Whoever you are and whatever your circumstances, love is complex. Within stepfamilies however, love can be very complex. Especially when it comes to stepparents and stepchildren. This is thanks, in part, to a really distinctive attribute of the stepparent-stepchild relationship which is that love, is ultimately a decision. Think about it. People become stepparents because they fall in love with a man/woman who just happens to have children from a prior relationship. You didn’t necessarily choose your partner just because of who their children are (or get to choose the qualities of their children), any more than his/her children had a choice about who their mum/dad fell head over heels in love with. In this way stepparents and stepchildren are “forced” into some sort of relationship whether they want it or not.
Many stepparents try hard to create an instant bond with their partner’s children. Some, with the encouragement of their partner, rush towards closeness and family unity which can be easy, hard or damn near impossible depending on the age of the children and the nature of relationship between your spouse and their ex-partner. However, feelings of love and warmth for your stepchildren do not suddenly materialise just because you want them too, because you love your spouse, because that is the way family members ought to feel about one another or because society (and others) may expect or demand it.
Back in 2007, Janet Reibstein, a psychology professor at Exeter University who specialises in family relationships, observed “Categorising the emotions that develop in step-relations is something we haven’t done as a society. We don’t have direct analogies and that’s part of the problem. Instead we talk about feeling – or not feeling – like a mother, or a bit like an aunt or uncle, a sister/brother or a good friend; but it’s none of those.” Referring to the stepparent/stepchild relationship Reibstein said “It’s a different and important relationship that needs to be thought through and understood.”
Whatever you might or might not be feeling towards your stepchild, the reality is that love really only evolves after time. I mean you can have intense feelings for, or be irresistibly attracted to, someone when you first meet or as a mother or father bonding with your newborn baby, or even an owner connecting with your new puppy. You may also immediately care for someone’s feelings and want to look out for their general wellbeing. But love isn’t something that generally happens instantly or automatically in any relationship. Love is ultimately a decision, followed by a series of actions. There really is no getting around the fact that getting there takes time, shared experiences, the courage to be vulnerable and an investment of energy in making the relationship work. And even then, it might not happen. And that’s OK.
When it comes to stepfamilies, there are a number of TV programs out there past and present that can encourage unrealistic expectations about the presence of love and affection between a child and their stepmom or stepdad – think The Brady Bunch, Step by Step (starring Suzanne Somers), Nickelodeon’s Instant Mom, Drake and Josh or even ABC’s Modern Family. These sitcoms tend to depict stepfamilies as having a bond underpinned by genuine affection and stepparents who are not only always well intended and exceptionally patient but (for the most part) also seem to function in harmony with their partners. (Ex-spouses and shared care, post separation parenting arrangements seem noticeably absent in their day to day lives!). These shows typically tell stories of stepparents and stepchildren who, despite repeated conflict and misunderstandings, seem to not only care, but stick up for each other sooner or later or at very least, they commiserate together in the end. Real life step-parenting is not always like that.
Being a stepparent is a difficult and complicated role.
In my experience as a therapist, I have found that stepparents can feel love or lack of positive feelings towards their stepchildren. They may feel fond of their stepchildren and enjoy their company but not love them. They may like them only because they love their spouse and their spouse loves their children. They may think their partner’s kids are great but are not feeling “it” (love that is). They may feel hopeful that feelings of love will come down the track or are content with the way things are. They may also feel other emotions, such as ambivalence, jealousy, resentment, frustration or even anger and disappointment. They can feel a twinge of something or nothing at all. Their feelings towards their stepchildren may even change from week to week, as feelings are prone to do. Despite the messages that endure on social media, in society, television programs, movies or fairy tales, there really is no right or wrong way for a stepparent to feel towards their stepchild.
It is definitely encouraged and OK for stepparents to want, and to aim for, establishing a loving, close relationship with their stepchild. But lofty expectations that you will love one another or that your relationship with your stepchild will be the same as your relationship with your biological child or as your stepchild’s relationship with their biological parents, can lead to frustration, disappointment, conflict and more often than not failure. Being a stepparent is certainly not easy. It is therefore important to not add the extra pressure of forcing yourself to love your stepchild. Forcing love (rather than letting it evolve naturally) can create resistance in both stepparents and child, which can in turn create other problems. It is far better to let go of unrealistic expectations and to assume that it will take time for a genuinely affectionate relationship to develop with your stepchild. Maybe years. If at all. Don’t’ push it.
