Stepfamily Roles

In every family, people adjust to each other, and each takes on a certain role. But in stepfamilies, people sometimes fall into a role without considering whether it suits their needs or those of the family system.

By  Anne O'Connor
Updated: March 20, 2017
Stepfamilies and Remarriage

There is nothing predestined about how we act in stepfamilies. Each family has its own ways of interacting and deciding who is going to play what role. Sometimes, a role dictates certain expectations, beliefs, and assumptions. It can be useful to examine these expectations to see if they're realistic - and to see if we want to continue playing by the role we've developed.

Many a stepparent has been accused of trying to take a parent's place in a child's life. Many a parent has been accused of not doing enough for her child. Many a husband or ex-husband has been accused of bowing out and letting the women deal with the conflicts.

If you find that you are often frustrated by your position in the family, or if you feel disrespected by how others in the family system behave in their roles, you can look at some of the common pitfalls of that role to see if yours needs to be adjusted. One study suggested that most family members are unclear about what role the stepparent should play in stepfamilies.

When you're thinking about the different roles, remember that you can ultimately only control what you do. You may be able to see very clearly how someone else should change, but you can only actually change how you behave. However, when you change the way you interact with people, usually, they'll eventually change the way they interact with you.

If you try to keep your emotions at a manageable level, you'll begin to see that there are not usually any clear-cut bad guys. Everyone is muddling along the best he or she can, doing what he or she believes is the right thing.

The Stepmom

Everyone knows the story of the evil stepmother: casting her stepdaughter aside in favor of her biological girls, or sending a woodsman out to kill the stepdaughter because she's the fairest in the land.

The fact is that stepmothers, like mothers, are mostly good to their stepchildren, mostly work very hard to do the right thing, mostly strive to be respectful of their stepchild's mother, and work hard to make their new family work.

Studies have shown that stepmothers have the most difficult position in a stepfamily system. These women come to a new marriage, some of them for the first time, some of them without children of their own, and they try to make a new family. Stepmoms often end up being the ones to organize the family's schedule, arrange vacations, do the clothes shopping, and tend to the cuts and scrapes.

The difficulties come on several fronts. Often, stepmothers end up feeling taken for granted by the husband and the child for the work they do. They feel like they're given a lot of the work of raising a child without any corresponding affection and acceptance. When the mother adds in her own unhappiness about the stepmother's involvement with the child, the stepmother often feels completely misunderstood and unappreciated.

Husbands, friends, relatives, and even the stepmother herself may expect that she jump right in and love the child as her own. The reality is that sometimes stepparents and stepchildren don't even like each other - but everyone still has to live together, so try to find some ways to make it through.

Stepmothering dos and don'ts

  • Go slowly. Try to remember that no matter how much you think the child's parents are doing wrong, it is their way of doing things. Trying to come in and change the routines between the households might freak the child and the mother out. If you try to push a relationship on a child too quickly, some children recoil. Let the relationship develop over time.

  • Respect the role of the mother. If you can, assure the mother of your stepchild that you're not going to try to be the child's mother. If this is not true, you need to reexamine your goals. Even if you believe that the mother is emotionally unbalanced, irresponsible, absent, or doing damage to the child, you must acknowledge the fact that she is this child's mother. Children love their moms; never undermine that love. If you want to volunteer at your stepchild's school, be sure you aren't stepping on the mother's toes. If you want to take your stepdaughter to get her ears pierced, check with her mom first.

  • Support your husband. There are all kinds of ways to be involved in your stepchild's life behind the scenes. Supporting your husband without taking over all of his responsibilities is a workable balance. If you believe that your husband needs to make some adjustments with the other household, talk to him about it. Try to be encouraging and supportive. Remember, he was doing this (long) before you got here, so try to be respectful of the work he has done, even if you see room for improvement.

  • Pay attention to what you need. If you find yourself terribly discouraged, spend some time taking care of yourself. Make sure you're not putting all of your energy into relationships with little or no payoff. I'm not suggesting that you isolate yourself from the family, but there is a healthy way to disengage from the struggles instead of letting them consume you. If you're concentrating on things that make you happy, you'll have more energy for the things that are tough. Take a class, pick up a hobby, start a book club or a dining-out club. Do something fun for yourself and don't feel guilty about it.

  • Don't take over for your husband. Many stepmothers start by taking on too much of the load of caring for the child. Do you know the doctor's office number, but the child's dad doesn't? Do you know the child's teachers better than her dad does? Things are changing, but the current reality remains that women tend to most of the nitty-gritty details of running a house. So stepmothers, because they're women, fall into the traditional role of running the house, which includes taking care of the children. The problem is that most stepmoms begin to feel resentful about caring for their husband's child, especially when their husband complains about how she does it and the stepchild's mom wishes she would just knock it off. Far better to play a limited supporting role and let the father find out when his child's science-fair project is due.

