You’re Not My Child!

5 05 2009

Here is an excerpt from author and stepmom Wednesday Martin’s new book Stepmonster. This is from Chapter 4, “You’re Not My Child!: Jealousy, Anger, and Resentment” and I think you’ll see why I felt like I had to run a longer post than I normally do. I am currently reading Wednesday’s book, and I have to say, it’s right up at the top of my list of stepfamily resources, m’ladies. For your reading pleasure:

An excerpt printed with permission from Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

All unhappy stepmothers are, in some way, alike. In large part, it seems, we have our gender to thank: women are relaters. We aspire to be the carpenters who put the dilapidated house of stepfamily dysfunction back into order, the “fixers” who bring “ex-children” back into the fold, the good guys who charm recalcitrant and resentful stepkids into Best Friends Forever. It is more than a desire; to us, such reality-defying acts feel imperative. Why on earth do we take on such Herculean and thankless tasks, even when we know better? Because we must. Experts tell us that a woman’s self-worth and indeed her very sense of identity are wrapped up in, even inextricable from, her success in relationships with others. University of Washington sociologist and family expert Virginia Rutter summarizes: “…a large body of research demonstrates that women’s self-esteem becomes contingent upon relationships going smoothly; it holds in stepfamilies, as well.”1 Simply put, we need to like and be liked, and anything less smacks of fault and failure—our own—to us. Our need to solve problems in a stepfamily setting, our sense that it is up to us , is deeply ingrained, the legacy of decades of lessons imparted by parents and society, and may be nearly impossible for us to resist. As Elizabeth Carter, , director of the Westchester Family Institute and co-author of The Invisible Web; Gender Patterns and Family Relationships, puts it, “Women are raised to believe that we are responsible for everybody. A stepmother sees the children as unhappy, or the husband as ineffectual…and she moves in to be helpful. Women move toward a problem to work on it—whether it’s theirs to work on or not.”2 Stepfamiles, we know, have an abundance of such problems, interpersonal snags and aggravations, giving us plenty of material for self-doubt, self-blame, and feelings of failure. In fact, Dr. James Bray of Baylor University found that stepmothers are more self-critical, and blame themselves more, than any other member of the remarried family.3

In this, we could not be more different from men. Studies show that stepfathers, in contrast to us, report much lower levels of engagement and involvement with their stepchildren—as well as significantly lower levels of conflict, stress and guilt.4 And so it is likely that whether they are stepfathers themselves or not, our husbands will be rather bewildered, at best, by our need to knit, and our keenly personal sense of devastation when we cannot. This gendered disparity in how they process stepfamily difficulty can act to drive the husband and wife apart, increasing the woman’s sense of disconnection and failure. We all know the feeling Brenda, the mother of two toddlers and stepmother to a teen boy, shared with me: “Sometimes I hate myself for not being able to handle it better, for not making us a family, for always fighting with my husband about his son.”

In short, failing to connect, failing to fix, is something women take to heart. Maybe that explains why, during my interviews, several women with stepchildren told me the same story, or a version of it, repeating each other’s concerns in uncanny ways. It was a story about communicating and not-communicating, about crossed signals and the intractable sense of frustration and resentment that so many of us find ourselves experiencing over and over—“Help! I’m stuck in a movie!” is how one woman with stepchildren described it to me—when it comes to dealing with his children and our uglier, more taboo feelings they sometimes elicit in us. The story goes like this:

A stepchild calls weekly, or a few times a month, and always leaves a similar message on the answering machine: “Hi Dad, it’s me. Hope you’re doing well, I miss you. Give me a call. Bye Dad.” In message after message, dozens of them, there is not a single hello for dad’s wife. It’s her voice on the answering machine. It’s her taking the message (okay, the stepchild doesn’t know this. But still). To make it worse, she may have lived with the stepchild for a period of time, may have picked him up from the train station on alternate weekends, sent him birthday cards, or helped the adult stepchild plan her wedding, or otherwise rearranged her life and her priorities over and over, for years, trying to forge a bond in acknowledgment of the reality that He has kids.

