"I'm starting to dread my stepchildren's weekend visits (they're 10 and 12). They're supposed to help with chores, but never do unless I nag. My husband 'just wants to enjoy their visits,' so he doesn't want to be the one to get after them. So either I nag, or my husband and I do all the work. What should I do?"
Your dilemma is a familiar one: whether to be cast in the role of the awful stepmother or to suffer in silence like Cinderella. Neither 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, maintaining a good relationship with your husband should be a high priority. 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 fear that the children may choose not to come for a scheduled visit. 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.
Second, 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 tip for successful step-parenting is to take a fairly low-key, back-seat role -- especially on issues of discipline.
Another important factor to consider is the children's ages. 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 may not be the case. If the expectations are different, the children will likely see the rules as imposed by you, hence the bad rep of Cinderella's step-mom!
Your third goal is to be treated fairly and with respect. In part, your success in achieving this goal will depend on building the children's trust and confidence. 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're 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 these 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 his 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's 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 towards 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 towards a mutually respectful relationship.
Dr. Barbara Landau, president of Cooperative Solutions, is a Toronto psychologist, lawyer, and mediator who assists separating families in creating parenting plans, improving their communication in the best interests of their children, and arriving at fair financial settlements. She is this year's recipient of the prestigious John M. Haynes Distinguished Mediator Award for her contributions to the field of mediation.