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Stepmothers on Strike: How Can Doing Less Save Your Marriage

Women with stepkids think doing more is the answer. Why they're wrong.

Why women with stepchildren should refuse to be unpaid housekeepers, nannies, chefs, homework tutors, and drivers right now.

Couples in remarriages with children make one mistake over and over. It's a simple mistake really, and a relatively easy fix.

But women with stepchildren often feel too stuck to even see the mistake, let alone the solution.

They tell me the problem feels so overwhelming and huge to them, it compromises their mental and physical health, their happiness, and their marriages or partnerships. Yet the mistake feels so natural and so right, it is hard to see it as anything other than the way things are supposed to be.

Recently I received this email from a reader:

"Dear Wednesday, I don't know exactly how or where things went wrong in my marriage. I know it's very hard to have teen stepkids, and I know that there isn't a week that goes by when I don't seriously consider hanging it up and walking away from my life with my husband. I love him, he is a wonderful person. But I am so full of anger at the way his children treat me, and I am so tired from doing all I do with no thanks. I can't write a list of what those things are, it would be long and tedious. And writing it would just activate my incredible anger again.

But to put it bluntly, I've been married for four years now, and as much as I love my husband, he is not getting me out of harm's way when it comes to his ex-wife and his kids. On the contrary, he is putting me in the line of fire by suggesting that the problem is all me. I know we must work on that in couples therapy: on how upset I am that his kids treat me the way they do, ignoring me when I walk in the room and say hello, turning their noses up at my cooking, mocking me behind my back, with not a word of censure from him. I feel unprotected and unvalued. But do I even want to go to couples therapy? I'm afraid of lifting the lid off this resentment. Thanks for any advice. Signed, Angry and Exhausted."

The mistake was this, Angry and Exhausted: He put you into the nanny-housekeeper slot. Rather than the lover-partner-wife-prized companion to be loved and cherished and lavished with attention slot. You became a drudge, in spite of him being a great guy and loving you madly—because he is a guy and this is what guys, with rare exceptions, expect. You had the best of intentions. You consider yourself a good person and a good wife-partner. And so you went along with it.

You went along with being an unsalaried driver. You went along with being an unpaid childminder-nanny. You went along with being the household organizer, the tutor, the afterschool activity instructor. Giving it away for free. If the kids are older, you went right along with becoming the unpaid driver (again) or the unpaid, unappreciated therapist who struggles to help his kid get things right in his or her head, with his or her peers, with him or herself. If you went along with helping pick out prom dresses or wedding dresses, and you like that kind of thing, then you're lucky. More often, you've told me, you went along as a portable ATM. You didn't get thanked. You may have spent hours giving your husband advice about his young adult or adult stepchildren. Or hours talking to friends about how to improve your relationship with them.

Unsexily enough, but right on target for the traditional gender script of heterosexual love and marriage, you have become the unpaid and unappreciated family therapist and couples counselor as well. You have devoured books on stepfamilies, on being a better stepmother, on how to save your marriage, and on and on, ad infinitum. Every hour you've spent on my web site or blog (and I love having you, believe me), you could have spent doing something really, truly, deeply gratifyingly for you. But you're a relater, and your attitude is, you're going to master this stepfamily thing, you're going to get it right even if it kills you.

From one fixer to another, let me give you some advice, and I know I'm going to sound an awful lot like Betty Friedan when I do, but hear me out: Your husband should get a maid. And a nanny. He should leave you the hell out of that stuff, and you should leave yourself out of it as well. Because, the research shows us, you have enough problems already—role ambiguity, a greater likelihood of resentful, hostile and rejecting step-kinder than a man would face, and a gender-specific sense that you must make the kids love you at all costs, love them back, and "blend everyone" into a "real family."

