At the conclusion of a lecture I gave on the subject of motherhood, a woman from the audience raised her hand and said, “I’m a stepmother. Anything you could say on the subject would be helpful,” she responded. “Just tell me three things.”

“First of all,” I said, “it’s very hard to be a stepmother.” (Lots of affirming nods.) “Second, it’s really, really difficult.” (More nods.) “And finally, it’s much harder than anyone could possible anticipate at the time you decide to marry a guy who just happens to have children in a package deal.”

The audience laughed, and the woman who asked the question seemed genuinely appreciative of my stating (and restating) the obvious about her situation. The difficulty of being a stepmother can hardly be overstated. There are no easy answers to the enormously complex dilemmas that stepmothers face, and you have no way of knowing up front what you’re getting into.

Stepfamilies are complex on every front: historically, emotionally, logistically, structurally, financially, and practically. The potential for competition, jealousy, loyalty conflicts, and the creation of “outsiders” and enemies within and between households is built into the system. If you have a fantasy that all the children and adults will quickly blend right in and feel comfortable and affirmed in your new stepfamily, let it go. More likely they will feel put through the blender.

Even the term stepmother is loaded with false assumptions. The word step is derived from the word orphan, so right up front the label stepmother implies something less than optimal, as our time-honored fairy tales illustrate so well. But the real problem with the word stepmother is the “mother” part. Nobody can walk into a family that has a history of its own that did not include her and become an instant mother. The role of mother—any kind of mother—cannot be automatically conferred on a woman when she marries a man with children. Can you recognize the absurdity of such an expectation? And if he has children that come along with him, the whole world will expect his new wife to take care of them, along with your own if you have any, because this is “what women do.”

A Stepfamily in Action

Amy was thirty-three years old when she and her husband, Joe, divorced. They worked out a flexible coparenting arrangement for their eight-year-old son, Jake, who divided his time pretty evenly between them. Amy was a warm, energetic parent who had a deep appreciation of the importance of family connections in her son’s life. She deserved a gold medal for fostering every thread of connection between Jake and Joe’s family, even though she felt criticized by her ex-in-laws, who blamed her for the divorce.

Amy was a free-spirited mother who acted spontaneously, rarely planning ahead. “I’m loosely organized,” she’d say of herself, and indeed, she was. For example, she’d be driving Jake home at dinnertime and suddenly remember that there was no food in the house. They would pick up hamburgers and fries at the nearest drive-through and eat dinner in front of the television while having a contest to see who could belch the loudest. They adored each other. Amy expressed insecurity about her parenting, but she and Jake were both doing just fine.

Several years post divorce, Amy surprised herself by falling in love with Victoria, a friend from the past whom she reconnected with at a college reunion. Her relationship with Victoria grew to be the most intimate she had ever known, and both women felt that they had found in the other their true life partner. While Victoria had her own apartment, Jake was affectionate and warm toward her, and everyone got along well. The trouble began when Jake was twelve and Victoria moved into Amy’s house.

Victoria quickly discovered that Amy’s “looseness” bothered her, and she met only token resistance from Amy when she imposed her own rules on the household. Fast food was out. Jake was to pick everything up from the floor of his room at night and make his bed every morning before going to school. There was a longer list.

Victoria was five years Amy’s senior. She had just launched her college-age daughter, Alice, and she had strong opinions about how a family should function. By her own report, she was something of a control freak. As I worked with the couple in therapy, I learned that Amy accommodated Victoria for several reasons:

First, there had been so much fighting in her first marriage to Joe that she preferred walking on eggshells with her new mate to risking open conflict. Amy was so desperate for this relationship to work that she swept her feelings under the rug, even though she knew that this “solution” only created more problems in the long run.

Second, Amy wasn’t confident in her own mothering, despite the fact that she had raised Jake for almost four years following the divorce and he had flourished by any standard. “I’m not good at the ‘take charge’ aspects of parenting,” Amy explained. “Victoria is better than I am at setting rules and consequences. She’s more of an authority figure.” It didn’t occur to Amy that she could learn to do these things, to the extent that she now saw them as important. Instead of considering Victoria’s good ideas and putting some of them into practice while staying central in the decision-making process, Amy totally deferred to her.

