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How to Avoid Becoming a Wicked Stepmothe

with Laura Petherbridge, Ron Deal | November 12, 2009

Stepmothers have gotten a bad rap every since the days of Cinderella, but today’s guest, Laura Petherbridge, tells why they often deserve it. Laura, a stepmother herself, and family therapist Ron Deal tell you how to avoid making some of the most wicked step parenting mistakes.

Stepmothers have gotten a bad rap every since the days of Cinderella, but today’s guest, Laura Petherbridge, tells why they often deserve it. Laura, a stepmother herself, and family therapist Ron Deal tell you how to avoid making some of the most wicked step parenting mistakes.

How to Avoid Becoming a Wicked Stepmothe

With Laura Petherbridge, Ron Deal
|
November 12, 2009
| Download Transcript PDF

Laura:  You’d be amazed at the number of stepmoms that have contacted me, emailed me and said when I pull in the driveway of my home and I know the stepkids are there, I feel exactly the same way as I did when I would pull into my home when I was married to an abusive husband.  So that’s that kind of fear that is triggered in them, it’s that same feeling of I’m out of control. There are people here who are hurting me. I feel ostracized.  I feel lonely.  I feel like I’m being taken advantage of and I’m going to retreat.

Bob:  This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, November 12th.  Our host is the President of FamilyLife Dennis Rainey and I’m Bob Lepine.  What do you do when you’re a stepmom and the thought of going home makes you tense up?  We’re going to talk about that today.

Welcome to FamilyLife Today thanks for joining us.  Have you ever thought about the fact that in a lot of cartoons the character that is the personification of evil is a stepmother?  Have you ever thought about that? 

I mean Cinderella, it’s the wicked stepmother, in Sleeping Beauty, I think, wicked stepmother and I don’t know how it got into our literature and our popular culture to be that way but nobody thinks, gee, the stepmom she’s the noble person and we’ve got the stereo-type of the wicked stepmother

Dennis:  It causes me to wonder if those fairy tales were written by someone who grew up in a home where they had a stepmom and maybe that’s the best word they could use to describe their stepmother.   Well, we have the authors of a brand new book called, The Smart Stepmom.

Bob:  Not the wicked stepmom.

Dennis:  No

Bob:  The smart stepmom

Dennis:  No, but one of the author’s described herself as a wicked stepmother.  Laura Petherbridge, she’s the one who did that.

Laura:  I did.

Dennis:  You described yourself.

Laura:  I did and I’m very honest.

Dennis:  I’ve never really ever introduced a guest since we started this in 1992, Bob, as

Bob:  We want to welcome our wicked stepmother to our program.

Dennis:  Here she is on FamilyLife Today.  And Ron Deal joins us.  I’m not sure how to introduce you, Ron.  But you both have a lot of experience in this area of step parenting.  Let’s talk about that for a second.  You refer to yourself, in fact you thought you’d never become the wicked stepmother.

Laura:  Yes, it really, it sounds bad, but the reason I put that in the book is because I want other stepmoms to understand that it’s normal to feel that way.  I can remember looking in the mirror one day thinking, what have I become?  Because I was feeling so wicked about all the issues that we were dealing with as a family and some of the emotions I was having towards my stepkids.

Dennis:  Like what?

Laura:  Well, just some days wishing that their mother would move to another state and I wouldn’t have to see them for six months.  It’s a terrible thing to even say, but if I’m being totally honest and I’m speaking for a lot of stepmoms that contact me, their desire is that the step kids would move far, far away so you just wouldn’t have to deal with it all the time.

Dennis:  So you want them out of your life.

Laura:  Exactly.  I know that sounds very unchristian, it doesn’t sound very loving, but if we’re being honest, that is often the thought that is going across the stepmom’s mind is this is so much more complicated than I thought it was going to be.  Maybe if they just weren’t here it wouldn’t be so difficult.

Dennis:  I don’t think I’ve ever admitted this on FamilyLife Today, but I think Barbara and I had some days with our kids…

Bob:  I was thinking the same thing.

Dennis:  That is there had been a box to have checked could there be a chance of our kids moving away for maybe six hours.  Maybe it wasn’t six months.

