Ever since Cinderella endured years of ridicule, humiliation, slave labor and injustice at the hands of her stepmother, the very word “stepmother” conjures up images of a woman with long boney …
Ever since Cinderella endured years of ridicule, humiliation, slave labor and injustice at the hands of her stepmother, the very word “stepmother” conjures up images of a woman with long boney fingers, a sharp nose, bulging eyes, a pointed hat and a long foreboding black dress.
No wonder we commonly use derogatory adjectives to describe stepmothers — wicked, cruel, evil, diabolical. Are such awful depictions of stepmothers reflections of reality or are they nothing more than folklore and fantasy?
There is little question that the most difficult role in a remarried family is likely to be that of a stepmother. Often she is placed in the unfair position of taking over childcare responsibilities that ought to rest squarely on the shoulders of the father. Unfortunately, fathers all too often believe that it is the woman’s role to take care of the children — stepmother or not. This is sometimes compounded by the father expecting the stepmother to act as the “real” mother and then failing to give her the support that she needs.
At best, the children quickly learn not to respect this new woman in their lives. At worst, they abuse her, using her as an easy target in order to release pent up frustrations, resentments, and anger.
When children complain that a stepmother is not their real parent, they’re right. Nothing can make a child more angry and resentful than a stepmother trying to replace the biological mother. Loyalty conflicts abound and the stepmother is almost certain to lose. What works best is for the biological father to be in charge of his own children. This means that he should assume his moral and ethical role to be the child’s parent, especially when discipline is necessary. The stepmother is wise to ease slowly into the role of assistant parent. By being supportive of the biological father she can gradually begin to build worthwhile relationships with her stepchildren.
The best way to develop a relationship with stepchildren is to spend time alone with each child. At first this may mean just making suggestions of activities that you would be willing to share with your stepchildren such as shopping trips, attending sporting events, going to a theater or lunch at a favorite restaurant.
It’s very important not to push. Since most children grieve for three years after a divorce is finalized, pushing a child can cause adverse reactions, especially if the child is still hurting. When the child responds positively to an invitation, it’s best to keep the outing brief and causal.
Step by step over the process of time a good relationship can be built. Although the stepmother will never replace the biological mother, she can have a relationship with her stepchildren that is unique and extremely worthwhile.
No, stepmothers are not wicked, cruel, evil or. even diabolical. More often than not they are women who come into a child’s life during especially difficult times. Most stepmothers deserve nothing more than a fair chance. Over time, given the opportunity, stepchildren can come to appreciate and perhaps eventually love the person their father has chosen to marry.
Rob Coombs is a professor with a doctor of ministry degree and a doctor of philosophy with an emphasis in Family Systems.
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