Third, Amy understandably wanted to battle homophobia in all its manifestations, starting on the home front. In her zeal to support Victoria’s status as a bona fide stepmother, Amy would say to Jake, “You have to listen to Victoria’s rules. We are a family and she’s your stepmother. You should feel lucky to have two mothers.”

Of course, Jake didn’t feel especially lucky. The divorce had been a temporary crisis in his life, as divorce always is. It had taken him and his mom time to settle into a new routine, and it took him time to figure out how to be part of a two-household family. Nineteen months after the divorce, his dad had gotten remarried to a woman with two children of her own, causing more change and disruption in Jake’s life. Now another new adult had entered the scene, dramatically altering his relationship with his mom, whom he no longer had to himself. Worst of all, this new person was acting like she was a better mother than his real one, and his real mother was abdicating her job, which Jake experienced as an abandonment. Feeling lucky was not exactly Jake’s experience.

“You’re Not My Mother!”

The more Victoria moved toward the emotional center of family life, the more Jake rejected her. “I don’t want you to come to the school picnic!” he’d insist. “You’re not my mother!” Amy and Victoria saw this as rude behavior, which they would punish, or they heard it as a homophobic response and would try to educate him on the subject of discrimination against lesbians and gays.

But homophobia, although undeniably a big problem in the world we live in, wasn’t the problem for Jake. The biggest problem was that Amy had relinquished the daily responsibility of parenting him and that Victoria was attempting to enforce new rules and discipline. It was a blueprint for failure, and Jake and Victoria were increasingly at odds.

When I first saw this couple in therapy, Jake’s grades had dropped from mostly A’s and B’s to mostly C’s. Amy, caught in the middle of angry struggles between Jake and Victoria, was depressed, tied up in knots, and terrified that Victoria would end up leaving. Victoria was trying hard to make things work. She had moved in with Amy with such different expectations. Now she felt stressed out, overwhelmed, unheard, and unappreciated, and she didn’t know what had gone wrong.

There were other problems as well. Victoria’s daughter announced that she wouldn’t be coming home from college during spring break because she didn’t have a room in her mother’s new home with Amy, and she didn’t want to sleep on the couch. Furthermore, Jake complained to his dad that Victoria bossed him around, and Joe’s wife began criticizing Victoria to anyone who would listen, making reference to “that lesbian lifestyle. Amy needed to address such unacceptable communications directly with her ex, but she avoided hard conversations with him. Instead, Amy and Victoria forbade Jake to talk about Victoria in his dad’s house. This heightened Jake’s anxiety as he felt muzzled and constrained to “watch himself” in his other home.

Victoria also felt increasingly resentful that she had so little time alone with Amy that didn’t revolve around Jake or some family problem. “Who do you love more, me or Jake?” she’d demand of Amy. Her own mothering years with a child under her roof were far behind her, and she was frustrated that Amy was not available enough. It’s not unusual for a stepmother to feel jealous of the bond between parent and child, which pre-dates the new couple bond and has a significant history of its own before she enters the picture. Also, it’s difficult for the new couple to get the time they need to be together, given the needs of kids and the relational challenges everyone is facing. Victoria knew the question “Who do you love more?” was unfair, since the love and responsibility a parent feels toward a child can never be compared to what one feels for a partner, but chronic stress doesn’t bring out the maturity in any of us.

Welcome to a typical first year of stepfamily life! As I said to the woman in the audience who asked me to comment on stepmothering, it’s much harder than any of us would imagine.

So What to Do?

It was crucial that Victoria get out of the “wicked stepmother” role and that Amy support her in this process. To this end, Amy needed to be in charge of her own son, which meant making the primary decisions along with Jake’s dad about how he would be raised, being in charge of enforcing the rules, and ensuring that Jake treat Victoria with courtesy and respect. When the threesome first became a stepfamily, Amy did a great job of telling Jake that “Victoria will never replace your dad.” The part she left out was that “Victoria will never replace me.” Kids need to hear both messages loud and clear if they are ever going to truly accept a new adult on the scene.