Bob:  There were times when we sent them off to summer camp and just said, thank you, Lord, for summer camp.  Just for a little breather here.

Dennis:  I can really understand, Laura, although I’ve obviously never been a step parent.  I could understand how that could create all kinds of guilty feelings and shame that you even have the thought.

Laura:  Absolutely, because as a biological parent when you think that, there is a part of you that knows that’s a little bit normal but as a stepmom there’s a part, in particular if you’re a Christian, there’s a feeling inside of you that you know that you don’t love these children in exactly the same way you either love your own children or you love your own family members and there’s a guilt that goes along with that.  So it’s different than the biological parent you know being glad that the kids going off to camp because it’s just a different family dynamic.

Ron:  I think part of this guilt is rooted in self blame.  Stepmoms are really hard on themselves.

Laura:   Yes.

Ron:  As Laura and I did the research for this book and talked with stepmoms, we developed a team of stepmoms who advised us about different aspects of the book.  That’s one of the things we heard over and over and over again and in my counseling with step families is this sense of blame.

Stepmoms try so very hard and if they keep kind of beating their head against a wall and can’t quite get into a child’s heart or can’t quite figure out how to deal with the power issues in being a parent and so on, they really, really struggle.  And often times they just feel so isolated and alone they don’t know what else to do they kind of blame themselves.

Bob:  Here’s a scenario I imagine and tell me if this is kind of a typical scenario.  A woman who either has her own children or maybe she’s never been married but she has met this guy, she’s in love with the guy.  They’ve started dating, she’s met the kids.  She likes the kids and they seem to like her.  They’ve done some fun stuff together the kids have affirmed her; they’ve said some really sweet things to her. 

And as she and the guy are thinking about getting married, she goes you know I know this is going to be challenging, but I really think this is going to work and so she’s hopeful.  She has a lot of hope for what’s coming up.

Ron:  And really that’s rooted in the idea that dating is going to be reflective of the actual married life.  I think one of the cruelties of this for many people is that dating is inconsistent.

Bob:  With step families or first family dating relationships and the marriage

Dennis:  It’s not a real picture of a relationship.

Bob:  Let me jump ahead now, the mom is married to the husband and all of a sudden the kids are not acting the way they were acting during the courtship phase.  In fact, she’s seeing anger in them she’s never seen before.  It feels to her that they are trying to sabotage the marriage, trying to come between her and her husband.  This job of step parenting is much harder than she ever imagined it was going to be and she’s wondering I don’t know that I’m cut out for this.  I don’t know that I can do this and do it well.  Is that fairly, have I described it?

Laura:  It sure is.  And one of the things that you’re mentioning which is very realistic is that the stepmom thinks that the children will just continue to embrace her and that they will want a new mother.  But in reality in particular if there’s been a divorce, when a parent re-marries after a divorce it kills the dream for children that their parents will reconcile.  So part of the reason children are so resistant to a new step parent is that all of a sudden

Bob:  The parent trap isn’t going to happen the way it did in the movie.

Laura:  You’re absolutely right.  This is the reality, now daddy cannot go back to mommy because he’s got a new wife.

Ron:  In effect the new marriage is another loss.

Laura:  Yes.

Ron:  For the children stacked upon the previous losses that they’ve had.  I think one of the things that we really try to help stepmoms understand in this book is that if you’re a stepmother you’re a grief counselor because you and yourself you’re going to go through some losses, but the children that you’re helping to raise and if you have your own biological children. 

Everybody goes through some transition that basically represents loss and that’s tagged on top of the losses that got you into this situation.  Whether biological mother passed away or there was a divorce.  You’re a grief counselor.  The losses are just going to be carried right in to the new family experience on through the years.  It’s not just going to dwindle down and go away, it’s going to be there for the duration.

Bob:  I just have to ask at this point, given what we’ve just laid out, should anybody even try this?  You know there’s part of me that goes we’re talking about one of the most complicated, difficult assignments that could be handed to somebody.  Do this at your own risk, or should you just leave well enough alone and not try to make this happen?

