A Stepmom Bill of Rights…Dangerous to Stepfamilies?

13 01 2010

Ladies, I’m afraid that this might not be a popular post but I feel I must write it. Currently there is yet another version of the Stepmom Bill of Rights circulating online among stepmothers.  I’ve seen many of these over the years. Though the contents of these missives are often well-meaning and make stepmothers come together in a rallying cry, I believe portions of them are actually harmful to stepfamily development. Please, hear me out. Yes, stepmothers often have one of the most difficult roles in a stepfamily, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else gets off scott free. In fact, everyone has a difficult role. The children. Dads and Moms, Stepdads and Stepmothers. We all have our crosses to bear. It’s very easy to take the research that says stepmothers have the most difficult role in the family and swing too far to the other side of the pendulum where we become self-righteous or victims–and that does not a happy stepfamily make. In fact, the Stepmother’s Bill of Rights actually highlights the tension and conflict that is a normal part of  stepfamily life. I have reproduced below the latest version of this bill of rights and I’m going to respond to each point.

1. I will be part of the decision-making process in my marriage and family at all times.
Yes, this certainly is a reasonable sentiment in most cases. However, it is the nature of stepfamilies that things happen that stepmothers have no control over. To insist that we do is to set ourselves up for heartache and a troubled marriage. In the best cases, stepmothers are on the decision-making team and their husbands make them feel like their opinion counts. These women are lucky. But even in the best cases there will be times when the decisions of what happens to the children are up to Dad and Mom.

2. People outside the immediate family – including ex-wives, in-laws and adult children – cannot make plans that affect my life without my consent.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if this were the case? Wouldn’t it be great if this were true in our families of origin let alone our stepfamilies? Ex-wives do make plans without our consent. They sign their children up for basketball and baseball and swimming lessons that directly affect our lives. Adult children consult with their Dads instead of us. One of the reasons stepmothering is so difficult is that we parent from the backseat. To tell yourself that it should be any other way is to deny the reality of stepfamily life. Plenty of research talks about the fall of the fantasy when our dreams and reality conflict. Believing that no one will make plans without consulting you in a stepfamily is a fantasy. Your reaction to those frustrating times is what you can control.

 3. I will not be responsible for the welfare of children for whom I can set no limits.
As a stepmother, role ambiguity is one of the issues that makes stepmothering challenging. It’s hard to know what role to play with our stepdaughters and stepsons. You often won’t be able to set limits for the children. That’s up to Dad and Mom. If the children are older when you get into their lives, it is highly likely you’ll have no say whatsoever in discipline not because Dad won’t let you but because the children will not accept it from you. And yet, you are responsible. You have no legal rights. But you are responsible for the children’s welfare when they are under their roof. This again speaks to a few fantasies of stepmotherhood: 1.) That you will have control. 2.) That you will be able to totally disengage if you don’t have control. Big mistake. If you totally disengage it will affect your marriage. If you try to get too involved, it will affect your marriage. Stepmotherhood is a balancing act, one that take a great deal of maturity and is not for the weak of heart.

4. I must be consulted about which children will live with us, when they can visit and how long they will stay.
Once again, this is a statement right out of fantasy land. Often it is a judge that decides or a divorce agreement that dictates which children will live with you, when they can visit, and how long they will stay. It’s not up to us stepmoms. A biological parent has a legal responsibility to care for his children. To allow this friction into your heart and into your marriage is dangerous. The fact is the rate of divorce for stepfamilies is higher than first marriages in the early years. If you can make it past the chaotic early years, the divorce rate actually falls below first marriages, but only if you decide to move out of Oz and be fully present with the realities, both wonderful and challenging in your family life.

5. I will not be solely responsible for housework; chores will be distributed fairly.
This one I can agree with!

6. I will be consulted regarding all family financial matters.
Consulted, sure. But at the end of the day, a biological father has a legal (if not moral) responsibility to care for his children financially. Once again, the agreements he made before you came along must be honored. This is a hard pill to swallow for stepmothers because it has an impact on her new family, but it is something you must accept if you’re going to be a happy stepmom.

7. Others may not violate my private space at home, nor take or use my possessions without my permission.
This is a great one. Make it a household rule. But remember that kids are kids and sometimes they don’t follow rules.

8. I will never be treated as an “outsider” in my own home.
I want to pull my hair out on this one. Being an outsider is one of the definitions of stepparent. This is what makes it so difficult! We don’t share blood with the children who live with us part- or full-time. You will be treated as an outsider. So what will you do about it? How will you react to it so you don’t blow up your family life? How will you develop bonds with your stepchildren to reduce this feeling? Stepfamilies can feel like family but usually only after a lot of years have gone by and our actions toward the children and our husbands and ourselves have made us feel like family. This is an incredibly harmful stepfamily myth, that we’ll all love each other and feel like family instantly. You will not. You will feel like an outsider. And you might always feel that way occasionally. (At graduations and weddings, for instance.) But you’ll find a role that fits you and your family. Researcher Patricia Papernow calls stepparents “Intimate Outsiders.” We will never be blood, but we can develop very strong, positive relationships that ultimately feel like family.

9. My husband and stepchildren must treat me with respect.
Yes! I’m on board with this one. In fact, this is one of the rules of a house that can help a stepparent feel better as she works through the challenges of finding her place in the family.

10. Our marriage is our first priority, and we will address all issues together.
YES!!! This is hugely important. And the stepfamilies who make it to the finish line are the ones in which the marriage is a priority. But children are a priority, too. Sometimes a child’s needs come first. It’s not either marriage  or children, it’s marriage AND children.  Still, a stepmother needs to feel secure in her marriage. A woman who feels confident in her relationship with her partner is better able to handle the normal stepfamily challenges.

So. Does this mean I think that stepmothers don’t need a rally cry? Absolutely not! Stepmothers need to band together. We are often unappreciated and left out. But please remember that some of these rally cries come at the expense of your relationships with your family. Be careful. Be gentle. I wish for all of you to always feel at home in your own home. I hope that you all feel empowered and among a sisterhood of like-minded women who support you. I also hope that your families are growing organically into something really wonderful and special that enhances each member’s experience of life.