Victoria and Amy were also trying much too hard to create a cohesive new family. The research suggests that it takes about three to five years for a remarried family to find some integration and stability. As Betty Carter explains, it takes a long time before a stepmother can graduate from being a total stranger, to dad’s (or in this case, mom’s) new partner, to the child’s friend, and then (with some luck) to the position of a loved adult or parentlike figure. If the new partner comes along with a teenager (Jake was almost thirteen when Victoria moved in), a strong emotional bond may never develop, which is totally normal.

Because Amy, Victoria, and Jake were all in so much distress, both women were ready to change their part of the problem. Amy once again took charge of raising her son, and she learned to set rules and enforce them. Victoria had the more difficult job of taking a backseat and lightening up about how different Amy’s parenting style was from her own. It was extremely hard for her to move to the periphery as she watched Amy struggle to get a little more order and structure in Jake’s life. It was also hard for Amy to assert her authority as Jake’s mother when Victoria became controlling. With practice, Amy learned to say something like this: “Victoria, you have wonderful ideas about parenting and I want to hear them. But it’s not helpful when you criticize me or tell me what to do. And there are some things we simply see differently. I need to raise Jake in a way that makes sense to me, even if I make mistakes.”

Both women were ultimately empowered by the changes they made. They were motivated by knowing that they couldn’t continue in the old way and still stay ambulatory. In our final therapy session, Victoria said, “If things hadn’t improved, I was going to write a book called Steptales from the Crypt.” I assured her it certainly would have been a bestseller.

I also encouraged Victoria to reach out more to her daughter, Alice, who was distancing with a vengeance in response to feeling shut out of her mother’s new life just at the time that she herself had left home. Working to stay connected to Alice helped Victoria to focus less on Jake. At the termination of therapy, Victoria and Amy had purchased a house together a few blocks down from their old one. It was larger and had an extra room that Victoria decorated with Alice’s things, so that her daughter knew she had a place in the family. Buying a new house also put Victoria and Amy on a more solid and equal footing as their new family continued to evolve.

His Remarriage, Her Remarriage

One advantage Amy and Victoria had going for them in becoming a stepfamily was being a lesbian couple. I know this may sound absurd, given that they were faced endless discrimination and enforced invisibility. But Amy, being a woman, knew what I was talking about when I challenged her to get back in charge of Jake. A father, in contrast, might have given me fifty-two reasons why it simply wasn’t possible for him to assume the hands-on job of parenting, and his new wife would probably have agreed that it was only practical for her to take over. As Betty Carter points out, a typical heterosexual couple about to re-tie the knot is probably thinking along the following gendered lines:

He says to himself, “Great! I’m getting married again! My kids will have a mother now, and we’ll be a real family again!” (Translation: I’ll earn, she’ll raise my kids, and we’ll look like a traditional nuclear family again.) Or, even worse, he says to himself, “Great! My kids will have a good mother now, who will be much better at raising them than that narcissist I’m divorced from!”

She says to herself, “Great, I’m getting married again! Now I’ll have someone to support me and my kids, since we can hardly make it on the child support I get from their father. I’ll raise his girls since his work keeps him so busy and my schedule is flexible. Plus, he obviously doesn’t have a clue about disciplining them. And the poor little darlings have never had a mother who put them first, so maybe if I just try hard enough I can give them what they need and make up for all they’ve missed.”

As Carter points out, the old gender expectations often lurk at the heart of the problem. He’s expected to fulfill his financial obligations to his first family and to keep the new one afloat as well, even if his new wife’s children receive inadequate child support from their father. She’s expected to become an instant stepmother (just add kids and stir) and attend to the emotional needs of the new family. No one tells her that you can’t simply take over parenting functions for children who are not your own.

Men need to know that turning the children over to the “woman of the house” is the surest way to keep his new wife in a “wicked stepmother” role. The more she tries to become some kind of instant mother, the more resistance she will get from her stepchildren and their natural mother. And as he distances into work—and avoids hard conversations with both women—the ground is fertile for mother and stepmother to begin to blame each other. Next, the kid is caught between two women who are parenting with a hostile or competitive edge. The stepmother provides an on-the-scene target for a distressed child who is acting up, while the man, caught between the competing demands of new partner and the mother of his children, hangs out on the periphery, just wishing everyone would get along. In this way, the “wicked stepmother” is born.