No need to heap on additional domestic duty and entailing resentment, from kids who feel, She's trying to be my mother! And yourself as you feel, accurately, No one appreciates what I do. I hereby give you permission—nay, I urge you—to shirk your duties as cook, cleaner, driver, tutor, nanny, and whatever else you are doing. I absolve you (let's pretend for a minute that I have the authority to do so) of your obligation to do many of most of the things child, young adult child, and adult child-related in your remarriage or re-partnership with children.

Let me cut off some of your objections at the pass:

"But I like cooking and cleaning for his kids! I really, really do. And I don't mind that they don't thank me, or that they are occasionally flat out rude to me about it."

Okay, you keep telling yourself that. Maybe it's true. In which case, you are a member of the happy-with-house-duty-for-stepkids-who-are-in-a-loyalty-bind-and-act-hostile-and-rejecting minority. God bless, don't rub it in, and this article is not for you. It's for the vast majority of women with stepchildren who experience difficulty and frustration in their role at some point, sometimes intermittently, and sometimes for years.

"You're living in a dream world. Who can afford all these things? Who can afford a full-time housekeeper and a nanny to take care of the kids?"

Well, you have a point. But you're so resentful and angry. If you're among the women who write to me about your resentment daily, I can only respond: What's more expensive, hired help or a divorce? How about part-time help? How about a teenager who lives down the street coming by for kid duty? How about ordering in every single night until his kids are old enough pitch in with cooking and cleaning up? Because all these options are a great deal less expensive for your bank account and your emotional health than resentment and breaking up a partnership or marriage.

And for those of you who truly, truly cannot afford it, I must ask: Who did all this stuff before you arrived? Your husband's sister? Your husband himself? Some nice lady without another job? Fine. They can get right back to it. If you and your husband want to stay married, that is. Seriously, how did he pull this off before? And why did he marry you? What are you to him, a romantic, sexual, and life partner, or a way for him to save money? Give him credit for being a loving husband or partner who wants a romantic and sexual and life partner, not a drudge. And then have the (potentially difficult) conversation with him about rejiggering the household division of labor (see part two of this post, coming soon).

"Oh come on, household help and childrearing, isn't that what wives are for? Isn't that what marriage is for? Isn't it just part of the deal? Why should I complain about it?"

Hello, and welcome. It seems, based on your ideas, that you must be a time traveler. Historically, marriage was indeed about creating a labor force of two who could, in turn, create a larger labor force called a family, which could then run the farm or the store. Or in the case of rich families, could run nation-states. All that was a long, long time ago. We no longer live in households where women are as economically dependent on men, or where the running on the household depends on a strict division of labor along gendered lines such as men in the fields, women turning that stuff into food in the kitchen.

Most of you who write to me about your resentment work, and what you resent is housework on top of work. Oh, and by the way, taking care of someone else's kids, no matter how much you care about them, is nothing like taking care of your own kids in most instances. Particularly if those kids or young adult kids are rejecting and hostile toward their stepmothers—as Mavis Hetherington found most of them to be at some point, in her Virginia Longitudinal Study.

Call it disengaging. Call it stepping back. Or call it realizing when it's time to stop setting yourself up. Whatever you call it, consider just how resentful domestic duty is making you; and make a rational, calm, and organized plan to address the problem.

Numerous studies have found that among the top causes of friction and divorce are:

  1. children from a previous marriage or partnership
  2. a perceived inequality of domestic duties in the household.

The studies about household work and divorce from Sweden, Britain, and the U.S. do not address the specificities of remarriage with children, where resentment of these duties is likely to be greater (it's one thing to grudgingly pick up the jeans of your 10-year-old daughter, and quite another to do it for someone who routinely screams, You're not my mother). All of which is to say, in remarriage or re-partnership with children, there are two strikes against you before you even step up to bat. But knowledge is power. The way the rest of the game goes is up to you.

Next Post: Part Two: How to have difficult conversations on topics like this one with your husband.


Ahrons, Constance. We're Still Family (findings from her 20-year longitudinal study of divorce and remarriage)

Hetherington, Mavis. For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered (findings from the 30-year Virginia Longitudinal Study)

Martin, Wednesday. Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do.

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