Stepmothers get a terrible press — they’re the archetypal baddies of children’s literature, think Cinderella and Snow White. Introduced to a household by a broken-hearted widower to care for his motherless children, the fairytale wicked stepmothers instead cunningly plots their demise.
But now the tables have turned.
The fall of the nuclear family and the rise of modern ‘blended’ family units, as well as a shift in society’s attitude to children, have meant that today, real-life step-mothers tend to be more harassed than hazardous.
Also, with marital breakdown and re-marriage after divorce now on the rise, step-parents, especially stepmothers, are increasingly common in modern society.
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Between 1996 and 2011, the number of people who re-married following divorce or annulment increased from 6,641 to 42,960, a rise of 550%.
Men are more likely to remarry, with 39% of divorced men remarried, compared with only 28% of divorced women.
The likelihood of getting re-married after divorce increases with age for males and falls for females.
The number of men who re-marry following divorce rises from 39% at age 50 to 45% by age 65, compared to women, only 29% of whom are remarried by the age of 65.
Yet, though modern step-mothers are increasingly common, their role is often unclear.
“Years ago, blended families would occur when a spouse died and the mother or father married again, and the boundaries were very clearly defined,” says child and adolescent psychologist Dr Patrick Ryan.
“In the past, the stepmother… had a defined role in the home as the homemaker, but now she’s not coming in to become a mother. She wants to be with her partner as opposed to being there for a function.”
Meanwhile, children too have changed. “We’ve come from a society where children would be seen and not heard, into a culture where children are the centre of attention — there are children’s rights and children’s advocates, so there’s a shift in how society views children. Children are much more powerful today — that’s the reality.”
Also, children like consistency. “They don’t like change and they want their mum and dad to be together at almost any price,” says Ryan.
In this scenario, today’s confident, outspoken children are more likely to express hostility towards a woman they view as an interloper.
So, far from laying down the law, today’s stepmothers are more likely to be told “you’re not in charge of me”.
They can also find themselves in a household where arrangements are in a permanent state of flux.
“There is a continual reconfiguration in terms of expectations, attitudes, wishes and rules, of what is acceptable and what is not,” says, Ryan, warning that the sheer complexity of negotiating all of this can be “overwhelming”.
The only way of managing it, he says, is to negotiate the complex interconnecting roles and boundaries of everyone involved — the biological parents, the children and the new partner.
“Negotiation is about being really clear about boundaries — who is mother, who is father, what role is taken by the step- mother and what say the kids have,” he says.
“I think very few people can achieve it. It’s exhausting and very hard work.”
As a result of all of this, Ryan believes, far from being the omnipotent second wife of yore, today’s stepmother is probably “very gingerly walking on eggshells”.
A stepmother is often faced with a very difficult job, agrees Karen Kiernan, CEO of One Family.
Part of the problem, she says, can be a guilt-ridden biological dad who finds it difficult to enforce agreed rules and impose necessary discipline where ‘first-family’ children are concerned.
He may have divided loyalty between this new partner and his first-family children, she explains, and this can place a major strain on the relationship.
“Research shows a higher failure rate in second relationships where there are children from a first relationship: 65% of second relationships where there are children from a first relationships do not work,” says Kiernan, who believes second-marriage breakdown can be partly a result of “the stress of trying to make it all work”.
Step-mothers can feel quite overwhelmed by the complexities involved in second-family life, she warns.
“They may never had been a parent before for example, and yet end up with children to care for on a weekly basis.”
When Angela married her divorced lover — a high-level executive who frequently travelled abroad — and became stepmother to his two children, she expected fun-filled days out.
“Instead, I got hostility from the kids, and divided loyalties from their father,” she recalls.
Even when she and her new husband had their own babies, the ‘first-family’ children, who stayed with their mother and father on alternating weeks, always came first.
“The kids had the attitude of ‘you’re not the boss of me’.”
If they were staying with her while their father was away on business, they’d call him to dispute agreed rules that she’s tried to implement, and, she says “he’d contradict what I’d said”.
It was guilt at work, she realises now.
“Any time their father spent with me always had to be carefully balanced by time spent with them and that puts step-kids on a level with the adult. Our children and I only got attention when the first children weren’t there — it was like a week-on/week-off marriage and it was as if our family were week-on/week-off as well. It wasn’t much fun at all.”
The marriage lasted nearly 20 years, but eventually broke up, she says, partly due to the sheer stress of coping in a second-family situation where her husband didn’t cope well with parenting his first-family children.
“I wouldn’t get involved with step children again, not in a fit.
“There’s no way I’d take it on again,” she says, adding that while she now has an excellent relationship with her adult step-children, “it was very challenging and very difficult at the beginning, and this had a lot of do with how their father managed their parenting.
“Unless the parents handle the situation well, it can cause untold trouble — it’s really up to them to set limits, but when they feel guilty about the break-up of their first relationship, it tends to disempower the parent who has a new partner.”
“Being a step-parent can be quite a lonely place. I think a lot of people go into these relationships expecting to be loved by the kids and this will not often happen. It can be quite a miserable experience for a while.
“It takes a lot of gravel and grit and letting go to be a good step- parent.”
Children can cause trouble when a new partner enters their father’s life, says Ray Kelly founder and director of Unmarried and Separated Families of Ireland.
“It’s one of the major issues for families,” he says, adding that sometimes children see the new partner as a threat, either to themselves or their biological mother. This can be a great cause of loneliness for lone parents, he says.
“A man or woman may not ever enter a relationship for fear of upsetting their kids,” he warns.
“This is the number one issue for lone parents – children cannot accept their parents’ relationship is over and they cannot accept the possibility of a new relationship for a parent.”
An ex-partner can also cause trouble, he says, by letting it be known to a child that the other parent is ‘wrong’ to move on.
“I have great sympathy for step-parents, because they have so much to overcome,” he says.
“They’re trying to maintain a relationship with the new parent, trying to cope with the child and maybe trying to deal with an emotional ex-wife and the children’s resentment.
“We all seem to think that it’s the Brady bunch, that a blended family automatically works, but very often it is quite a difficult environment.”
Unmarried and Separated Parents of Ireland – www.usfi.ie or email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact 086 8879444
One Family: visit www.onefamily.ie or phone 6629212
John met his current partner some years following his separation.
Initially she got on very well with his young daughters, but after about a year, everything changed.
“My girlfriend and I noticed the girls’ attitude to her had suddenly changed.
They became cold and hostile, he recalls and refused to speak to her.
“They’d ignore her when she came to visit, whereas before they’d have jumped up when she came into a room and begged her to play with them.
“I suspect that when they stay with their mother she’s making comments about my girlfriend, but I don’t know.
“The girls’ behaviour has put great strain on our relationship — my partner now finds it very uncomfortable to be around them.
“My youngest daughter would ask how long she was going to be in the house and when she was leaving. I have given out to them for their rudeness, so now they’re polite and cold.
“For me, this has become the hardest part of the separation — I’ve found the person I want to be with but I cannot [be with her all the time], because my daughters have made it so unpleasant for her. She’s now only coming at night when they’ve gone to bed.”