She does not consider herself a petty person, the woman telling me this story, but she has to admit, the messages bother her. How can she fail to notice the fact that her stepchild does not so much as acknowledge her, again and again? The worst part of the situation, the woman broods to herself at the time and tells me later, is knowing that even thinking about it, even having feelings about it—about his kid never saying “hi” to her in the message—makes her seem petty. It is a classic stepmonster set-up—nobody’s fault, exactly, but somehow, because she has feelings about it, it becomes her problem. She can just imagine saying something to the stepchild the next time he or she calls, “Hi, how are you doing? Great. Listen, there’s something I wanted to mention. I don’t know if you realize it, but when you leave messages here, you never say hi to me, only to your dad. It feels a little…hurtful. I’m sure you didn’t intend it that way.” She could never say this, she knows. Because if she did, it would merely provide fodder for the rumblings about her she has already sensed—that she’s a control freak, that she can’t relax, that she has to stick herself into everything, that she is incapable of letting stuff go. That she always has to insert herself between her husband and his kids. That she’s jealous.

No, the thinks, she won’t mention it to her stepchild. Instead, she mentions it to her husband in passing, not wanting to start anything, just hinting, hoping that saying, “Funny, every time Timmy calls, he says ‘Hi Dad’ but never ‘Hi Jean,’ even though it’s my voice he’s hearing” will be enough. Her husband nods. He seems distracted, or slightly irritated; he changes the subject. The messages don’t change. And after a few months of it, or a year, the woman is tempted to stop giving her husband the messages at all. Of course she would never stoop so low—she tells me this part of the story in a rush, defensive, afraid that I might think she would actually do such a thing, suspecting that, in spite of the fact that I am a stepmother myself, I will judge her for even thinking for one fleeting instant about doing something so classically wicked.

She is frustrated and hurt, it’s true, by this relatively little thing, which nonetheless feels, after all this time, like an intentional slight, a refusal (even if it is unconscious) to acknowledge her existence. But she is an adult, and she decides to be emotionally mature and direct rather than passive and resentful. Rather than letting it simmer and fester and become a bigger deal than it really is, she will speak to her husband about it again. Of course he will understand, she tells herself. Surely he will tell his child that this “oversight” is a little odd and that it is only appropriate to say “Hi Dad, Hi Stepmom, Timmy here” when he hears his stepmother’s voice on the answering machine.

“This again? You’re making a big deal out of nothing,” her husband responds instead, suddenly angry and defensive. “He’s hardly ever here, and yet you’re finding a way to be critical of him. You’re so sensitive. Why can’t you just let it go?!”

“I’m just pointing out his behavior. Why attack me?” the woman counters, surprised, disappointed, disoriented. Is she really so very critical? She thought she was just expressing her feelings, asking for his help. Why are they once again divided as a couple, sheared apart as a team, at the mere mention of something his child has done? And are her feelings irrelevant, self-indulgent? Is what she’s asking for unreasonable? She doesn’t think so, but now she’s not sure. Why is the burden on her, she wonders, to overlook and deny and pretend when his child does something she finds rude or hurtful?

The argument, even if it is short, feels lethal. It is their oldest, least productive dynamic, The Fight they have over and over, The Issue they seem never to resolve. And it feels like failure, like defeat, to be revisiting this wasteland of the bitterest emotions, the ones they forget for months at a time but that are apparently always there, even when things are going well. The woman married to the man with children begins to panic. She feels misunderstood, taken for granted, angry. Angry at her husband and angry at his child. Again. Again! It feels like a losing battle, all these years later, and she may feel, despondently, back at square one again. All over a stupid little message on the answering machine. For a moment, briefly, she hates her husband, hates his child, hates being a stepmother. She feels bitter. Then she wonders, How did I get this way? And, When will it get better? Jamie Kelem Keshet writes of these feelings:

When a stepmother feels she has reached out to a child, the child’s failure to reach back to her can be very painful. In some…cases this rejecting may cause her to question her worthiness as a person…Most stepmothers have ambivalent feelings about their stepchildren. A woman who is trying to acknowledge only her loving positive feelings toward the children and deny her angry and resentful feelings would be open to projecting her negative feelings onto them unconsciously.5

We need to allow ourselves to be less than all-loving all the time, and to forgive ourselves for responding like human beings rather than saints to the par-for-the-course slights and oversights from our stepchildren that often feel deliberate. “I feel like, to succeed as a stepmother, you have to be either really assertive about not being stepped on, or incredibly self-abnegating. I’m not really assertive, but I’m also not the kind of person who can say, ‘Oh, his daughter’s treating me like shit again. It’s not personal. Whatever, it doesn’t matter,’” a woman whose twenty-something stepdaughter veered from being prickly and stand-offish to blatantly hostile toward her, told me. What the woman with stepchildren seldom hears is that her feelings matter as much as anyone else’s in the family. Indeed, sweeping them under the carpet or tamping them down as we are so often urged to do (“Just let it go already!”) does more harm than good, exacerbating irritation and annoyance until it festers into full-blown, sometimes even explosive resentment. How to stop the cycle? To begin with, we might simply acknowledge that, whatever their ages, our stepchildren do, in fact, frequently try to exclude us. They do things—consciously or unconsciously—that make us feel overlooked, left out, unappreciated. They send subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle signals that they wish we simply didn’t exist, that they’d like to erase us from the picture, or from the message on the answering machine. I heard one story of a woman who was not invited to her stepdaughter’s wedding after nearly two decades of marriage to the young woman’s father “because it will be too difficult for mom” (her husband insisted to his daughter that they would attend together or not at all, but his wife did not ever really recover from her hurt, and not surprisingly, ceased making efforts with her grown stepdaughter for a long time). Another woman, visiting her stepson at sleep-away camp, noticed that he had taped family photos up on the wall next to his bunk—and meticulously cut her face out of every one of them. The pain she felt was made worse by the fact that her husband failed to notice, and then made excuses.

My husband said, ‘Oh really? Maybe he just did that because he knew his mom was visiting.’ Maybe. Still, I had put a big effort in with my stepson by this point. And he wasn’t six. He was sixteen. I was surprised and hurt by the way he literally edited me out after all we’d been through together. After that I realized that no matter what I did, no matter how nice I was, my stepson wasn’t going to embrace me with open arms, or consider me family. I can’t blame him. It’s true, I’m not exactly family. Anyway after that I realized I should probably focus on myself and my marriage more, and put myself out a little less where he was concerned.

At other times, as we’ve seen, our stepchildren may seem to be masters of splitting the couple, shutting us out and manipulating their fathers. Taboo it may be, but anger is a logical and normal response. It grows as we discover that our stepchildren have an uncanny aptitude for making us look bad when they are the ones misbehaving. Ayelet Waldman nails this particular aspect of stepmothering in her novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, the story of Emilia, who has lost a baby of her own and struggles to warm up to her husband’s precocious, sometimes perfidiously emotionally savvy five-year-old, William.

One frozen afternoon, she takes her stepson to see the Harlem Meer, a pond in Central Park. On this, the first day they have actually managed to have some spontaneous fun together, he slips near the water’s edge, muddying his boots in the shallow water. Running into her husband Jack in the lobby of their building a few minutes later, Emilia knows she is in trouble, and that William will milk this for all it is worth. She is right: the boy wails dramatically as he recounts the story of his stepmother “throwing me into the lake.” Emilia protests her innocence, but this is not, by now, the point. At issue is her husband’s perception that she just doesn’t like William or care about him. As father and son walk down the hall of the apartment to put the boy in the tub, Emilia feels shut out and set up, and decides she has to say something:

“Aren’t you going to tell him…he shouldn’t get so crazy over a little mud and water? We were having fun, Jack!”