Advice for Stepmothers from the Pioneers

My mentors, the late Betty Carter and Monica McGoldrick were brilliant pioneers in the field of feminist family theory and therapy. Their research on re-married families, starting in the late seventies, still informs my clinical work and holds up well today. They suggest that therapists help parents in remarried families to keep the following in mind.

  1. Don’t assume that your stepchildren are looking for another mother. Carter and McGoldrick ask children at the end of family therapy to describe the kind of relationship they would like to have with their parent’s new wife or husband. Children express a wish for a friendly relationship of some sort, like an aunt or uncle, a basketball coach, or a special pal. Children rarely voice a wish for another parent. Their primary concern is how their actual parents are treating them and how they are treating each other. No one ever replaces a parent. Not even a dead or absent parent. Not even a parent who is in jail for grand larceny.
  2. Do challenge those old gender roles. Carter and McGoldrick’s prescription is to “parent and pay” according to biological and adoptive relationships with children and not according to gender roles. This means that Dad disciplines his daughter and assumes the daily, hands-on job of parenting, even when it seems simpler for his wife to do so. It means that the stepmother contributes to income production even though her earning power may be far less than his.
  3. Don’t push for closeness. Forget your well-intentioned plans to form one big happy family, family dinners and all. It takes time. Carter notes that teens are especially confused by demands that they deal with new family members, because they’re trying to separate from the family they already have. Eldest daughters are protective of their mothers and also may enjoy a special position of caretaker with their divorced dads; anyone stepping into a family that includes his teenage daughter should reduce her expectations for closeness to near zero since elder daughters are their mother’s loyal torchbearers and thus become the stepmother’s greatest provocateur.

McGoldrick puts it this way: If your stepkids are young, or if you’re very lucky, you may develop a parentlike relationship over time. If you do work out an emotionally close relationship with your stepchildren, that’s wonderful, but it’s an extra—not a given and not something to be expected. All that should be expected is that stepmothers and stepchildren treat each other with courtesy, decency, and respect. It’s the parent (not the stepparent) who has the primary responsibility to see that this expectation is enforced.

A Challenge for Therapists

A recent incident reminded me of how easy it is to slip into old gender roles, and expect too little from fathers. I was seeing a couple who were having family problems partly because the husband’s business took him out of town on weekdays. His wife of one year, Lupita, was left on the scene with his three boys (her stepchildren), who always acted up around bedtime. When the husband insisted that he couldn’t possibly take charge of bedtime because he was away so much, I found myself reflexively nodding in agreement. Suddenly I recalled a comment I heard Betty Carter make to a father in a similar situation more than a decade ago: “Have you ever heard of the telephone?” she said in her disarming way. Jarred awake by this memory, I put the dad in charge of calling his boys every night he was on the road. His job was to find out how their day at school went, to let them know his expectations about bedtime, and to insist that they treat Lupita with respect and good manners when she reminded them it was time to fall into bed. All their family relationships improved remarkably when he rose to the occasion, and he felt better about it as well.

What if the complexities of being a stepmother feel too overwhelming? The solution here, McGoldrick quips, is to consider having a very long affair with this guy you love—one that continues until his youngest child is eighteen and out of the house—and then to marry or move back in with him. In some cases, I think that may be a wise idea. More to the point, it’s one more way of saying “It’s just so hard.”

A condensed version of this case example and more advice on re-married families can be found in Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and the Coupled Up.

Harriet Lerner

Harriet Lerner is one of the most respected voices on the psychology of women and marriage and family relationships. For three decades, she was a staff psychologist and psychotherapist at The Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, and a faculty member and supervisor in the Karl Menninger School of Psychiatry. Currently in private practice in Lawrence, Kansas, she is the author of numerous scholarly articles and 11 books, including the New York Times best-seller, The Dance of Anger, Women in Therapy, The Dance of Connection, and The Dance of Fear. Lerner has been a guest on Oprah, CNN, NPR and numerous other media. She is also, with her sister, an award-winning children’s book author, and she hosts a blog for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post. Lerner’s new book is Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and The Coupled Up.