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The myth of the wicked stepmother

She’s a villain as old as time – but modern families would benefit from banishing this stereotype to the realm of fairytales

Posted: 18 March 2014
by Alex Lloyd

Nice step mum
If you drop your expectations, it is possible to build a rewarding relationship with your stepchildren. (Illustration: Tiffany Lynch)

Key to this is not feeling guilty about wanting to spend time alone with your partner. Overwhelmingly child-centric parenting can have a negative effect on the parents’ relationship, and this is something that’s especially true of second marriages, which suffer from higher divorce rates and more complex pressures.

“The presence of children from a former relationship is the single greatest predictor of divorce, with rates 30 per cent higher than in first families,” says Wednesday, who had to battle with her husband to have a door put on their bedroom when she first moved in, to ensure some privacy from his daughters. “But if you can make it past three to five years, it can make you stronger as a couple, as divorce rates then become the lowest.”

Ironically, while this high drama plays itself out on the household stage, the man who is the key character in the whole plot – indeed, the reason for the story’s very existence – is often keen to stay well out of the spotlight. “Children with separated parents often wield huge power over their fathers, and this can make a new partner feel shut out,” says Wednesday. “It’s crucial to understand stepfamily architecture. At first, there’s an inside – your partner and his children – and you are on the outside. The bond a father has with his children post-divorce is usually especially tight. The key is to slowly transfer that intimacy and decision-making back to your adult relationship, without alienating the children.”

However, this can only take place if the man you love is willing to lead the way. “Divorced fathers are often at pains to make sure the time that they spend with their children is perfect,” says Wednesday. “I call them Disney daddies. They don’t want to admit to problems when they arise and many nurture a very powerful fantasy that when they find a new partner, it is going to fix everything.”

“Over time, you need to form a parenting coalition in your household,” she says. But, remember that this team will be different: the main authority needs to rest with the biological parent, yet it’s essential your partner backs you up and supports you when necessary, too.

There is, of course, one more crucial character in this tale – the birth mother. “Children are very sensitive,” says Wednesday. “They worry that if they like their father’s girlfriend, they are being disloyal to their mother. The most loving thing a mother can do is to release them from those loyalty binds and the torment they bring. It can be as simple as telling them, ‘You need to give Daddy’s girlfriend a chance. I hear she likes reading – maybe she’ll read you a bedtime story?’.”

If you can’t rely on your partner’s ex, he can still address the issue in your own household. “He should use phrases like, ‘You don’t have to love her or like her, you just have to be polite to her’,” advises Wednesday. “Once that has been said, the children can relax. Everyone knows where they stand and there is no expectation on them.”

Often the biggest challenge for stepfamilies is managing expectations. You can expect it to take as many years as the age of the child involved for the new family structure to establish itself, as younger children adjust more quickly to change. “Stepfamilies are not the same as first families and they never will be,” says Wednesday. “If you drop theidealism and let it develop organically, it can become a family that works for everyone involved.”

Wednesday advises doing “shoulder-to-shoulder” activities – such as baking and jigsaw puzzles – with your stepchildren as a way to bond without pressure. “Talking eye-to-eye over dinner can be intimidating,” she says. “I find stepfamily interaction works better one-on-one, where there is no anxiety about competing to see who the father loves best. Also be wary of rolling out the red carpet when stepchildren who don’t live with you come to stay. They should feel part of household life, not royal visitors, so carry on with your normal weekend activities.”

However difficult things may seem, give it time and accept that this is a long-term project. No relationship is forged overnight, so forget the fairytales. “I learned it the hard way and I’m still learning,” says Wednesday. “But against all odds, things have worked out better than fine for my husband and me, and for millions of other women. The role of stepmother can be satisfying and rewarding. I’m pleased to say my patience paid off and I now have a wonderful relationship with my stepdaughters.” So it seems you can get that happy ending, after all.

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