Children of Divorce: Understanding your stepkids can make stepmotherhood easier.

27 10 2008

I am a child of divorce. That means I come at being a stepmom from the angle of someone who has lived with her own parents, siblings, stepmother, stepsiblings, half-sister, and stepdad. That’s part of the reason why I tell stepmoms that it’s critical to try to see the kids’ point of view, no matter how horrible and snotty the children are.

Over the years I’ve spoken with and received many letters from stepmoms who hate their stepkids. And I mean hate. Some won’t allow the kids to come to their house (read: their dad’s house). Some don’t want their own biological children to associate with their stepchildren. And typically there is a heart-wrenching reason for this exclusion.

Now, I am the first one to say that stepkids can be absolute jerks. We can be so awful that all you can do is think about how long it’s going to be before we move out. But there is usually a reason for the behavior. For the acting out. For the screaming, swearing, lying, stealing, alcohol-drinking, drug-taking, sex-having, law-breaking. For children of divorce, it basically comes down to what happened to us as kids. We were split in two. We were forced to become more mature, more responsible for ourselves, our siblings and sometimes our parents. Everyday activities became identity crises.

Here is a passage from a book I hope finds its way into all of your hands: Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce by Elizabeth Marquardt. The book is a result of a study conducted by Marquardt and a colleague that included 1,500 young adults from divorced and intact families.

“Katy spent most of the year living with her mother, stepfather, and grandparents. During the summers and school holidays she lived with her father, who remarried twice after her parents’ divorce. Katy’s parents had many differences. Her mother was religious and her father was not. Katy was the center of attention at her mother’s house but felt more peripheral at her father’s house, though she knew her father loved her. But some of the most confusing situations for Katy occurred when she confronted her parents’ competing values in everyday situations.

“Katy’s mother was a penny-pincher and at her home, Katy remembered, they would ‘conserve every little scrap of paper.’ At her father’s house money flowed more freely. ‘That was a little hard for me,’ Katy said, ‘because the leftovers on the table would get thrown out at my father’s house. And I was very used to the way my mother did things.’ She remembered, ‘One time at my father’s house I ate everything on my plate and then ate more so that it wouldn’t get thrown out.’ In fact, Katy ate so much that night that she ended up with a bad stomachache. She did not say anything about her father and stepmother’s practice of throwing out leftovers because it ‘would be rude.’ But she also had difficulty tolerating it. Her mother valued thrift and her father valued abundance. Katy was caught silently in the middle, stuffed and uncomfortable.

“Everyone has ended up at times in uncomfortable social situations, not wanting to offend someone. But for children of divorce the differences between our two homes were between not just any two people but our parents, the earliest and most important role models we had. These crossed signals about right and wrong went to the heart of our identities. Katy’s confrontation with the leftovers was only one of the many times she felt caught between two competing value systems in a way that was largely invisible to her parents. After their divorce, her parents no longer had to decide together what to do with the leftovers, nor did they have to discuss or argue about the deeper values their decision might reflect. Yet the need to sort out their different values did not disappear. Instead it fell to Katy. …

“…In that one place in the world in which any of us should be able to let our guard down – our home – children of divorce have to keep their magnifying glasses up and their thinking caps on. For children of divorce, even benign, everyday decisions – ‘Should I answer the phone? What should I do with the leftovers?’ – become fraught with tension and moral drama.” 

I know exactly how Katy feels. I have often called myself a fractured person because I can fit in to my mother’s world and my father’s world but feel at home in neither. We children of divorce are chameleons. We learn how to grow up fast. We wrestle with big moral questions early in our lives. We keep secrets to protect our parents from each other.

For a long time I kept quiet. But when the anger and hurt erupted in me, I became one of those hateful stepchildren that I get letters about. I know it’s hard to have an angry, sullen, spiteful, manipulative child in your home. But please, no matter how awful it gets, remember that kid is going through something in his formative years that will stay with him the rest of his life. Please dig deep for your compassion. Even if your stepchild is not exhibiting negative behaviors, she’s still caught in the middle. But you have the power to change a kids’ life. You have the power to help her build her self-esteem and express her feelings.

The fact that I am a child of divorce continues to inform the person I am. Still a chameleon. Still keeping secrets for my parents so their feelings don’t get hurt. Still an outsider.

So what can you do to try to see the world from your stepchildren’s point of view? What support do you need in your life so you have the strength to be a stepmother?

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