  • Don't expect your stepchild to be perfect. One area that stepmothers commonly feel frustrated about is the discipline or the habits of their stepchildren and the seeming lack of concern about these issues from the father. Sometimes, stepmothers who have no experience with children have definite - if unrealistic - ideas about what these children should look like and how they should behave. To make sure your expectations are realistic, check out some child-development books or take a parenting class.

  • Don't ignore any grief you may have. This is especially true for stepmoms who were never married before and don't have children of their own. As much as stepmothers love their husbands, it may still be difficult to accept that their family will never be the first family, that they'll always have to share their family with their husband's and stepchild's history. When a stepmother and a father have their first baby together, it is not the first for him. If a stepmother has no children of her own, she may be grieving that. When the family has Thanksgiving dinner, it is automatically compared to how the first family did things. It is important, especially for the children, that this history is not outlawed in stepfamilies. But the stepmother might have to recognize that, even while being respectful of that history, it certainly is a loss not to have a family where the only traditions and memories are the ones created in their own home.

  • Be clear about what you want. Don't expect that your husband will know what you need and attend to it. Half the time, most people can't figure out what they need themselves. Particularly in a stepfamily, you must be clear about what you want, and you must be clear with your husband about what you're asking for. You can't just expect that he'll know what's bothering you and fix it.

The Mom

Some moms end up feeling pretty bruised by the whole stepfamily dynamic. Mothers choose the fathers of their children; now, another adult is becoming a part of the child's life and the mother had no say in picking this person. If the stepmother's values or habits don't seem to correspond well to the mother's, it can be dreadful to have to send her child to the other household.

Mothers are often amazed at the things that their ex-husband allows his new wife to do for their child. It is maddening to mothers that the father doesn't do more to care for his own child. Often, mothers blame the stepmother for forcing herself into the child's life.

There are plenty of mothers who handle the presence of another woman in their children's lives not only with acceptance, but with grace. Perhaps you can't do that at this point, but somewhere down the line, you may feel differently about your child's stepmother. In the meantime, work on being civil.

Mothering dos and don'ts

  • Recognize the power of traditional male/female roles. It may not be right, but the reality is that women still rule the home. If they think about it, most divorced mothers realize that their ex-husbands were not the ones to do the majority of the chores that involved the children. When men remarry, they commonly fall into the same role with their new wives. It is frustrating for mothers that the fathers of their children don't do more of the day-to-day work of rearing children. But if they didn't do it with you, they're not likely to just wake up one day and take on all the work of parenting if they can leave it to someone else. I'm not saying that this is conscious or even that men don't do a great deal of the work for their children, but it is common for stepmothers to try to help. Try to give the stepmom in your life the benefit of the doubt that she's not trying to take your place.

  • Include the stepmother in parenting discussions. Every family has different ideas about how this works. In some families, particularly those with very active mothers and fathers, the stepparent really does take a back seat and the parents do their thing. Often, though, if a stepmother becomes a key player in a child's life, the parents should include her in decisions that greatly affect her life as well. Try to remember that while you're used to dealing with only the father of your child, the other household has turned into a "dad and stepmom" household. If you constantly leave out the stepmom, that sends a pretty clear message - not only to the stepmom, but to your child.

  • Give your child permission to love her stepmom. One of the most difficult positions a child can be in is to really like - or even love - her stepmom, but know that her mother disapproves. On the other hand, your child may complain to you about her stepmom. She may not like her, or she may sense your disapproval and wants to assure you that she's on your side. Whatever the case, this child has a stepmom now and she's going to be a part of your child's life. A mother can do a lot to help her child with this new relationship. A child should never have to feel guilty about loving another person. Your child loving another adult does not take away any of the love she has for you. Make sure your child knows that you can handle it. If you can't, it may help to reexamine why this is so threatening to you.

  • Expect changes. A mother will almost certainly notice changes in the relationship with her ex when a stepmother becomes involved. Maybe you used to talk frequently and hash things out with friendly conversations several times a week. Maybe you met over coffee. You might have felt you had a great parenting relationship with your ex, and then the stepmother came in and screwed it all up. Or maybe you fight constantly with your ex and the new stepmother will help ease some of the tension. Whatever the case, you can expect that your parenting relationship will change.

