The Role of the Stepmother
About the Guest
If being a mother is hard work, then being a stepmother is twice as difficult. Successful Stepfamilies founder Ron Deal, along with author and stepmother Laura Petherbridge, talk about the challenges unique to a stepmother.
Laura PetherbridgeLaura Petherbridge serves couples and single adults with topics on women’s issues, relationships, stepfamilies, co-parenting, single parenting, divorce prevention, and divorce recovery. She is an international speaker and author of four books including, When “I Do” Becomes “I Don’t”—Practical Steps for Healing During Separation and Divorce, and The Smart Stepmom, co-authored with stepfamily expert Ron Deal and endorsed by Gary Chapman (Five Love Languages...more
Ron DealRon L. Deal is one of the most widely read and viewed experts on blended families in the country. He is Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®, founder of Smart Stepfamilies™, and the author and Consulting Editor of the Smart Stepfamily Series
If being a mother is hard work, then being a stepmother is twice as difficult.
The Role of the Stepmother
Bob: There are similarities between being a mom and being a stepmom, but Ron Deal says there are a number of significant differences that can’t be taken for granted.
Ron: If two parents have a child, they have a God-given blood-bond with that kid from the day he’s brought into the world. It affords you certain things with your relationship. You have, for example, automatic love from your kids. You have automatic grace and forgiveness. You get automatic respect with this attachment-bond. You get automatic affection with this attachment-bond. Now, a stepmother comes in and she doesn’t get automatic anything. She has to earn every bit of it.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, May 6th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll talk today about how a stepmom can navigate the sometimes choppy waters she finds herself in. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You know, we get a lot of emails from listeners. One of the things I’ve seen listeners say a lot, that has been encouraging is, “We appreciate the fact that you guys don’t put a veneer on what’s going on in families.—”
Bob: —“You tell it like it is.”
Dennis: We try to be authentic.
Bob: Now, we do get some folks, who write from time to time, and say, “It sounds like it’s just a ‘Beaver Cleaver’ perfect family when we listen to FamilyLife Today.”
Dennis: I’m not sure what broadcast they’re listening to because I’ve shared enough of my mistakes on this broadcast that I don’t think the Cleavers ever experienced. [Laughter] But we have a pair of people joining us on the broadcast today who know about a different type of family, other than the Cleavers. Ron Deal and Laura Petherbridge join us FamilyLife Today. Laura, Ron welcome to the broadcast.
Laura: Thank you.
Ron: Thank you.
Dennis: You guys collaborated to write a book on stepfamilies. You’ve written a book called The Smart Stepmom. Ron, you’ve been in this area—ministering for, now, close to two decades—had vital ministry—counseling, writing, and training in churches across the country. Laura, you’ve done a number of divorce workshops and have created material there. This issue is a relevant issue today.
Ron, you were telling me that there are over ten million stepmoms today?
Ron: And that’s a conservative estimate in the United States—over ten million stepmoms. It actually could be quite a bit higher than that, but the census doesn’t keep the kind of records that they used to. Stepmoms are very, very common, within the church and within the communities, in the United States.
Bob: And Laura, you are one of the ten million; right?
Laura: That’s right, for more than 24 years.
Bob: Tell us a little bit of your story. How did you become a stepmom?
Laura: Well, I went through a divorce in 1984—went through a divorce. Then, a couple years later, I remarried. The man that I married had two children. They were 11 and 13, at the time.
Bob: Did you know what you were getting yourself into?
Laura: Absolutely not.
Dennis: You actually grew up in a home—that you had two stepmoms, as a child.
Laura: That’s right.
Dennis: And as an adult, growing up; right?
Laura: That’s right. I’ve had two stepmoms of my own. So I assumed—I falsely assumed—that that would prepare me for being a stepmom. That was wrong.
Dennis: What one word would you use to describe your stepmoms? Pick two words—one for each—just as stepmoms.
Laura: Oh, for my own stepmoms.
Dennis: Yes, from your own experience.
Laura: The first stepmom—I would say, “jealous”. The second stepmom—I would say, “compassionate”.
Bob: So, you did have a little bit of a picture of what not to do and what to do when you became a stepmom. But you said you still weren’t prepared for it.
Laura: Yes, I knew some basic things—like trying not to become their mother—but I was older when my dad remarried the third time. My second stepmom—his third marriage—was a little different because I was an adult. So, I approached it a little differently. But, yes, my first stepmom—I realized, as time went on, that she was just very jealous of him having two children, with a former marriage.
Dennis: Ron, is that the number one mistake stepmoms make—assuming they can step in to be a mom?
Ron: I think so. We have, in our society and our culture, what we call the “motherhood mandate”. That is simply the idea that women are the emotional connectors in the family. They’re the ones who care-take. They’re also the ones who connect, emotionally, with people in the family—and kind of the centerpiece, if you will.
