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It's Different for Stepmothers

Why stepparenting is tougher for women than for men, and how to make it easier

Demographers have predicted that, if we include cohabiting versus marriage in the projections, as many as half of all women in the US will find themselves in the role of stepmother at some point in their lives.

And over the years a body of research has sent a clear message that stepmothering is tough--tougher even than stepfathering, broadly speaking. The condundrum of being a stepmother is linked to the conundrum of being female.

The good news is that informed strategies are within reach for the many women who partner with men who have kids from previous relationships. We now know what separates the women from the men: there are three things that stepmothers do and stepfather's don't. Addressing these differences in experience has the potential to turn the stepmothering experience around, dialing down the aggravation and conflict significantly.

What Makes it Tougher for Stepmothers?

1. Women feel more internal (emotional) and external (social) pressure to create a perfect "blended" family than men do. Additionally, they may well feel pressure from their partners or husbands to "make us into a 'real' family."

2. Stepmothers are dealing with ex-wives. Stepfathers are dealing with ex-husbands. In their twenty and thirty year (respectively) longitudinal studies, Constance Ahrons and Mavis Hetherington found that statistically speaking, women tend to nurture feelings of hostility and anger longer post-divorce than men, who are more likely to harbor fantasies of reconciliation or smooth sailing. This sets the stage for conflict between the ex and her ex's partner from both directions--she may be very resentful of the repartnership and he may want to avoid creating waves, and so remain involved with her and in her household in ways that create dissatisfaction and discomfort for his partner/wife.

In addition, mothers are more likely than fathers, researchers have found, to want high levels of involvement in the ex-husband's household when children are there (everything from homework to school lunches to dental appointments may be matters of concern). This creates more opportunities for interaction and increases the likelihood of conflict between mother and stepmother (who may be the stand-in appointment and lunch maker, for example).

3. Women with stepchildren are highly likely, Ahrons and Hetherington found, to take on the role of "family counselor" and "couples counselor" within their partnerships and households. Beyond being more likely to buy books to educate herself about stepfamily dynamics, she will likely also try to educate her husband or partner and perhaps his kids about the issues. This can be depleting, thankless work, increasing her own sense of resentment and dissatisfaction.

Don't Despair--What Can Help

In a recent interview with UK journalist Rebecca Alexander for Yano, I give research-based advice drawing from the studies of Mavis Hetherington and Constance Ahrons and the work of Patricia Papernow, among others. Hope you will have a read....and leave a comment.

Dialing down expectations--both personal expectations, and expectations within the couple--it a key ingredient in finding happiness in a repartnership with children of any age. So is giving the myth of the blended family the boot, and finding authentic ways to connect (even if that means, for example, a stepmother being a "friendly acquaintance" rather than a close "family member" to a teen stepchild for a while).

All research findings from Stepmonster: a New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel and Act the Way We Do (Houghton Mifflin, 2009)

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