Parenting is said to be the hardest job on the planet. The only exception to this is the job of a stepparent, which is considered to be even more demanding for a myriad of reasons including the fact that the roles in a stepfamily are blurred and confusing for all parties…the bio-parent, the stepparent, and most of all the children.
Once vows are exchanged there exists the notion that a stepparent will blend into the family system and the roles, habits, and routines will seamlessly become one with everyone living happily ever after. But what oftentimes happens is that all members of the new family unit feel out of place and unsure of their respective relationships relative to one another. The children are often bewildered by the changes. They must acclimate to new rules, routines, and activities to which they are unaccustomed and for which they have not been consulted. Their sense of security and what they have grown to know and depend upon has changed dramatically. Throw in the challenge of infertility and you are sitting on a potential keg of dynamite waiting to explode. Yet, although challenging, with the right attitude and commitment, families can adapt and these challenges can be successfully resolved.
The expectations held by all can often be unrealistic and ill conceived. It is naïve to think that when a parent falls in love and takes on a new life partner, the children will automatically adjust and adapt to this new family configuration. To assume that the stepparent will immediately bond with the children is also unlikely. Relationships need to be nurtured through shared experiences, both the good and the not so good. Intimacy and trust are not automatic but attainable over time with patience and hard work.
The relationship between a child and stepparent is a fragile one, one that has to be carefully worked out and managed so that everyone’s needs and feelings are heard and respected. Stepmothers often complain about being rejected or ignored by the children whereas stepfathers are more likely to feel like outsiders where their efforts to guide, help, and instill order are rebuffed.
Infertility often complicates the formation and interpersonal dynamics of the stepfamily. The want-to-be parent is struggling to have a child and undergoing a rigorous and unpleasant treatment protocol. The stress experienced is usually significant while they are at the same time, trying to adjust to their role as stepparent. A stepparent challenged by fertility issues often feels like the odd person out as he/she is trying to achieve something that the others in the household already have with each other, and that is a parent-child bond.
The want-to-be parent can mistakenly attempt to step into the role of parent where they are not wanted. These children already have a mother or, as the case may be, a father and are often not the least bit interested in adding another parent to the mix. Their parental support system of mother and father is not the same. What was comfortable and known has shifted and, from their perspective, not necessarily for the better. Children are fearful of change and many want their family of origin back despite the obvious difficulties. Unfortunately, parents are often preoccupied with their own adjustment to their new circumstances and inadvertently neglect or dismiss the children’s emotional needs. The child’s behavior is, more often than not, misinterpreted as oppositional instead of a reflection of their apprehension about the changes in the family dynamics. It is important to realize that the children are not usually being deliberately vindictive but are just responding to their feelings of loss for what was.
Despite understanding this on an intellectual level the want-to-be parent is faced with a dilemma. Rejection by the children of what they very much want, parenting rights, is difficult to bear. What needs to be understood and fully grasped though painful, is that these children are bonded with their parents of origin. They need to trust and believe that the stepparent is not there as a replacement parent. Owning one’s role as stepparent and effectively working out what that means will be invaluable to the health and welfare of this newly formed family unit.
The ages of the children when the stepparent enters the family are strong determinants of the family’s adjustment. Very young children often will adapt to their new circumstances more quickly than an emerging adolescent. The older the child the more difficult the adjustment and the longer it might take for all the family members to find their rightful place with respect to one another. Adolescents can be particularly unwelcoming, as they are often experiencing their own emotional growing pains. The added demands made on them to relate to their parent’s new spouse are often tough for them to handle. Time and patience are virtues that will go a long way in ultimately forming a healthy stepfamily.
It should not be surprising that the desire of the parent and stepparent to have a child together is experienced as a threat to the children that exist. They see themselves as being replaced and are afraid of what this will once again do to disrupt their lives and position in the family. They may be reluctant to share their parent's love. A new baby can create more uncertainty and that is worrisome for these children.
As stepparents struggle with their new and undefined roles, they may have the tendency to walk on eggshells with their stepchildren, not quite understanding why the children are not more welcoming. They fail to recognize the fact that since these children already have a mother/father with whom they are bonded, they may feel disloyal to their ‘left’ parent and deliberately avoid over-engaging with their stepparent in an effort to lessen their guilt. There are instances where a child might feel responsible for the abandoned parent and resent the other parent for leaving them with such an enormous emotional burden.
Stepparents also might feel intruded upon when the children come to visit, as both the child and the stepparent can be vying for the attention of the parent. The biological parent can feel pulled in a number of directions trying to please their partner on the one hand and their children on the other.
Creating a healthy stepfamily is a challenge that once acknowledged can be worked through. Open and ongoing discussion of feelings and concerns can result in respect and understanding of the various perspectives of the individual step family members, allowing reasonable expectations regarding the various roles in a stepfamily to develop. With patience, fortitude, and loving care on the part of the stepparent and parent, a happy and healthy stepfamily can be forged, a family whose members will welcome and embrace a new addition with love and open arms.
Elaine Gordon, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with a specialty in infertility, child development, reproductive medicine, and third party family building. Her clinical work involves individual therapy, group process for couples and individuals, medical staff training and third party consultation and evaluation. Her involvement with egg donation and surrogacy programs has stimulated interest in issues surrounding secrecy, disclosure and anonymity in third party arrangements. As an outgrowth of her work she has become increasingly concerned about the ethical and moral dilemmas involved in reproductive medicine. Dr. Gordon is the author of the newly released and revised “Mommy, Did I Grow in Your Tummy? Where Many Babies Come From”, a children’s book dedicated to explaining a child’s unique reproductive beginnings.