Jack narrows his lips into a thin line… “You don’t even give a shit. He’s cold, and scared, and you couldn’t care less.”

“I do so care. But he wasn’t scared. You know William, he’s just being dramatic.”

[Jack] leans toward me and says in a low voice, “You have no idea what your face is like when you look at him, Emilia. You are colder than the fucking Harlem Meer.”

He jerks the door open and walks through it, slamming it shut behind him. Before, I was warming to his son, I was. But now his words and those unsaid have spilled over me like liquid hydrogen. It is his words that have frozen me, made me brittle and immovable. Colder than he even knows. I am white with cold.6

Emilia’s feelings—that her husband is taking his son’s side, that she is unjustly accused, but somehow ends up looking like a heartless, callow stepmonster who has mistreated His Poor Kid, and mostly her desperate fear and loneliness in this moment—are something many of us will recognize. What is not said to us and among us, what is not often enough acknowledged, what gets buried in the “you shoulds” and “you musts” and the “you’re the adult, so let it gos” is the simple fact that stepchildren are not always sweet victims like Snow White. Frequently, like William, they seem to be out to get us. Waldman is getting at another unacknowledged but basic truth of stepmothering, too: it can feel like a betrayal when our husbands overlook or refuse to acknowledge

something hostile a child or adult stepchild has done or said, or blind themselves to a child’s or adult child’s uncivil behavior, behavior unlikely to be tolerated by dad if it were directed at a stranger (this phenomenon will be considered at length in the next chapter, “Him.”) William’s melodramatic, divisive antics and his father’s credulous response (the duped father) are nothing compared to real-life stories I have heard: of a woman whose stepdaughter tried to push her down the stairs and whose husband accused her of “exaggerating”; a woman who was literally beaten by her young adult stepdaughters before her husband intervened and told them they were no longer welcome; a woman’s whose stepson only spoke to her in obscenities and whose husband told her he didn’t want “to get involved in your problems with each other.” Certainly these are among the more extraordinary instances of stepchildren’s unchecked hostility; but the combination of a child who misbehaves toward her stepmother and a father who fails to support his wife because he is passive or in denial about his kid’s behavior, thus encouraging more such acting out toward stepmom, is unfortunately all too common.

One option, of course, is to stick up for ourselves when our husbands don’t, or assert ourselves when they can’t, but such a strategy frequently backfires, or plays into the narrative that we are wicked, something we tend to want to avoid at all costs. Laynie, a doctor, mother of two, and stepmother of a ten-year-old boy describes it this way: “There’s a holding back and a level of consciousness all the time that there isn’t with my own kids. With [my stepson] Teddy, I have to think about everything. There’s always another process going on at the same time. Like with my own kids, they annoy me, they get a time out. With Teddy, there’s that extra moment. Will I? Won’t I?” Often we fear that something as reasonable as a time out will open a can of worms—between us and the stepchild, between us and our husband, between us and his ex. As stepmothers, we are expected to let it go—the rudeness and the hostility, the refusal to acknowledge us when we walk into the room, the mocking tone—often for years on end. If we can’t—if we complain or set a limit or tell them they’re not welcome if they can’t treat us civilly—we are petty, stereotypical stepmonsters. Caught in this set-up, we go silent; then we get angry and resentful, and finally we may lash out at his kids, completing the cycle, playing our role in a script we never wanted any part of. Brenda, who always considered herself a fun, likable person, found herself trapped in this dynamic. “I don’t know how it happened,” she confided to me miserably, describing the downward spiral: her stepson acted surly and provocative, she responded by complaining to her husband, her husband minimized her feelings and blamed her (“What do you expect, his parents are divorced! It’s hard for him, you should be more understanding!”) and Brenda became angrier and more snappish toward her stepson every time he exercised his unchecked power, power which had the effect of rubbing her nose in her own lack of authority.