If a stepmother comes in and tries to take that center-place—there’s already a mother, even if she’s deceased. There’s already a mother. So, she may feel like the expectation of her is that she becomes the emotional connector. She may believe that that’s really what she wants and also, by the way, that takes care of her because she moves from an outside role to an inside role, once she’s emotionally-connected with everybody. But as she tries to move into that place and move mom out, that’s a huge mistake.
Dennis: A lot of resistance occurs there.
Ron: Absolutely. It just emboldens the resistance, I think, within children, whether they be children or adults.
Dennis: As I was reading through your book, I was struck by the quotes from stepmoms that you have in there. Every one of the quotes, it seems, drips with emotion—
Dennis: —disappointment, discouragement, unmet expectations. This is really what you were attempting to do as you wrote this—you wanted to come alongside stepmoms and help them understand what “normal” is.
Laura: That’s right because stepmothers, typically, feel very lonely. They feel very isolated. They feel ostracized and outside of the family circle. They feel very rejected—sometimes, even by their husband. What the goal is, particularly in the beginning of the book, is to show other stepmoms, “We understand your pain. These feelings are perfectly normal, and there is a way to overcome them.”
Bob: It seems like there almost ought to be a surgeon general’s warning on the side of being a stepmom. Somebody, who is considering a blended marriage relationship—whether they are bringing their own kids in or they’re stepping into an existing family structure—there almost ought to be a time-out to say, “You just need a real sober assessment of what you are about to do,” because the dynamics here, Ron, are really significant; aren’t they?
Ron: Yes, really, what we are saying is: “You can be a great stepmother—have a wonderful step-family relationship. It’s something you grow into—that the family will grow together, over time.”
We just want to get your expectations set for that woman—who is in the dating experience, looking down the road—thinking about marrying a man who has children: “What’s my role? What’s my place going to be?” We want her expectations in the right place so she understands that there is a process here—that she may not ever, in the children’s heart, take on that mother- figure kind of role. She might, but she may not. Or, even more confusing, she might have that role with some of the children but not with all of the children.
So, just to understand that—and to go in with her eyes open and her expectations, in the right place—sets her up for greater success. Here’s something I believe—more stepmoms are successful than they know, but they are trying so hard and—
Dennis: And, more than likely, their standards are so high.
Ron: That’s right. They’re trying to fulfill that motherhood mandate. What we want them to know is there is just a different standard—it is a different dynamic—for a stepmother’s relationship. Again, it can be great—wonderful, even beyond your expectations—but don’t assume that you’re going to become “Mom”.
Bob: And you said it’s going to take time. Are you saying months, years?
Ron: Well, we’ve talked on this program before about how it generally takes stepfamilies five to seven years to really kind of integrate—to pull the family members in. I call it “cooking”. It takes a while to cook. “How long does it take a stepmother to really get into a place where she feels some peace and feels connected, emotionally, and knows what her role is?” Well, that depends.
It depends on so many factors—the age of the children, whether they’re part-time or full-time children—all kinds of things make a difference there. Again, what I would wish for stepmothers is that they would enjoy what they have today rather than living and longing for what they don’t have today.
Dennis: Yes, look at the glass and, “It’s half-empty.”
Ron: Go with what God has given you and grow with that.
Dennis: Laura, as you started your journey, as a stepmom, undoubtedly—well, you admit in your book—you had high expectations, and you were instantly disappointed. How did it manifest itself with your husband’s children?
Laura: Yes, I really think I was going to come in and be this wonderful Christian role model in their life, and influence them, and get them in church. I just had all these expectations of what a wonderful Christian example I was going to be for them. Then, when it gets down to the day-to-day stuff, it’s just so different than what you think it’s going to be. It’s just so much harder than you think it’s going to be. Stepmoms often feel guilty that they don’t love their stepchildren as much as they either think they should or as much as they love their own children.
Now, I didn’t have my own biological children—so I didn’t have that comparison—but other stepmoms tell me all the time, “I feel so guilty because I don’t love his kids in exactly the same way that I love my own.” I think that’s one of the first things—is to lower your expectations for the role that you are going to be or become in the lives of these children. That’s what I had to do.
Dennis: Take us to, early in your marriage, when you had to learn that. What was one of the first situations that occurred, at the grassroots level, in the mundane, everyday life—that stepmoms face—that you had to face?
Laura: Yes, I had to realize certain things were not a hill to die on. For example, I was going to get us all eating really healthy and having these really healthy meals. Well, my stepkids weren’t doing that in their other home—in their biological home—so, of course, when they came to my home, there’s going to be resistance to that.
It wasn’t my job to try to change that in their life. They have a mom; they have a dad. Those are the two people in their lives that should be seeing that they’re eating healthy, or going to church, or any of those things. It wasn’t my job. I had to learn to let go of the things that were not my job, as a stepmother, and to only focus on becoming as godly of an example, and influence and role model in their lives as they would let me become.
