DIVORCE MAGAZINE: Advice to a Step-Mom
DIVORCE MAGAZINE: EXPERT ADVICE COLUMN, 1999
BIO: Dr. Barbara Landau, President of Cooperative Solutions is a Psychologist, Lawyer and Mediator who offers counselling and mediation services for family and marital conflicts. With her husband, Sy Landau, President of Organizational Strategies Group, she offers training in mediation and workplace conflict resolution.
Your dilemma is a familiar one – whether to be cast in the role of the awful stepmother or the nagging wife or suffer in silence like Cinderella. None of these options sounds very promising. When you feel caught between a number of unattractive alternatives it’s a good idea to stand back and clarify your objectives.
First, I’m assuming that a high priority is to maintain your relationship with your husband. For this reason it would be unwise to put him in the position of choosing between pleasing you and jeopardizing his relationship with the children. When parents have a limited amount of time with their children, they are often anxious about setting limits out of a fear that the children may choose not to come. This insecurity often lessens over time, but while it lasts, it’s important to let the parent take the lead on setting and enforcing “household rules”.
Secondly, you probably would like a more harmonious relationship with your husband’s children. Children are usually very loyal to their family of origin, and have a great deal of difficulty accepting someone else stepping into a parental role. It’s common to hear children say “You can’t tell me what to do, you aren’t my Mother!” The best tips for successful step parenting are to take a fairly low key, back seat role, especially on issues of discipline.
Another important factor to consider is the children’s age. With pre-teen and teenage children, hassles over household tasks are par for the course. If the same type of expectations exist in Mom’s house, that will ease the way, but that is often not the case. If the expectations are different, then the children will likely see the rules as imposed by you – hence the bad rep of Cinderella’s step mom!
Despite this, your third goal is likely to be treated fairly and with respect. In part, your success in achieving this goal will depend on building the trust and confidence of the children. They will need to see and hear that you do not intend to replace their Mom or criticize her parenting. Also, they need reassurance that you are not trying to undermine their relationship with their father, by setting rules that will cause him to take your side against them.
Here are some constructive steps you can take. First, you should explore the issues with your husband when the children are not present. Explain your concerns as a problem to be solved together. Before you explain your concerns, ask if he has thought about the situation and what concerns he has. For example, does he think chores are a good idea? If so, what chores? Since he is the parent, he needs to understand that he is responsible for any enforcement, with you supporting his decisions. Otherwise it will undermine your relationship with the children.
A follow-up strategy is to have a meeting with the children. Start by presenting the issue as a problem to be solved by everyone together. You should let the father take the lead. Ask the children for their thoughts about how the situation could be addressed and be open to their views. Make it clear that it is important to share tasks, but which tasks, when they are done, or by whom may be open to negotiation. The specifics are less important than the good feelings and better buy-in generated by working toward a cooperative solution.
Be realistic in your expectations and remember to ‘catch a child doing something good’ in order to increase their positive feelings about themselves and you, as you work toward a mutually respectful relationship.