Even if our situation is not as extreme as Brenda’s or the ones I describe above, such dead-end stepfamily dynamics can drive a stake right through the heart of our marriage. Our husbands, often either oblivious to our travails, or critical of how we handle them, seem to live for, to relish, these increments of time with their children, the very increments of time we sometimes find ourselves dreading. And this disparity between his experience of his kids and our experience of them builds what can feel like an impossible-to-scale wall between us. Inevitably, we are confronted with the simple fact, one that persists: unless we are extraordinarily lucky and circumstances are just right (see chapter nine, “Sadness and Depression”), we cannot like his children without reservation as he does, we cannot always feel enthused about their visit or the fact of them, and it is not always easy to disguise it. Paradoxically, admitting this charged truth is not what makes us bad. In fact, it will likely lower the bar and our blood pressure significantly, bringing a much needed sense of relief to what can feel like an endless struggle. Acceptance also sets the stage for us to explore just exactly what’s under the feelings that can seem so overwhelming, feelings that may sometimes seem to threaten to blot out the rest of the world.

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4 responses

6 05 2009
jacobatthewell

Three comments from a remarried dad with a daughter who is with him and his new wife half the time:

It’s always jarring to read stepmothers refer to the presence of their husband’s child as a “visit”. Our home is my daughter’s home. It’s not a visit. When she’s with us, she’s home.

The boy leaving the messages on the answering machine (without mentioning the stepmother) may have been self conscious because his bio mom was present as he leaves the message. If she is sending a negative message about the stepmom, the kid may be trying to avoid conflict at that end, or protect his bio-mom, by not mentioning the stepmom.

I think the terms “stepmother” and “stepfather” are part of the problem. My wife has two sons who are with us half the time, so I’m officially a “stepfather”. At first I thought this meant I would be a “dad” to the boys when they were with us. But I’m not. They’ve already got a father. Same with my daughter – she’s got a mom. There is only room for one mom and one dad. Whenever I have read about a child who treated her stepparent as a dad or mom, it was always because the bio mom or dad was not in the picture.We need a new term stepparents, one that doesn’t set the new spouse up with false expectations.

29 05 2009
NatzG

@ jacobatthewell: I feel you’ve missed the point regarding the phone message example. It really doesn’t matter what the reason for the oversight. It happened, many times. It hurts, no matter what the reason. That hurt will cause consequences for the stepmom and the family.

11 06 2009
Kimma

Let’s educate children, that they are not responsible for their mother’s, father’s, siblings, or any individual’s feelings happy or sad. Talk about the gift of guilt that keeps giving. Like Jacob said, the negativity that exists in that situation of a child feeling self conscious. The child learned at some point when I acknowledge my step mom my mom feels bad/hurt/angry…fill in the negative response. Mom’s that show their children it is okay to be respectful (notice I did not say love or like) to stepmom are really caring for the emotional well being of their child and frankly how to behave appropriately for later in life.

Like the stepparent suggestion or how about just using her first name. “Jean”. “Hi Dad, Hi Jean, it’s me. Hope you’re doing well, I miss you. Give me a call. Bye Dad.” or “Hi Dad, it’s me. Hope you’re doing well, I miss you. Give me a call. Bye Dad, tell Jean hi.”

Interesting on the visit vs. home. I would say that we all want children to feel they are home but I wonder??? If the child does not live at one household the majority of time, does the child feel it is a visit? Is it about the amount of time or the quality of the relationship that makes it home for the child? Is it because they did not grow up there that it seems like a visit not home, home is where I have always lived. In cases where the previous marriage home was sold due to divorce, then where do they feel home is?

16 01 2011
Stepmom413

My husbands first wife died when his daughters were toddlers. My two stepdaughters who live with us full time still treat me very badly and they are not trying to spare their mothers feelings. They have actually told me that I were not around their life would be much better. I have 3 sons of my own and one with my husband. The girls constantly throw my children under the bus for their own gain. My husband makes excuses due to the death of their mom. I realize how hard it must be to lose your mother, it is still no excuse for bad behavior. I feel like a prisoner in my own home. It’s awful!! Most days I wish I was back in my old house just me and MY kids.

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