Dennis: So take us to the dinner table—you got kids who won’t eat it—pushing back.
Dennis: Do you engage your husband, at this point, and ask him to step in; or do you call a time-out—step into another room—and have a little caucus between husband and wife and say, “How are we going to handle this?”
Laura: Yes, it has to become between the stepmom and her husband, “How important is this in our home, to you, as the dad?” Then, depending on how important it is to him, that’s how much further you can take it.
Ron: Laura has just introduced one of the most foundational concepts to a successful stepmother; and that is, she works with her husband. What she’s saying is, “It wasn’t her job to get them eating right.” Well, if her husband wants his kids eating right, she can partner with him; and she can make that happen.
But if the stepmother is trying to assert new rules—new standards of conduct, new ways of behavior—and none of the biological parents want that—meaning, the biological mom in the other home or biological dad—he didn’t really care about that—then, it’s not going to happen. It’s just going to create more conflict in this particular situation.
For her to go—kind of behind closed doors, as you suggested—and have that pow-wow with her husband and figure out what the standard is going to be—and then, together, present that standard—that position of unity is going to actually get things done. It’s going to empower the stepmother to be able to follow through.
Bob: So, if he says, “You know, this healthy eating thing is really not that big of deal to me,” I’m thinking of you going, “Well, it ought to be!”
Laura: Yes, that’s what I did. That’s what I did wrong. I would try to push the issues that I felt were important. Now, when you get into moral issues—that’s where it gets really, really difficult. I get emails from stepmoms constantly—their issue isn’t food—they’re not dealing with a food issue. They’re dealing with something like the teenage son is looking at pornography, or the stepchild is coming into the home, calling her—swearing at her—calling her terrible names—and she doesn’t know how to respond to that.
Dennis: Let’s take the teenage son, looking at pornography, and a stepmom—what’s she to do? At that point, it is a moral issue. You know what’s best for him, at that point. Do we follow the same scenario of you and your husband getting off and caucusing again—talking about it—and what if he doesn’t do anything any different—doesn’t think it’s a big issue?
Ron: Let’s take this in layers because it’s an excellent question. Again, there is not one single answer. Let’s remember that a stepmother’s role is going to develop and change over time. If this is a stepmother, who has been in the life of this child for many years, and they have a good bond and relationship, and she feels like she has enough “money in the bank”, with this young man, she can address him directly.
If, however, she’s in the early years of this experience, and this young man really doesn’t give a rip about her opinion about this, then she simply doesn’t have the power. She wishes she had it, but she just doesn’t with this young man. At that point, she really has to go to her husband. She really has to work with him. If he embraces this, and understands this is something that needs to be addressed, they can figure out a plan, as a team. If he doesn’t—if he doesn’t think it’s a big deal—or if he says, “Yes, it’s a big deal,” but he won’t follow through—
Dennis: Or if he kind of dismisses it because he’s got a problem with pornography—
Ron: Yes, exactly. Again, she’s in a very disempowered place. It’s not hopeless; but the reality is, “How much influence does she have?” She has to try to work with her influence where it is. In this scenario—that we’re talking about—that would be through her husband; but if he’s not willing to do it, then, she has to, I think, assert some boundaries.
I think she could say things for her own personal space. There may be younger children in the home. She may have to say some things like: “I’m sorry. You’re not going to be allowed to use the family computer.” I guarantee it’s going to create conflict and a battle in the home. Ultimately, what this comes down to is whether or not dad will deal with his son.
Bob: Now, I want to draw attention to something you said earlier because it was one of those “ah ha” moments, for me, as you were talking about this. A stepmom feels like she ought to have a level of authority in the family structure because, after all, she’s an adult and she’s a mom.
Ron: And she’s paying for a lot of stuff.
Bob: That’s right.
Dennis: Well, there’s not just the authority—but there’s the heart of wanting to be a mother—and, maybe, the dream has been realized.
Bob: But you said that, rather than seeing her position as one of authority, she really needs to reframe it as one of influence and start to look at, “How can I be an influencer in the lives of these children, and even in my husband’s life, if there are some of these issues that need to be worked out?” Again, not from a position of: “Here’s how we’re going to do it,” but from a position of: “How can I help?” and, “How can I influence, and change the climate, and adjust the thermostat around here?”
Ron: Essentially, the stepmother’s role comes down to relationship. The more relationship she has, the more influence she has with the children. That will come with the passage of time, as they grow together, as a family.
Dennis: Say that again, Ron.
Ron: Essentially, step-parenting—and for the stepmother—it comes down to relationship with the children.
Dennis: The deeper the relationship—
Ron:—the more authority she has with the kids—the more influence she has with the children. It’s a matter of timing. Being an active, engaged—what we might call an authoritative parent—is a matter of timing for the stepmother. She has to earn the relationship.
