The myth of the natural step mother

We know from family research that gender is a crucial factor in stepfamily life. It really helps to have regular discussions with your partner about how you both are noticing gender issues and the effect gender issues is having on family harmony. Family research confirms that women in all types of families are more likely to notice when things aren’t going well in the marriage and/or family and voice their concern. It’s no coincidence that the majority of couples and family therapy appointments are booked by the women and the majority of people reading an article like this one will be the woman in a step family. Stepfamilies can serve to be the ultimate gender trap. When it is often falsely assumed that a woman will instinctively know how to mother as if it were pre-loaded into a female’s body at birth we know the gender trap has started in earnest and that further family complications are sure to follow.
Mothering, like anything complex, amazing and very important, is a learnt behaviour that develops into skills over time. Parents are made not born. No one is ‘born’ knowing how to parent, and certainly no-one is born knowing how to stepparent. As Australian social worker and family therapist Leisa Stathis highlights so poignantly, a woman becomes, transforms, and evolves into a mother over time. This is especially true for a woman becoming a stepmother. Even a woman with loving and caring temperament will still need to learn the layered and nuanced ways of being a parent. Moreover, being a parent figure to someone else’s child. It’s a bit like mothering on steroids!

I have taken respected family therapist Harriet Lerner’s advice to heart when she suggests stepmothers completely step out of the ideal of closeness and resist pressure from wherever it comes to be the “ideal new mother.” She encourages new stepmothers to define their own role based on what feels right for them. This is a bit like writing your own job description. It can be done in consultation with her partner, but I encourage stepmothers to really make it their own and then just stick to it. If you are gracious, but clear and firm in your position, the other members of the family will adjust to you, even if it takes some time. The old saying, ‘if mumma’s not happy; ain’t nobody is happy’ is true for most families, but especially so in a stepfamily. Being a stepparent is a privilege and an entrustment, so be confident in who you are. Craft your role and relationship with the kids intentionally and carefully over time. Everyone will win!

Posted on 21 March 2017 in - Library - Family and Parenting

Marcia Watts

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