Author of The Happy Stepmother: Stay Sane, Empower Yourself and Thrive in Your New Family

We've all heard the stereotypes: the wicked stepmother, the home wrecker, the stepmother who doesn't care about bonding with her stepchildren. It turns out that this could not be farther from the truth. As a psychotherapist and stepmother, I know from both personal and professional experience just how difficult stepmotherhood can be. I counsel stepmothers individually, lead monthly support groups for stepmothers and facilitate an online stepmother support group. Without exception, instead of being uncaring and indifferent, all of the stepmothers I've worked with have been highly accomplished, lovely, intelligent, and attractive women who embraced the role of stepmother with enthusiasm when they got married. They all had the best intentions to bond with their stepchildren, and to create a loving new family. These stepmothers held onto the hope that the family would "blend" over time and applied the same can-do attitude they took to their jobs and other personal pursuits to their new role. They followed the belief that their behaviors make a difference in the life they lead; if they work hard, they will succeed, perhaps not immediately, but over time.

Their hard work, however, did not yield the desired result. Among a host of problems, some of them failed to bond with their stepchildren, while others could not hold a civil conversation with their husbands about their stepchildren without it deteriorating into a fight. After years of feeling in control of their lives, they now felt an absence of control. And when they expressed their needs and opinions to their husbands and other stepfamily members, many didn't feel they received the recognition and support they truly needed. Over time, the stress and frustration became too much, and they grew depressed, anxious, and exhausted.

The good news is that there is hope: it is possible to be a happy stepmother. First, stepmothers need to understand that their struggle is not their fault -- they have done nothing wrong. Their failures are not a result of any mistakes they have made but are related to the many challenges inherent in the role of stepmother. Part of the process of feeling better is learning the reality about stepfamilies and the variety of challenges that stepfamilies face. For instance, only 20% of stepchildren feel close to their stepmothers. That means 80% of stepmothers struggle to bond with their stepchildren -- a staggering majority! Understanding this reality helps stepmothers realize that their problems are common to many other stepmothers. This information is a huge relief for them and helps them to reframe their struggles more objectively, enabling them to let go of feelings of blame and guilt.

Second, stepmothers need to figure out what they can control, what they can't, and to take actions in the areas where they do have some control. This idea is very similar to the Serenity Prayer used in 10 steps programs. Recognizing what they can control helps restore their mind-set that their behaviors make a difference in their lives. For instance, stepmothers may not be able to control the visitation schedule, but they can control their responsibilities -- what they choose to take on and choose for their husband, the biological parent, to handle -- when the stepchildren are over. When stepmothers start doing things that they enjoy -- make a conscious choice to see friends, take classes or play a sport -- they start to feel better. One positive action can make a huge difference in restoring the belief that actions, in fact, do impact one's overall happiness. The key to happiness is to remember we can keep growing and taking responsible for our own behavior. This reminder really helps stepmothers.

I also encourage stepmothers to reach out to other stepmothers for support and encouragement. According to positive psychology, the single greatest predictor of success during a challenging time isn't intelligence or past experience but social support. Getting stepmothers to recognize that they are not alone in their struggles is very comforting, and moreover provides them with a tremendous network of wise and experienced women who understand exactly what they are going through. Through social support, stepmothers provide each other with invaluable sympathy, recognition, advice and encouragement.

There may not be anything we can do about the prevailing stereotypes, but there is help available to empower real stepmothers, facing very real problems.

© 2010 Rachelle Katz, Ed.D., LMFT, author of The Happy Stepmother: Stay Sane, Empower Yourself and Thrive in Your New Family

Author Bio
Rachelle Katz, Ed.D, LMFT, writes from a place of both personal experience -- she's been a stepmother for nineteen years -- and professional expertise. A psychotherapist with twenty-five years of experience in private practice, since 2004 she has empowered thousands of women through her Web site, www.stepsforstepmothers.com.