See, here’s one of the foundational issues we discussed in this book——it’s attachment. A lot of people just don’t understand how attachment works. If two parents have a child, they have a God-given blood-bond with that kid, from the day he or she is brought into the world. It is an indescribable relationship with your children. It is the kind of thing that never goes away—never passes away. It affords you certain things with your relationship.
You have, for example, what I like to call automatic love from your kids. You have automatic grace and forgiveness. Do you ever have to apologize to one of your children? I’ve had to do that more often than I’d like to admit. But you know what? They take me back. They don’t even blink. They forgive, and they throw their arms around me, and we move on. You get automatic respect with this attachment-bond. You get automatic affection with this attachment-bond.
Now, stepmother comes in, and she doesn’t get automatic anything. She has to earn every bit of it.
Dennis: Now, she may get automatic—[Laughter]
Ron: But it will be pushback or resentment.
Bob: Or rejection.
Dennis: Because she’s “the new person on the block”, at that point.
Laura: Yes, and she’s often viewed as: “A person I don’t want in the circle. Dad and I were getting along perfectly fine before you entered the picture.”
Ron: There you go.
Laura: You have, actually, become the stepmom. In their eyes—in the children’s eyes—has come in between the relationship that the child had with the parent. So, she is not viewed as an ally. She is often viewed as the enemy—and the person that, “It is my job, as the child, to get you out of this family.” There is usually a mission, in the eyes of stepchildren, to get the stepmother out!
Ron: How many kids have you ever run into that have said, “You know, someday, I hope I’ll have a step-parent”? It’s just not part of the fantasy we have of life. By the way, that works the other side. How many women, do you know, that have ever said, “Someday, I hope to be a stepmother”? It’s not, necessarily, a role that is embraced and welcomed. What Laura is saying is that children don’t have the same commitment to the success of the marriage, as the couple does.
Bob: Here’s what you’re acknowledging. The reason that kids don’t say, “I hope, someday, to have a stepmom,” or a woman doesn’t say, “I hope to someday to be a stepmom,” is because, when that happens, we have to admit something’s broken. Now, the question is, “What do we do with this broken thing—to bring it to a place where God is glorified—where we love one another, where we live according to biblical precepts—in a broken structure?”
Dennis: And, “We’re getting along in our marriage so that our marriage can go the distance and outlive the child-rearing years.”
I want to summarize with three quick points here: Number one—lower your expectations. You heard that over, and over, and over again in here. You don’t have the ideal situation. It is going to be less than ideal. Make the best of it. Learn how to apply lots of forgiveness. Secondly, heighten the relationship—just like you talked about. Influence comes as a result of your hearts being knit to one another. Third, communicate, communicate, and communicate. Talk to your spouse.
If you’re a dad, and you’re listening, and you’re married to a woman who is the stepmom of your children, understand that she needs your ear and your heart. She needs to know you’re on her team and on her side—that you’re not sparring with her. I can really see, Bob, in a situation like this, how a husband and a wife can end up in opposite corners of a boxing ring—
Dennis: —kind of, the bell starts at the beginning of the day. It’s one issue—all-day long, after another—that pits them against one another. They need help, and they need some hope, and some encouragement in the process.
Bob: Well, I don’t know how many married couples I’ve talked to—who are in second or third marriages, in a stepfamily setting—and I’ve had to pull them back to the idea that the relationship they’re in—the marriage relationship—has to be the primary relationship. It’s got to supersede the parent-child relationship. If that’s not what is in place, you’re never going to have the kind of healthy stepfamily relationship that you want to have and that God wants you to have.
We’ve got a number of Ron Deal’s resources, here at FamilyLife, available to help you in a stepfamily situation. In fact, if you go to FamilyLifeToday.com, there’s a link there to all of the resources that Ron has put together to help stepfamilies.
I just want to mention that today and tomorrow, the book we’ve talked about today, The Smart Stepmom, is available at a discounted price. We’re having an online Mother’s Day sale, and we’ve got some special items that we’ve marked down for a couple of days. The Smart Stepmom is one of those items. So, if you’d like to save a little money, go to FamilyLifeToday.com and get the information about the Mother’s Day sale. Order a copy of Laura Petherbridge and Ron Deal’s book, The Smart Stepmom. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to order at 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY”: 1-800-358-6329. Ask about the book, The Smart Stepmom; or if you have questions about other resources for stepfamilies, just give us a call or go online at FamilyLifeToday.com.
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Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about some of the emotions that a stepmom experiences—the emotions of fear and loneliness—feeling like you’re out of control—like there are people, who want to hurt you, are now a part of your family. We’ll talk about that tomorrow with Laura Petherbridge and Ron Deal. I hope you can be here.
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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