Your Questions Answered

10 09 2009

Hi, I am glad I came across your site. I am hoping for some insight. I had dated my husband for eight years before getting married six months ago. He has three children and our relationship has been nothing but full of love from the beginning. I do not have children and treat them as my own but understand and respect the fact that they do have a mother and I am not taking her place. However, just naturally, I have played the mother role when the kids are with us.

Everything has been great and six months ago before we got married, my middle stepson that lives with us, age 16, said that people said that things will be different and he said I don’t see how they will be different.

Well, he just returned from spending two months with his mom and I noticed since he’s been back something is different with him. He seems a little uneasy, very subtle changes but I am very intuitive of these things. On top of all this we are moving to a house and there is a lot of stress in the house which might be amplifying things.

Well, tonight things blew up he spoke disrespectfully to me, which he usually doesn’t do and my husband told him to apologize. He apologized and said that he is just going through something. It’s nothing that I am doing, he says it’s just that he is worried that I am going to become his mother. He is afraid of not being loyal to her and perhaps loving me as his mom since I am taking the mom roll day in and out.

I so feel for him and am not sure what to do to make him feel better and I dont know what roll to take. My instinct is to back off from him and be in outsider but I know that is not right. Please advise…

Dear reader:

What you and your family are experiencing are a completely normal part of stepfamily development. No matter how long you dated your husband before you married, things do change when you marry and live together as your stepson so wisely said. (He sounds very mature for his age, by the way! Few stepchildren can articulate what he did to you. What a gift!)

He is talking to you about what stepfamily experts call a loyalty bind. He fears that if he likes or even loves you it will be taking away love from his mother or make her hurt or even angry. The best way to deal with loyalty binds is for the adults in the situation to sit down with your stepson and say something like, “You know what, you can love me and you can love your mom and that’s totally okay. Your mom is your mom and always will be no matter what. She loves you. I’m your stepmom and that’s different. You and I get to figure out what that means to us together.”

If both of your stepson’s biological parents reinforce this message, it will make your stepson feel a lot better and quickly, too. Stepchildren are often discouraged to talk about their negative or challenging feelings out loud so the fact that you are already discussing this openly with your stepson is a BIG deal. Congrats to you.

As for your role. You are describing what is called role ambiguity. You are trying to find out what being a stepmother means to you and your family. Some women choose to occupy what Dr. Patricia Papernow calls an “intimate outsider” position. They are a part of the family, but they leave the bulk of the parenting to the biological parent. Some women choose a more active role. Some act like a teacher or a coach or an aunt figure.

How you configure your role in your stepfamily has a lot to do with what you are comfortable with, the level of involvement of the biological mother, the support you receive from your spouse, and what the children will accept from you. You can read more about this in my book where I devote quite a lot of space to the topic of role ambiguity.

 In the meantime, the best thing you can do is to continue to talk with your family about what it feels like for each of you to be a new member of a stepfamily. The more you can communicate in these early stages the better off you’ll be.



3 responses

10 09 2009

Congratulations to both this reader and her stepson! If only I could have been able to express my feelings so well at 16. And as a stepmother to understand and seek help so that you can in turn help him…commendable.

You gave such a good explanation Jacque of the stepfamily dynamic and of what is really going on here. I think sometimes in stepfamilies we can think that we are alone or unique in our issues when the reality is that most stepfamilies struggle with exactly the same things.

11 09 2009

Maybe the stepson feels this way because the stepmom is trying to displace his mother. Isn’t that what most stepmoms and the biological fathers want to do?

12 09 2009

Dear Jenna,

As someone who has interviewed, talked with, chatted with online with stepfamilies across the country, I can say that I have never come across a stepmother and father team who are purposefully trying to displace a biological mother. Emotions run high in divorce and remarriage situations so I’m sure it can feel that way and there are probably stepmoms and dads out there who have behaved in ways to make a mom feel displaced.

In a case like the one described by this reader, which is pretty typical, the stepmother doesn’t have to do anything to displace a mother to make her stepson feel this way. It is perfectly normal what this boy is expressing. Research has shown that children naturally feel caught in loyalty binds in stepfamilies no matter how well or how badly everyone gets along. If he likes his stepmom, he feels he is going to hurt is mom regardless of whether or not his mother has said those words to him or not. Children are protective of their biological mothers and even more so in divorce situations.

The very best thing biological parents can do is to allow their children to develop relationships with their stepparents and with the other biological parent. This is hard to do when you’re hurting, but to not do it will damage your children. The research is clear. (This goes to all the stepmothers out there, too.) Talk bad about anyone else in your family structure and you will harm the children.

It’s also easy as a biological mother to feel insecure when your children are going to another house developing a relationship with another woman. But the fact is this: You are their biological mother. A biological mother has a place in a child’s heart no matter what. No matter who is in their lives or how a bio mom treats a child. Mommy is mommy and that’s that. I always tell moms to think about their relationship with their own mothers. You know how strong that bond is. Even if your children like or love their stepmother, you will never, ever, ever be replaced in their hearts.

I must thank you for writing in this very honest comment. Stepfamilies are complicated, scary, emotional, crazy-making things but if you focus on love and not on fear, then I truly believe you can create a family situation that can have a positive effect on your children instead of a negative one.

Best of luck,

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