Sunday 25 February 2018

The seven golden rules of being a stepmother

Rob Sharp

Define your role

"Stepmothers often find their role confusing," says Dr Lisa Doodson, who is a stepmother herself as well as a psychologist. "This can cause huge levels of anxiety, much higher than anything found in biological parents." Is the stepmother a friend? An extra parent? Or a replacement parent? Should they discipline straight away? Should they attend school plays? The relationship with a new partner may be clear-cut, but one with a new child is not. Agree with your partner what your role is. Maybe at the beginning they can be the disciplinarian and you can spend time getting to know the children, having fun, winning their trust. "The partner might think his new girlfriend will do everything his ex did," says Doodson. "She might not be thinking that. She might be thinking what she's dealing with isn't everything she signed up for. Be clear on your role. Once you have done that the anxiety will decrease."

Make peace with his ex

Former partners might cause hiccups. Moving on and cutting ties is, however, not usually an option when children are involved. "Accept that another woman is always going to be a part of the children's lives," says the academic. "They are never going to disappear, nor should they." Some stepmothers manage to have a reasonable relationship with the ex – it's helped by keeping emotion to a minimum. Deal with the practicalities first – lunch money, for example. Avoid your children becoming "postmasters", relaying messages between two people. If you're lucky, you'll be able to parent cooperatively with your partner's ex, to create a happy unit. If you can't manage it, you might have to take independent lines. But maintain polite and appropriate correspondence. "Maybe communicate via email and letter; keep it minimal," Doodson concludes.

Be a strong couple

"In a stepfamily the most important relationship is between the couple," says Doodson. "Without it, you've got no family. That statement can be lifted out of context. People will say, 'What about the children?' But research suggests that without a strong relationship you cannot communicate properly and trust one other to deal with each other's child." The key to this is basic communication skills, dealing with concerning or worrying issues in a controlled way. Don't shout, be reasonable. Couch things along the lines of "I am struggling with certain things, can we please talk about it and work out what we can do about it?" rather than "I hate your kids." "Alternatively, you might need to say to your partner, 'Look, I don't think they should talk to you in that way'," continues Doodson. "If you present a combined force, the children won't be able to play you off against one another."

Deal with resentment

When a stepparent steps into the role, they can often carry with them a lot of unrealistic expectations, such as: "I love my partner, I love his children, therefore they will love me back." In reality, nothing is that straight- forward. Often, a new stepmother might try too hard and if they don't get positive feedback it can lead to resentment: "Hang on, I cooked dinner for them, I did all the practical things that kids often expect and I wasn't thanked." The reality is that children generally don't thank their parents for doing their washing. "In that situation, you can turn to your partner to make you feel appreciated," adds Doodson. "Focus on the positives. The fact that your partner wants his children to come and stay with you makes him a great father." Your partner needs to recognise the change that has occurred if you have changed from being a single woman to being someone who is effectively married with children.

Understand that it takes time

"There are some quite scary statistics on how long it can take a stepfamily to properly form," continues the author. "It can sometimes be as long as five to seven years for it to feel like a well-functioning unit." To be fair, biological families are the same; it takes time to get used to a new partner's "quirks" upon moving in with them. Necessarily, stepfamilies are much more complicated situations, involving many more compromises so that everyone is happy. So it's natural for these to take time to find a balance. "Give it time," continues Doodson. "Research suggests that if we have expectations we feel we are missing out on, it can lead to depression and stress. On the other hand, if we have realistic expectations we might exceed them every so often – which can be very healthy. It's about avoiding that negative frame of mind".

Learn to be a family

A stepfamily that involves, at its most complicated, the incorporation of children from both parents' previous relationships is effectively the melding of two biological families into one. The situation is akin to going to a business conference and being allocated to a "blue" or "red" team: you bond with the members of your team, along the lines of "group theory", an offshoot of social psychology. This should be avoided in a family. If the members side along biological lines it will never be a properly functioning entity. The biological mother may be protective of her children if her partner tells them off, or vice versa. Don't do it. "You need to find a way of bonding the family together," says Doodson. "One way of doing this is building shared memories or traditions. At Christmas, I make sure that all of the children are together to build the Christmas tree. It obviously depends on the children's ages, but maybe put Thursdays aside to play board games, for example, even if all of the children don't live with you all of the time, but try, if you can, to arrange such things." You can't control what the children are doing with the other biological parent, but you can cement things together that will bond your own family unit.

Seek out support

A lack of support from family and friends can make you susceptible to feelings of depression and worry. Stepmothers generally have less support from the wider family – grandparents, for example – who might have loyalties or firm relationships with your partner's ex. In terms of friends, a single girl who ends up with a family overnight can find she has less in common with her single friends. They may also be less understanding about the stresses that the stepmother may be facing. "Work out how to address it. Maybe you can invite over your wider family for Sunday lunch once in a while," concludes the academic. "It's about raising awareness of the situation you're in. It's much better to have someone who you can call up and have a glass of wine with than trying to go it alone."

'How to be a Happy Stepmum' by Dr Lisa Doodson (Vermillion, £10.99)

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