Ron:  Bob, you said a key word there, risk.  I truly believe life is a risk in a sense and marriage is a risk.  I always tell people you are always working on your marriage because your marriage is always working on you.  God uses it to disciple us, to train us, to refine us and the same thing is going to be true of a stepmother experience.  She’s going to encounter some things she didn’t count on.  She didn’t know what she was going to need grace for and it’s going to transform her and deepen her love and her ability to walk with grace, if she will listen and learn from the experience. 

But we do want people to have their eyes open.  I think it’s an interesting notion to tell people who are dating that as a single parent it’s a legitimate option to stay single, to raise your kids and to do a good job with that.  But the step parent experience can also be incredibly rewarding for people.  Often times they have to travel a bit of a journey before they get to the rewards and that’s the encouragement we want people to realize.  The risk does bring reward.

Dennis:  The risk actually is seen in the statistics around the number of blended families that end in divorce.  It’s actually higher than first time marriages.

Ron:  It is.

Laura:  Definitely.

Dennis:  And it goes up with every successive marriage.  What exactly are the statistics, Ron?

Ron:  Well the remarriage divorce rate is at least sixty percent.   If we refine that to couples who are remarried with step children it’s sixty-six percent around two-thirds.

Dennis:  So it goes up even higher?

Ron:  That’s right and the third marriage according to the U.S. Census the divorce rate is about seventy-one percent.  So there are challenges that come with children being added to the marriage package.  What I like to say is its one thing to be a couple; it’s another thing to be a family. 

Bob:  If somebody is considering a blended marriage right now, they’re listening and they go this sounds really scary, then good.  I mean we have sobered them appropriately.

Laura:  Absolutely.

Bob:  If somebody is on the other side of the fence, they’re already in a blended marriage and they’re going I knew it was hard you guys are just confirming what I’ve already been experiencing, well, good.  Because there is hope, Laura, when somebody realizes okay I’m not atypical, what I’m experiencing is as a step parent is not unusual, right?

Laura:  Yes, one of the number one things that stepmoms say to me when they come to my workshop on this topic is it’s just so wonderful to be around other stepmoms that think and feel and sharing that what I’m feeling is normal.  Sometimes just knowing that what we’re feeling is normal there’s a comfort in that.  So that’s absolutely true.  I think too the mistake is that we think that we learn from our past mistakes, so often and particularly if you’ve been a divorced person and you’re remarrying you think well I learned how to do marriage from, you know, I learned what I did wrong from my first marriage and that’s really untrue.  We really do not learn from our mistakes unless we learn why we made those mistakes. 

So, it’s not uncommon to go on and make those mistakes again.  So it really is taking a good look in the mirror at why did I get into this marriage and now what am I going to do?  It’s a complicated marriage and for me I had to get to a place where even though there were times when I wanted to bail.  I say that in the book.  There were times I just wanted to run from all of it and I thought singleness wasn’t too fun, but this was worse.

Dennis:  So you’re talking about bailing from the marriage?

Laura:  Yes, if I’m being honest there were moments when I thought you know what I’d just as soon go back to being single than dealing with all of this.  I had to get to a point of where I said you know what I made a vow before God, before my husband that I am not going to get divorced again. 

I just prayed, Lord, you are going to have to teach me how to love these children and how to do this.  I know that you can teach me if I will look to you, you will give me the heart and the mind and the ability to do this if I will seek you on it.  That was where it began, the turning.

Ron:  And that’s the risk.  You see what Laura said was Lord, teach me.  She opened herself up to learning what she needed to learn in order to make the relationships work.  That’s one of the biggest risks and you stop and you think about it so many stepmothers are there and they’ve already been through a divorce themselves.  They’ve already had some loss and tragedy in their life.  They’ve shut down from risk, they have gone into self protection mode and they are no longer willing. 

I can tell you that in a study that I did with Dr. David Olson that’s given birth to another book that will be out sometime in the future.  We found that one of the highest predictors of remarriages that come apart is fear.  It’s simply the unwillingness to endure risk, to learn, to grow to be humbled by it and to grow through it.  But once you get afraid, once you begin to lock down, once you begin to say to yourself you know what remarriage I don’t know how to do that, there’s a whole lot of risk involved with that I think I will go where I find safety and security and that’s back into being single again, or being a single parent again.  Then all of a sudden you’ve shut down and there’s no hope for the marriage. 