  • Don't try to maintain your ex's allegiance. You and your ex are divorced. It may be tempting to flaunt your longer history in a stepmother's face, or to feel like you know him better than she ever will. It may be intriguing to hear your ex tell you about his frustrations with his new wife. But to what end? If you want to poison your ex's new marriage, this is a good way to do it. Be clear, even if your ex is not, that his allegiance should be to his child and his wife - not to his past. Don't call on former intimacies, don't fondly reminisce about old times, don't pull out inside jokes between the two of you. These kinds of things are a complete affront to the relationship between a husband and a wife. The stepmother and her husband are trying to build their own life together. If you can allow them the space and time to do that without becoming defensive about your relationship with your ex, it would be a gift - not only to their marriage, but to your kid.

  • Do not minimize the child's time with his or her father. Mothers sometimes love their children so much that they believe that their relationship with their children is more important than the children's relationship with their father. But children adjust better to stepfamily life with unfettered access to both parents. It might be more practical at some point to have a primary home, but the child needs to feel free to see both parents. This can be difficult if a mother feels like she has to push for the father's involvement. But if men and women are going to be equal parenting partners, not only are fathers going to have to step up and do more, but mothers are going to have to make it easier for them to do that. If mothers want their child's father to act like a fully-invested parent, they have to treat the father like a fully-invested parent.

The Dad

Overall, men tend to be less emotionally troubled than women in stepfamilies, but there are several challenges that fathers face. The biggest area that men struggle with is how much involvement they will have in their child's life. This area is changing rapidly and it is becoming more common for men to have half-time or even full-time custody of their children.

Many men want to be involved parents, but they don't have a good role model for what that means. When a mother makes it difficult for a father to be involved, she may not know how to negotiate for a more equitable arrangement.

There are a growing number of men's support groups that help men not only with the legal and practical details of child custody, but also with the emotional tangle that sometimes comes with custody disputes. It can be distressing to feel dismissed as a parent simply because you are a man.

In addition to the potential for disputes between the two homes, dads often have to face conflict in their new stepfamily. Their wives may push for a change in the schedule, either for more or less time with the children. And when the children are with the father and the stepmom, the father may feel as if he's performing a tightrope act - treading carefully to avoid upsetting the fragile balance of peace between his child and his wife.

Fathering dos and don'ts

  • Be clear about your expectations. What do you think your wife's role is when it comes to your children? Do you consider her another parent, a friend to the child, an adult role model? Fathers can help a stepmother clarify which child-related tasks he expects from her, and which he doesn't want help with. Your child and your ex-wife will also benefit from hearing how you envision your new wife's role.

  • Step up to the work. Do not abdicate your child-raising responsibilities. Don't expect that your wife will just take care of things, and don't leave all the work for your child's mother either. While you were married, your child's mother may have gotten the soccer schedule, called the school for the events calendar, arranged parent/teacher conferences, and kept you apprised of the next piano recital. But you're not married to her anymore and now those are your responsibilities. For things that make more sense for one parent to handle, such as dentist and doctor appointments, don't assume that your child's mother will take care of them. If you want to be considered a fully-invested parent, you need to act like one.

  • Support your wife. Your wife may have some trouble adjusting to her role as stepmother to your child. What you do has a major impact on her adjustment. Work with her to decide on what child care her role will include. Be clear with your child about your expectation of respect for the stepmom. Back her up in front of the child, even if you don't agree with her at the moment. You can come back later and talk about how you would like to handle such situations.

  • The best way to support your wife is to support your kid; if you are an involved, active, and thoughtful parent, you ease the burden of the stepmother's role.

  • Be mindful of the stepmother's contribution. Your wife signed on to a life with you and your children. But that doesn't mean that you should take the work she does for your child for granted. Be sure to let her know you appreciate her commitment to your child. When she's doing things you don't like with your child, remember that she's likely doing what she thinks is best. Try to respect her ideas and work together to find a parenting mix that works for both of you.

  • Do not expect a stepmother to be a mother. In the beginning, the best a father can ask for is a mutually respectful atmosphere and an attempt to get along. It may happen that the stepmother and the child will grow to love each other. But it may not. Stepmothers need to be relieved of the duty to love your child. Your wife fell in love with you - not your child. Accept that and work within that reality.

The Stepfather

When it comes to relations between the two homes, the stepfather often emerges relatively unscathed. There seems to be very little of the conflict between stepfathers and fathers that is so common between mothers and stepmothers. Men just don't seem to have the same sense of turf protection when it comes to another man getting close to their child. A lot of times, fathers and stepfathers are friendly; even when that's not the case, men are more likely to be reserved in their comments and actions. Stepdads may believe that their stepchild's dad should be doing something differently, but stepfathers are also less likely to push for the change either directly or through their wives.

