“I feel like the wicked stepmother,” Jean said.
Jean, a divorcee, married Joe about a year ago. Joe has a nine-year-old daughter, Ann, from his previous marriage. His wife left him and their daughter three years earlier.
Jean is disappointed and frustrated that even after a whole year Ann still keeps her at arm's length. When Jean married Joe she was eager to take up the role of mother in this ready-made family. Her love for Joe made her intent to give and to love his daughter so that they could have a “normal” happy family.
Like most step-parents, Jean believed that after a period of adjustment, eventually they would become one big unit. But as month after month passes, they still haven't become a “nuclear” family, and she is beginning to lose patience. She feels that not only can't she get close to Ann, but that Ann often stands between her and Joe. Jean wonders whether she is adequate as a mother and whether under such circumstances this marriage will ever work out.
Jean's worries are common to many new step-parents. In fact, there are many unspoken expectations and myths about step-parenting that are either imposed by people close to the family or by the step-parents upon themselves. The most prevalent of these are:
A) SUPER MUM OR DAD
Someone like Jean is anxious to prove herself as a good mother. She goes out of her way to please and to give. Such people want to make up to the children for the “gap” left by the absent natural parent.
But no matter how hard she tries, Jean is still an “outsider” as far as Ann is concerned. Ann and her dad had built a strong bilateral bond since the divorce. Any new change is inevitably met with resistance. Meanwhile, since Jean puts in so much effort, any amount of resistance is received as personal rejection.
B) THE LOVE TRIANGLE
“My husband loves me and I love him, he loves Ann and Ann loves him, why can't Ann and I love each other too?” Jean sighs.
Hoping that every family member be loving toward each other is not something unreasonable to ask in any family. However, in a step-family it isn't as simple as one may wish. Instant love between step-parent and child is rare. Mutual love may take time to build, or it may never come.
C) THE INSTANT NORMAL FAMILY
Many step-parents become discouraged when this doesn't happen as quickly as they expect. The fact is, building a step-family requires a long developmental process, characterised by four main stages:
The new family comes together. Naturally, this is the time when the above fantasies develop.
Almost immediately, differences arise, between step-parent and child, and between the adults, who may clash over child-rearing. Resistence and turmoil usually characterise the first two years of the new family.
Eventually, myths fade, rules are established, adjustments are made, and gradually step-parent and child begin to be more accepting.
Finally, the family blends together, step-parent and child build a natural bond and relate to each other as a family.
The first two years are the most chaotic and critical period for a step-family. However, many people get discouraged and think if a stable family hasn't developed long before that time, there must be something wrong with the marriage. In some cases they dissolve the marriage before they overcome the challenge. In reality, most step-families will take up to three to five years to blend, build bonds and emerge as a stable unit.
As step-parents, people need to recognize their own limitations and perhaps lower their expectations. After all, intense bonds with step-children may never develop. Likewise, allow differences and space, especially for older children. Try not to impose one's values or expect them to change just because you are now their “father” or “mother”.
Couples must recognise the long process of blending a step-family. Mutual support between spouses is essential. They need to reserve time and energy to nurture the marital relationship. They need to demonstrate to the children that they are a parental unit who will support each other's actions, including discipline, decision making, etc.
A step-family will not be able to survive without clear rules and regulations, especially when adolescent children are involved. It is vital to have regular family meetings so that all members have a chance to voice their likes or dislikes, expectations, and feelings so that unnecessary misunderstandings can be eliminated. This also provides a chance for everyone to learn more about each other. Such a process can be stormy and painful for everybody but ultimately fruitful for most step-families.
Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and author of the book Keep Your Life, Family and Career Intact While Living Abroad. She is the former columnist for the South China Morning Post and American in Britain on topics of psychology and adjustment for expatriates and their families.