Laura:  You’d be amazed at the number of stepmoms that have contacted me, emailed me,  and said when I pull in the driveway of my home and I know the step kids are there I feel the exactly the same way that I did when I would pull into my home when I was married to an abusive husband. 

So that’s that kind of fear that is triggered in them, it’s that same feeling of I’m out of control there’s people here who are hurting me.  I feel ostracized.  I feel lonely.  I feel like I am being taken advantage of.  So she’s really needing her spouse, her husband, the father to come along side and help her with this process because they are his children. 

If they were her children she could set certain boundaries with them that is a little bit easier, but because it’s his children he’s going to have to partner with her in order to get whatever’s going on in the home that she feels so much fear going in there.  They’re going to have to work together as a team to get rid of that fear, that abusiveness that is going on there because alone she really does not have the power without him beside her because they are not her biological children.

Dennis:  So the first principle is, that cannot be allowed to happen.

Ron:  Absolutely.  The father in that situation has got to take charge.  Now, I’m going to assume because it’s gotten to that point that he has not taken charge.  That he is not an engaged father but he’s passive and he’s letting things happen for whatever reason.  I’m not thinking here of a stepmom who is in  a necessarily physically abusive environment but in an environment where she tries to implement change, she tries to follow through with her role as a stepmother but she gets sabotaged by her husband or what else happens in the home. 

One of the things we talk about in the book is what we call politely resigning.  It’s a very difficult thing to throw a mother into a place where she is responsible for getting the kids to pick up their room and take care of their stuff and do their chores, but every time she tries they just say no, they go to appeal to dad, dad says hey it’s not a big deal, she’s stuck. 

One of the things she can do is say to her husband I think it’s time for me to no longer be responsible for getting them to make their beds.  Obviously that’s not something that’s important to you and so I’m going to just back out of that.  If you want them to make their beds I’ll let you handle that. 

We hope what that would create is a little bit of a vacuum in the home.  Dad walks around and notices that no one ever makes their bed and clothes are all over the place and dad decides to get motivated to make this change.  Then something can happen, but until then until he’s motivated she’s going to have a difficult time.

Bob:  There is one big issue and we don’t have a lot of time to talk about this, but if there is something that is keeping dad from getting involved, it may just be his passivity but it may also be this overwhelming sense of guilt that he carries around with him, I put these kids in this position through the failure of my first marriage if I had done better.  It’s almost like he is thinking I’ve got to let them act out the way they are acting out because I bear the responsibility.  How does dad get past that?

Ron:  He has to walk straight through guilt, straight into his fear that somehow putting his wife into the front seat of his heart is going to cause his children irreparable pain and he’s going to cause them more difficulty.  He’s got to walk through that and act out of trust that that is the right thing to do that eventually that would bring stability to his children’s lives, even though initially it may bring some instability to their lives.

Dennis:  So you’re saying commitment to his wife is the strongest gift he can give his children.

Ron:  That’s exactly right.  Now initially, Dennis, and this is really important, I don’t convey an idea that initial commitment is just going to be happiness for his children.  It’s probably going to create them some pain.  Because they were the priority for many years especially in the single parent years and for him to say, you know what Friday nights are for my wife now.  We’re going to go out on a date and show that commitment, and express that commitment.  Include her in decision making and all of those things that will make children say well wait a minute, we came first.  But the test of time will be that that provides stability for them.  During that difficult transition is where a lot of men bail.  It’s where they don’t follow through.

Laura:  We don’t want to convey that we’re saying that the dad is supposed to neglect his children.  He brought these children into the world so he needs to stay connected with his children.  And say for instance that Friday night is date night, make sure then Saturday morning breakfast is with your kids.  Have one on one time with those children, dad and just the kids so they can feel like they haven’t completely lost their father to this new marriage. 

It’s very, very important for him to stay connected with those kids and to say, you know what, you’ve had me all these years, I realize this marriage has probably caused you some fear and some anxiety and feeling like maybe you’re losing touch with me but I’m going to promise you that I am going to love my new wife but I am never going to leave your side.  So it’s important for dads to verbally communicate that the new wife is not replacing the children and he’s got to spend time with the kids to do that. 

