How to Avoid Becoming a Wicked Stepmother
About the Guest
Stepmothers have gotten a bad rap every since the days of Cinderella, but 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.
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
Laura tells you how to avoid making some of the most wicked step parenting mistakes.
How to Avoid Becoming a Wicked Stepmother
Bob: If you’re a stepmom, you may be able to relate to what Laura Petherbridge is describing here.
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 exactly the same way as I did when I would pull into my home when I was married to an abusive husband.” 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 Tuesday, May 7th. 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 just going home makes you tense up? We’re going to talk about that today. Stay tuned.
And 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?
Dennis: I haven’t.
Bob: I mean, Cinderella—it’s the wicked stepmother; in what was it?—Sleeping Beauty—I think, a wicked stepmother. 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.” We’ve got the stereotype 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.
Bob: The smart stepmom.
Dennis: No, but one of the authors 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. I’m very honest.
Dennis: I’ve never really ever introduced a guest, since we started this in 1992, Bob, as—[Laughter]
Bob: We want to welcome our wicked stepmother to our program. [Laughter]
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 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 step-kids.
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; exactly. I know that sounds very un-Christian. 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: “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. [Laughter]
Dennis: If 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 can understand how that would create all kinds of guilty feelings and shame that you even have the thought.
Laura: Absolutely, because, I think—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. There’s a guilt that goes along with that.
So it’s different than the biological parent, you know—being glad that the kids are 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.
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. In my counseling with stepfamilies—is this sense of blame.
Stepmoms try so very hard. 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. Oftentimes, 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. 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.
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.” 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 actual married life. I think one of the cruelties of this, for many people, is that dating is inconsistent.
Bob: With stepfamilies or first-family—the dating relationship and the marriage—
Ron: That’s right.
Dennis: It’s not a real picture of a relationship.
Bob: Let me jump ahead now. The mom is married to the husband. 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, like they are starting 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. 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; 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 remarries, after a divorce, it kills the dream for children that their parents will reconcile. 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: That’s 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—
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.
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 into 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 that 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. 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 she was going to need grace for. 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. Oftentimes, 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.
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.
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, 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. 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.” 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. 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.” 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. I thought, “Singleness wasn’t too fun, but this is worse!”
Dennis: So you’re talking about bailing from the marriage?
Laura: Yes! 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.
You stop and you think about it—so many stepmothers are there. 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 I did with Dr. David Olson, that’s given birth to another book that will be out, some point 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? In a 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,”—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 exactly the same way as I did when I would pull into my home when I was married to an abusive husband.” 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 am being taken advantage of.” So, she’s really needing her spouse—her husband, the father—to come alongside her 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 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. 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, take care of their stuff, and do their chores; but every time she tries, they just say, “No.” They go 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. 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 nobody ever makes their bed, and clothes are all over the place. Dad decides to get motivated to create 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. 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 will bring stability to his children’s lives—even though, initially, it may bring some instability to their lives.
Dennis: 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 because I don’t want to 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.
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—express that commitment—and include her in decision-making—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. 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 so that 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’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.” It’s important for dads to verbally communicate that the new wife is not replacing the children. He’s got to spend time with the kids to do that.
Dennis: I’m listening to both of you here. 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. 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—
Bob: —significantly. 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 Stepfamily, 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 stepfamily or not in one—you need the blueprints. I just want to exhort you: “If you haven’t been to the Weekend to Remember®, 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 drama off at the pass,”—Bob, and get folks equipped and trained—“because your marriage is worth it.”
Bob: We have a number of Weekend to Remember marriage getaways still happening this month and next month, as we wrap up our spring season: If folks are interested in finding out about a Weekend to Remember that’s coming to a city, near where they live, that’s easy. Just go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click on the link for the Weekend to Remember marriage getaway. You can get signed up for an upcoming event.
Or if you want to look ahead to the fall and start to see where you can attend a Weekend to Remember this fall—I notice that we’re going to be going to some nice places this fall. There’s one in Yosemite, California—one in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, at the Coeur d’Alene Resort. We have some nice locations, where the Weekend to Remember is being held this fall. So again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click on the link for the Weekend to Remember, and plan to join us at one of these Weekend to Remember marriage getaways.
And while you’re on our website, get more information about the resources we have available for stepfamilies. Ron Deal has a number of resources, including his classic book, The Smart Stepfamily. We have that in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Today is the last day that we’re making available the book that Ron Deal and Laura Petherbridge have written together for stepmoms. We’re offering it at a special discount, and today’s the last day that discount is in effect.
So if you’d like to take advantage of some savings on—not only Laura’s book—but a number of Mother’s Day items that we’re making available at a discounted rate, go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click on the link for the Mother’s Day sale. You can order The Smart Stepmom and other resources, as well. Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information about the resources we have available and about the Mother’s Day sale that expires at midnight tonight.
You think about summer and the things that you like about summer—maybe, it’s the swimming pool or the beach—if you live near the beach. Maybe, it’s the ice cream truck that starts to come through the neighborhood. When I was growing up, we had a Dairy Queen in our town; and Dairy Queen was not open in the winter. They opened up, I think, in April or May; and then, closed down in October. I was always excited about summer because Dairy Queen was going to open up. Now, Dairy Queen is open all the time; but back in the day, the only time I could get a Buster Bar was in the summertime. So, there’s a lot of reason to love summer.
But if you’re part of a ministry, like FamilyLife Today, summer can be a challenging time of the year because, as folks are doing other things, we often see a decline in the donations that we receive here to help cover the costs for producing and syndicating this program. Money can get a little tight during the summer.
We have some friends of the ministry, who realize that’s the case. They came to us and said, “Let’s see if we can build a little surplus so that, if things do get slow during the summer, you guys have some resources to tap into.” What they offered to do was put together a matching fund for the month of May. Anybody who makes a donation, this month, to FamilyLife Today—that donation is going to be matched, dollar for dollar, up to a total of $576,000.
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You can also call 1-800-FL-TODAY and make your donation over the phone. The same thing happens so your donation is doubled. We do hope to hear from you—hope that you can help support us as we seek to take full advantage of this matching gift during the month of May.
And we hope you can be back with us again tomorrow. Laura Petherbridge is going to be here again, along with Ron Deal. We’re going to talk about how a stepmom should relate to her step-kids’ biological mom. How do you deal with some of those challenges? We’ll talk about that and other things tomorrow. 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. See you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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