“No one in my family understands what it’s like to be a stepmom,” Michelle stated.
“And why would they?” she continued. “Before I married a man with children, I had no idea. My fiancé and I got pre-marriage counseling, but it didn’t address any of the stepfamily issues we have encountered. I wish my friends and family members understood that getting married to someone with kids is very different than a first-time marriage.”
What this stepmom is explaining is very common. Many people don’t understand that stepfamily dynamics are radically different than first-time families.
A stepparent enters a child’s life after he/she has experienced one of the most devastating experiences in life—the loss of the family unit due to death or divorce. This trauma often instills fear, insecurity, anger, and uncertainty. And we expect this distressed child and a new stepparent to instantaneously connect as a family. We ignore that the child already has a mother and a father, and rarely desires another.
In addition, it’s common for a parent’s remarriage to trigger the child’s fear of being disloyal to the other parent which causes rejection and snubbing toward a stepparent. None of these issues are present in a first-time marriage.
Here are four myths about stepfamily life that many people believe. And the misconception often makes the stepparent’s role more challenging.
Four myths about stepfamily life
1. “You should love your spouse’s child exactly the same way as you do your own.”
I shared this statement during a radio interview with Dr. James Dobson. He laughed out loud. His immediate response was, “That’s ridiculous.” I agree. To assume that a spouse will automatically develop the unconditional love, compassion, and wholehearted adoration that a parent experiences with their own child, even an adopted child, is unrealistic.
This is a child your spouse created in a previous marriage.
It’s not that a stepparent doesn’t grow to love the stepchild, or that it’s permissible for the stepparent to retaliate by being cruel, abusive, or malicious. It’s merely unrealistic to assume a man or woman will instantaneously love a child that isn’t his or hers.
A stepparent chooses to love the stepchild because they are an extension of their spouse. And over time, as a relationship with the stepchild forms and grows, he or she develops a love for the child. But it’s not instant—like JELL-O.
2. “You knew what you were getting into.”
The number one statement that stepparents say to me is, “I had no idea it would be this hard. I just wanted to love my spouse and his/her kids. I didn’t know—what I didn’t know.”
This comment is hurtful to a stepparent because it implies shame. It’s hinting that the stepparent should just “suck it up” and not mention the complexities. Or it’s a snobbish jab that stepfamilies are inferior to a first-time marriage.
The stepfamily couple already knows that things are complicated. This doesn’t help.
3. “You aren’t a real parent—you wouldn’t understand.”
This is something women often say to a stepmom who has no biological children. The reality is she is trying to be what her husband desires in this new, “mom role”. She has the same soiled laundry, dirty dishes, carpooling, cooking, homework, school events, sporting events, housecleaning, and balancing the checkbook as any other mom. And she’s doing it for children who may not love her, respect her, or desire her in their home.
Her hard work is done because she loves her husband. And she is trying to keep the vow she made before God. She has most of the responsibilities of a parent, but few of the perks or recognition.
4. “After the divorce it would be easier if the kids lived with you full time.”
No, it wouldn’t. And here’s why.
The children who do the best after a divorce are the ones who have an ongoing, healthy relationship with both parents. This is true even if the other parent isn’t the greatest at following through as a parental figure. A child’s self-worth comes from knowing they are loved by both parents. When one parent intentionally vanishes, it creates trauma for the child. This suffering whispers shame and disgrace into the child’s heart and mind, “I’m bad. I’m unlovable. I’m so horrible that even my own mother/father doesn’t want me. I am nothing. I hate myself.”
The dysfunction or neglect from a parent often results in deep sorrow for the child. And we must not minimize the humiliation of believing we are worthless and unlovable. It is a powerful weapon in the hands of our enemy. It frequently leads to addiction, emotional instability, violence, self-harm, unhealthy relationships, codependency, and promiscuity. The Church must help these children and their parents. Our bloodthirsty enemy is lurking at their door, and they are easy prey.
Misunderstanding the stepfamily dynamic is normal if it’s unfamiliar. Education is the key. Blended families need encouragement and hope. And that’s where the Body of Christ must shine.
“Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity”.
– Colossians 3: 12-14 CSB
Laura Petherbridge is an international speaker and author of, When ‘I Do’ Becomes ‘I Don’t’, The Smart Stepmom, 101 Tips for The Smart Stepmom, Quiet Moments for the Stepmom Soul. She has appeared at/on the Billy Graham Center, Family Talk (Dobson), Focus on the Family, Today’s Christian Woman, FamilyLife, Lifeway, and Moody Broadcasting. Laura has been a featured expert on the DivorceCare DVD series implemented in over 60,000 churches worldwide. In addition to the US, she has spoken in South Africa, Australia, and Canada. Laura and Steve live in Atlanta, Ga, and have been married for 35 years. She has two stepsons, daughters-in-law, and grandkids. She may be reached at www.TheSmartStepmom.com