Did you hear the one about the stepmother who was so adored by her stepchildren that they cried when they had to go home? Or was beseeched by her stepchildren to read them just one more bedtime story, or to let them help her choose an outfit for an evening out with their treasured father? Sounds implausible, doesn’t it? Yet it seems the reputation of her equally far-fetched counterpart – the wicked stepmother, riddled with jealousy of her stepchildren and prone to committing vile acts upon them – remains strong.
Dr Wednesday Martin naively told herself that her story would have the true fairytale ending when she agreed to marry her partner, Joel, who had two daughters, Alexandra and Katherine, then aged 15 and 11. “I had my head placed firmly in the sand,” she says. “I wanted this thing to work and I was going to ignore everything in order to make that happen. When friends warned me of the potential pitfalls or I came across a negative article, I just ignored it. I was nice, I was fun. Step-hell was for stepmonsters and I wasn’t going there.”
The reality was somewhat different. It took years of trial and error to find some kind of balance and, even then, a supposedly joyous event such as shopping for a wedding dress or the birth of her two sons, Eliott and Lyle, could turn up the heat on the family melting pot and send emotions bubbling over. “The truth is no one wants a stepmother and no one wants to be one either,” says Wednesday. “But there are ways to make it work.”
Wednesday’s first action was to turn to self-help books for advice, but she was not impressed. Either they were too stuffy and academic, or didn’t reflect the reality of her experience. “I felt that we owed stepmothers more than that,” she says. So she wrote her own, Stepmonster: A New Look At Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel And Act The Way We Do (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which draws on her 13 years of experience in the role, as well as scores of brutally honest interviews with other stepfamilies, currently the fastest-growing family type in the UK, with a third of us being part of one in some way.
As a writer and social researcher, Wednesday discovered that most stepmothers share a common misconception – that the conflict was their fault, and therefore their problem to resolve. “Women are expected to win over their partner’s children, to love them like their own, and to keep on trying if this doesn’t happen,” she says.
Fiction also has a lot to answer for when it comes to assumptions about modern stepmothers. The stereotype of the second wife deviously plotting to do away with her pesky stepchildren so she can have their father to herself, or seeing them as a threat to her own biological family’s success, is as old as time. From the Brothers Grimm tales to Disney fables, these women are portrayed as cruel and uncaring, while it’s hard to think of many fictional stepfathers drawn in the same way. Indeed, society often views them as heroic, selflessly taking on the helpless single or widowed mother and her brood.
With such dire expectations attached to a new role, it’s no surprise that many woman feel under pressure to make their new partner’s children like them – and feel like it’s their fault if they don’t. “The need for approval runs deep in women – especially in matters of children – and can be hard to buck,” says Wednesday. “But I’ve found that those who make it with their personalities and self-respect intact are very good at negotiating with their own hopes and ignoring the opinions of the ill-informed.”
So a stepmother needs to start by giving herself a break. “Don’t beat yourself up if your stepchildren don’t accept you, or if you don’t automatically feel maternal towards them,” says Wednesday. “They don’t need you to feel like their mother – they already have one.” Focus on yourself for a change, too. “The experiences and emotions of the woman with stepchildren matter just as much as everyone else’s feelings,” she says, “But exploring the issue of how children can stress and threaten a marriage, rather than how a remarriage may affect a child, is a reframing many find unsettling.”
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.