Hey, Wicked Stepmother, I Feel Your Pain!

How to stop hating yourself and your step-kid, as well.

Posted Feb 28, 2018

It’s Friday afternoon and Audrey’s tense. Her 10-year-old step-daughter, Jude, is coming for her week with her father, Bill, Audrey’s husband of five years. Audrey knows her feelings are way out of proportion but she’s filled with dread. She gets irritable as soon as Jude shows up in the house. She’s hyper-aware of everything Jude says or does and resents Bill’s easy-going acceptance of her. She hates the way he comes alive when Jude is there and she hates herself for feeling like this, but it’s bigger than she is. It’s beyond her control.

It’s been this way for Audrey for the past seven years, since she started dating Bill and eventually moved in with him, together with her own two boys from her previous marriage. Since the very beginning, every time she’s around her step-daughter, she gets obsessed with Jude—how loud she is, how she demands things instead of asking nicely for them, how she leaves dirty dishes in the den, how she monopolizes Bill’s attention, treating Audrey like the cook and cleaning lady.

Bill doesn’t see it like that at all. He thinks Jude is perfect and can do no wrong. Unfortunately, Audrey feels she can do no right and she’s determined to help Bill learn to parent Jude more appropriately, but he’s not open to that. Bill feels sorry for Jude because of the divorce. He loves her so much—he doesn’t want to make his precious week with her filled with punishments and fighting. Plus he’s afraid that if he’s too strict, one day she’ll just stop coming altogether and he couldn’t take that!

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Audrey knows that if Bill treated her two boys the way she treats Jude, she’d be out of the marriage so fast he wouldn’t know what hit him. But Bill puts up with it from Audrey and that makes her lose respect for him. It also means that the reason she can continue being so harsh with Jude is that he permits it.

And that’s not Audrey. She’s gentle and loving to her own kids and to her nieces and nephews and all the kids in the neighborhood and probably to every child on this planet, but something comes over her when it comes to Jude. It’s straight out of a fairy tale—she can’t help herself. She experiences Jude as an intruder. She sees Jude as a threat. And Audrey can be mean.

Audrey and Bill are polarized. The more she tries to impress upon Bill the ways in which Jude is a spoiled brat, the more he sticks up for her. The more he begs Audrey to lighten up on the kid, the more she feels the need to awaken him to her shortcomings. It’s a topic they can’t talk about so they maneuver around it—they just avoid it. Sometimes Audrey feels like she can’t take it much longer—she’s so miserable the week that Jude comes, she feels she’s going to explode! But then Jude leaves and the drama dies down and they stumble on till next week when it all starts again. When they’re alone, just Audrey and Bill and her two boys, it’s so calm and nice.

So what is happening with Audrey and Bill and other couples like them?

I feel so badly for women who are struggling in this awfully difficult role because it’s not their fault—the problem is in the structure, not in the individual. Why is there a fairy tale devoted to the wicked stepmother and not one dedicated to the wicked stepfather? What is it about the archetypal role of stepmother that brings out this unreasonableness and animosity?

It happens more consistently with stepmothers than it does with stepfathers because of the role of women as nurturers in families. It’s often the woman’s job to care for the needs of the children but the stepmother’s role is very undefined, which naturally creates anxiety. Jude is part of the family due to her connection to Bill—that’s the primary attachment—so Audrey’s role is ambiguous. It’s not her child—it’s some other woman’s child—so she is more of an adjunct parent, rather than a primary one. That’s a hard place for a lot of women.

I’ve noticed that the women who suffer the most as stepmothers are often those who take pride in their maternal role, care a lot about children and have very clear ideas about how to raise them. They suffer because they are marginalized in the life of the stepchildren and are thwarted from assuming their natural position, as mother of the family.

There is some primitive jealousy that gets activated in a woman when her mate has a profound attachment to someone else that pre-dates her, even if it’s his child. And because it’s taboo to be jealous of a child, stepmothers, like Audrey, subconsciously need to exaggerate the child’s deficits to make her animosity seem legitimate, so she won’t look like such a horrible person.

Additionally, Jude represents Bill’s previous life with his first wife. Every time she enters the house, she brings a whiff of the ex-wife with her, a reminder that Bill had a love that produced this kid. When Audrey looks at Jude, she can see the shadow of Bill’s ex-wife.

Understandably, Bill has no idea what’s going on. All he sees is his wife being unforgiving with his daughter and it makes him mad. He blames Audrey, who already feels marginalized. The more he blames, the more she feels screwed up and miserable. The more miserable she is, the more she’s cold with his child, which makes him blame more. The complexity of this dynamic is often compounded by the fact that he’s comfortable with her kids so he can’t relate at all to what she’s going through.

A large percentage of second marriages end in divorce and it’s often this very difficulty with stepchildren that is at the heart of it. Incorporating children from previous relationships into the new marriage becomes just too much of a challenge. So what’s the fix?

  1. Stop blaming the stepmother. Even though she may be difficult and angry with a stepchild, it’s not her fault. She’s trapped in the system along with everyone else.
  2. The husband needs to give his wife, the stepmother, lots of understanding and support because she’s suffering. If she needs to take some time away from her stepkids, he shouldn’t be mad at her—she may need some breathing room. The kinder he is towards his wife, the easier it will be for her to feel positively about his children.
  3. As an exercise, stepmothers should make a list of everything good about the stepchild—everything she likes about his or her personality—as difficult as that may be to do.
  4. Look for opportunities for the stepmother to spend some time alone with the child or children, without the dad around, so she can start to forge her own relationship.
  5. If it’s too hard for her to spend time alone with the stepchildren, look for one positive thing she can say to the child or about the child while he or she is visiting.
  6. The couple needs to plan together for the visits of the stepchildren so the wife does not feel marginalized.
  7. Don’t let this problem fester. Go for family therapy with a therapist who has expertise in blended families—not everyone gets the subtle dynamics.
  8. For the couple: please be kind to each other. This is very complex and hard to deal with. It takes a lot of love to fix but with a generous amount of patience and understanding, you can.