Dennis:  I’m listening to both of you here and I know Bob is thinking the same thing at this point, there have to be those who have heard you talk about this now and they are listening to all the costs that come with a blended family and they’re in a first time marriage right now and they’re considering divorce.

Ron:  We want them to stay in that marriage.

Dennis:  I want you to listen to me; you’re not going to trade this one in for a better one.  You may think it’s a better one, but let me tell you something, there’s a reason why the statistics are higher for a second time marriage with children.

Bob:  The degree of difficulty increases significantly and it doesn’t matter how much emotional bonding you may feel to somebody outside your marriage.  It doesn’t matter…

Dennis:  How good they make you feel.

Bob:  Or how bad your situation is right now in your first marriage.  The degree of difficulty in establishing a blended family, a step family relationship is exponentially higher than it is to get things right in your first marriage.

Ron:  I have a pastor friend who gives first time married couples my previous book, The Smart Step Family and makes them read it so that they will be even more determined to make their first marriage work.

Dennis:  There you go.  The point of all this is, you need to figure out a way to make your marriage work whether you’re in a step family or not in one, you need the blueprints.  I just want to exhort you if you haven’t been to the Weekend to Remember Marriage Conference, come.  And if you went to one ten years ago, trust me; it’s time for a wheel alignment.  It’s time to change the oil, it’s time to take a weekend away because you’ve changed and you want to head this kind of thinking off at the pass, Bob, and get folks equipped and trained because your marriage is worth it.

Bob:  And again we’ve got information on the website FamilyLifeToday.com where you can find about when the conference is coming to a city near where you live.  In fact next weekend I am going to be at the Weekend to Remember in St. Louis which is where I grew up.  So I am looking forward to going back home. 

Speaking of the Weekend to Remember conference next weekend if you want to find out more about when the Weekend to Remember is coming to a city near you or if you want to look at the Spring schedule and start making plans now to attend one of our Spring Weekend to Remember Marriage Conferences, go online at FamilyLifeToday.com.  As we’ve already said today, when you are in a step family the degree of difficulty, both for your marriage and for parenting gets raised up a notch and that’s why it’s important for step families to be extra ready, extra prepared. 

Get a copy of the book that Ron and Laura have written called, The Smart Stepmom, or Ron’s book called The Smart Step Family.  Ron’s got a DVD curriculum for small groups to go through, so if you know some other step families get together and go through the eight sessions and work through the workbook. 

All of the information about the resources we’ve talked about can be found on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com.  You can order directly from us if you’d like.  Again it’s FamilyLifeToday.com or you can order by calling 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-358-6329.  We can answer any questions you may have about the resources that we’ve got and make arrangements to get the ones you need sent to you when you call us.

We hope you’ll keep in mind when you get in touch with us FamilyLife Today is listener supported.  We are able to produce and syndicate this daily radio program because folks like you who listen and who contact us and help support the ministry make a donation in support of FamilyLife Today.

This month if you’re able to make a donation of any amount we’d like to say thank you by sending you a copy of Barbara Rainey’s brand new devotional guide for families called Growing Together in Gratitude.  We’ve had lots of listeners who have been getting in touch with us to get this devotional guide.  It’s brand new.  In fact it’s so new we weren’t able to get it into Christian book stores or on Amazon.  It’s just available from us here at FamilyLife Today and it’s available this month when you make a donation of any amount for the ministry of FamilyLife Today.

 Just do whatever you can do to help support this ministry and feel free to request a copy of Growing Together in Gratitude.  And if you’re making your donation online at FamilyLifeToday.com, type the word “GRATITUDE” in the key code box that you find on the online donation form, or call 1-800-FLTODAY make your donation over the phone and when you make your donation just ask for the Growing Together in Gratitude devotional.  And again we’re happy to send it out to you and we appreciate so much you’re support of this ministry and your partnership with us.

Tomorrow we want to talk about what can be one of the more challenging relationships a stepmom faces and that’s a relationship she has with the biological mother of her step children.  We’ll talk about what you do when you face challenges in that relationship on tomorrow’s program.  We hope you can be back with us for that. 

I want to thank our engineer today Keith Lynch and our entire broadcast production team on behalf of our host Dennis Rainey I’m Bob Lepine.  We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.

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