When (or if) your heart doesn’t swell with deep unconditional affection for your partner’s child many stepparents, although in particular stepmothers, can feel very guilty or ashamed and beat themselves up that they don’t like or love their stepchildren. Most women are raised to feel like they’re going to love being a mother and therefore feel confused and self-critical when those feelings don’t spring eternal for their partner’s kids. Shame, guilt and self-criticism are hard feelings to live with. They can take their toll on your self-image, your sense of worth and, if you’re not careful, on your relationship with your partner. It is important for stepmother’s (and stepfather’s) in this position to work at accepting the way they feel and realise that having such feelings doesn’t make you an ogre. Moreover, feeling ambivalent towards your stepchildren, thinking bad thoughts about them, looking forward to them leaving your house and returning to their other home or wishing them away, does not make you a “wicked” stepmother or a bad or evil person. It merely makes you human. After all, we’re all capable of some fairly shocking thoughts; it’s whether we identify and attach ourselves to them and how we resolve them that matters.
If you really don’t like your stepchild, what can you do about it?
- While you don’t have to like or love your stepchildren (or them you), it is helpful to try to find some common ground with them. Common interests help people bond at a personal level, and they can help bridge people of different ages and life experiences – something that is key to stepfamily success. In situations whereby you can’t seem to stand your stepchild, see if you can find something, anything, that you might have in common with them. It doesn’t have to be anything big or fancy: a TV show, an animal, a musical artist, a love of a certain kind of food, a celebrity or an Instagram influencer, a dislike for a certain sport – just some foothold of similarity from which to create a more positive connection.
- It’s also vital that you are honest with your partner about how you are feeling. In this context you should share your lack of feelings or dislike of that child with your partner, in private and when you both have time to talk. Take care not to take out your feelings on the child or to raise it with your partner when one or both of you are upset or in the middle of an argument. Talk to your partner about what bothers you the most about that child and their behaviour: do they talk on the mobile phone during dinner, talk over each other all of the time, come across as self-entitled, lazy, needy, don’t acknowledge you when you are talking to them or start gagging at the table when they have to eat something other than a chicken nugget. Talking (with your partner) allows you to release some of your own frustrations and feelings about the situation. If you can do this, half the battle is won.
- Ask your partner to step in more or take over more of the practical parenting duties. If they can alter even some of their children’s behaviour or attitude, that’s a good thing. But don’t assume that they can change all of the children’s behaviour overnight, if at all. If your stepchild behaves in ways that are directly disrespectful to you, it’s better for you and your partner to set limits with them in the same way that you would set limit with anyone else who was treating you poorly or with disrespect.
- Do your best to remain mindful of your feelings and any runaway thoughts. Just because you think it doesn’t make it true! So, if you bolt awake at night with the thought, “I can’t love my stepchild,” that doesn’t mean that you won’t. Or if over a family dinner you think “I wish that little monster would just shut the f#$%k up” that doesn’t mean you are a mean and nasty person. Make room for these darker feelings or thoughts without assigning to much meaning to them i.e. I am a terrible (wicked) person for thinking such things. By noticing those pesky thoughts or less than comfortable feelings you can acknowledge them and then consciously set them to the side without becoming invested in them.
- Practice basic good manners, kindness and compassion. Despite your dislike of your stepchildren, act and treat them in caring and respectful ways. It may also be helpful to remember that sometimes stepchildren are difficult, rude or downright unlikeable as an expression of loyalty to their other parent. Their guilt at liking, or about becoming close to you, may make them feel more conflicted and less likeable than they really are. It may also make it difficult for them to be nice to you. This can be hard for you, but rest assured it is not uncommon. Your stepchild’s difficultness or unlikeable personality may also mask feelings such as resentment, helplessness, confusion or sadness or even a desire that their parents will someday reunite. Remember that the transitions between two homes, the loyalty binds stepchildren have for their parents and the loss of their parents being together adds up to a lot of grief that often goes unacknowledged.
- Understand where your stepchild is at and what they are realistically capable of given their age, stage of development and their experiences of being cared for and parented by each of their parents (both prior to. and since the separation). This can help you tremendously, and is particularly important if you have no, or limited, experience with children. Your expectations of what your stepchildren can or should do when they are in your home might not match up to your stepchild’s capabilities.
Above all remember, you and your stepchildren may never develop a close relationship. And, that really is okay. You do not have to love or like your stepchildren for your stepfamily to be, and feel, successful; you just have to be a good-enough (step)parent.