The biggest conflicts that stepfathers usually face are with their wives. There are often conflicts about discipline, about how much influence and what rank the stepfather should have in the household. Often, stepfathers believe that their wives are too lenient on the children, and stepfathers are often accused of being too harsh and of having unrealistic expectations of the stepchild.

Stepfathering dos and don'ts

  • Go slowly. Give your stepchild and your wife a chance to adjust to your presence in their lives before you make any major demands about the way things are run. You may be anxious to show your commitment to the family, but try not to overwhelm people who are used to living in a single-parent household.

  • Respect the role of the father. Your stepchild loves her father; respect the child's right to love and have a relationship with him. Stepfathers can have meaningful and strong relationships with their stepchildren, but they should never undermine a child's love for her father.

  • Support your wife. You may not like everything that she does with her child, but your wife has been running things (long) before you got there, so respect the work she has done, even if you see room for improvement. If she is having a difficult time, try to empathize with her. She doesn't need you to fix everything for her, but she does need you to listen to her.

  • Plan discipline before acting. Do not come in with a heavy hand and expect to be warmly welcomed. Discipline is a big issue for stepdads, but stepdads need to have a realistic idea about what to expect from children. Read some books, do some web-surfing, and talk to other dads. You can rely on your own instincts, but only to a point. If you have never had children and are suddenly living with one, even typical child behavior can be jarring. So find out what to expect. This is too important to just wing it.

  • Don't avoid the problem. If you feel that things are very difficult and you're unhappy with the way your household is running, don't just sit on those feelings. Whatever the situation, ignoring it is not likely to make it easier or change it. In fact, some problems grow worse as they fester without resolution. Keep the communication open. If you don't feel that your wife or stepchild is hearing what you have to say, keep trying. Sometimes, we all need help talking to each other. Try not to wait until you're so angry that you don't know where to start.

The mother-stepmother divide

In a lot of stepfamilies, the most acrimonious relationship is that between the mother and the stepmother. The gulf can seem irreconcilable. But there are things you can do to mend the bridges and try to come to some kind of practical, workable way of raising the child together.

Here are some concrete things you can do to start the process.

  • Say something good about the other household. You may need to really stretch here, but find something good to say.

  • Apologize for some small infraction. Go out of your way to apologize and acknowledge your fault.

  • Let her know you want your relationship to be different. You could ask her out for coffee, you could write her a note. You could give her the book Stepwives: Ten Steps to Help Ex-wives and Stepmothers End the Struggle and Put the Children First.

  • Own your own garbage and expect the fallout. There is probably not one of us who hasn't done something we regret in our relationship with our child's step/mom. Often, people who are apologizing and being vulnerable are met with graceful forgiveness, or at least cautious silence. But that is not always the case: you could end up hearing about even more of what you have done wrong. If you don't get defensive, it is still possible to save the conversation and move on.

  • Have a plan for practical, respectful interaction. Stress the fact that you're not looking to be best buddies. But also have some idea of what you do want.

  • Don't fall back on old patterns of interaction, even when she does. When she starts doing the same old thing, it may be tempting to respond in the same old way. Try to stop yourself and do something different.

  • Don't expect change to happen overnight. There will be times when you or she or both of you fall back into sniping and complaining about each other. Cut her and yourself some slack; it will take a while to undo your old habits.

  • Don't let problems fester; handle them. Don't expect her to read your mind. If something is bothering you, you either have to tell her about it and hope that she will accommodate you, or you have to blame yourself for not taking care of the problem.

  • Don't expect perfect harmony. You will likely still get angry at her. Getting angry at people you have relationships with is part of the deal. You can still work with someone who makes you angry. And just because some things she does make you angry doesn't mean that everything she does is wrong.

  • Don't shut the door to friendship. When they become real with each other, moms and stepmoms sometimes find out that they actually like each other. They not only form an alliance and work together for the sake of the children, but they become friends. This is a pretty rare circumstance and certainly not for everyone. But if it happens to you, consider yourself fortunate.

 This article has been edited and excerpted from The Truth about Stepfamilies by Anne O'Connor. Based on interviews with hundreds of people from across the country, every other chapter offers help with issues such as creating boundaries, disciplining children, dealing with feuding spouses and ex-spouses, and money woes. The alternate chapters offer in-depth interviews with members of eight stepfamilies, who share their experiences of stepfamily life. A full-time stepmother for eight years, O'Connor offers solid, practical advice about how to create a happy, healthy stepfamily.

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August 08, 2006

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