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SAA Article and Research Findings About Stepmotherhood

Stepmotherhood: A collection of SAA’s best articles and research findings

Stepmotherhood: A collection of SAA’s best articles and research findings

Your Stepladder to Success
By Lynn Vale

Stepfamilies Quarterly, Fall 1992

The honeymoon is over. And now it’s just you and your spouse, and the stepchild who sits staring suspiciously at you across the breakfast table. Sometimes, as you attempt to merge "yours" and "mine" into "ours," the problems seem overwhelming. But, whether your stepchildren are resident or visiting, it is possible to ease this transition from strangers to family.

John Rosemond, a columnist who lives in Gastonia, North Carolina, identifies two types of stepfamilies: primary, in which the parent has primary custody of the children, and secondary, in which the children visit, but do not live with, the parent.

Is your stepchild a permanent member of your household? If so, try these five steps to stepfamily success.

1. Establish marriage as the center of the family

"The primary stepfamily faces a set of problems that are different from those faced by the traditional family," according to Rosemond, author of PARENT POWER. "The biggest hurdle involves the need to establish the marriage as the center of the family.

"The marriage must be the most important relationship in the family," he said. "Stepfamilies are no different from other families in this respect."

The child may complain about her central position being usurped, particularly if she and her biological parent and a close relationship when they were a single-parent family. However, she will eventually discover that her own sense of security, in fact, is strengthened when the marriage is strong.

2. Allow for differences while building your own family traditions

In trying to blend different backgrounds, histories, and lifestyles, conflicts will certainly arise.

Alice, whose 11-year-old stepdaughter, Tammy, has lived with her for the past two years, said, "I wish Tammy liked camping, hiking and picnicking. But she doesn’t. Tammy wishes I likes shopping and catching the latest movie releases. But I don’t. So we accept those differences and find our common ground elsewhere."

Alice and Tammy cook together, take long walks at sunset, and Alice has recently begun teaching Tammy how to operate her camera. While still maintaining their differences, Alice and Tammy are beginning to develop their own traditions and are building a history together.

A photo album is a great way to chronicle these new family traditions. Looking through our photo albums, my stepsons and I share memories of birthday parties, a very special trip to Texas, and seven years of putting the star on top of the Christmas tree.

3. Hold family meetings

Children need a chance to vent their frustrations, to plan family entertainment and vacations, and to help find solutions to family problems. These meetings don’t have to be held at a specific place and time. When the atmosphere is relaxed and talk is easy, you can begin tossing ideas back and forth.

Linda Craven, author of STEPFAMILIES: NEW PATTERNS IN HARMONY, emphasizes the importance of these family meetings: "Many stepfamilies have regular meetings to discuss such things as curfews, chores, and allowances. Everyone gets a chance to say how he or she thinks things should be done. And everyone feels more cooperative for having worked out a plan together.

4. Send positive signals

Through words and actions, you can reach out to a stepchild. Maybe a kiss or hug isn’t acceptable at this time, but a hand on the shoulder can say, "I care about you." Praise will also make the child feel better about himself and will encourage him to do what you ask. Did he dart outside without slamming the door this time? Did he really study for that history test and bring his grade up to a B? Remember to praise him for it.

5. Don’t try to replace a biological parent

Just in case you forget that you’re not the "real" parent, your stepchild will remind you with the standard stepchild refrain: "I don’t have to mind you! You’re not my real Mother (Father)!"

You can be many things to your stepchild other than parent: authority figure, certainly; but also older friend, confidante, listener-to-tales, sharer-of-secrets. And sometimes, you can be just the person that child needs to talk to, when a parent simply won’t do.

Dr. Emily Visher, cofounder of the Stepfamily Association of America, and author of HOW TO WIN AS A STEPFAMILY, feels stepparents play a very special role in the lives of their stepchildren. "When children have permission to care about all the adults in their lives, it adds richness and variety to their existence. Each adult has something unique to give a child--whether it is a joyful sense of humor, the talent to tell a good bedtime story, or the ability to share the child’s delight in visiting the zoo. The more adults contributing to the child’s life, the more opportunities the child has to experience diversity."

Is your stepchild a visiting member of your household? Secondary stepfamilies, too, can take steps to assist them in their journey from strangers to a family.

1. Give the child a place of her own

Whether it’s a room of her own or simply a portion of the family bulletin board, the child needs to know that there is some space in the house that’s hers and hers alone.

Jim and Donna’s five-year-old daughter Jessica eagerly anticipates sharing her room with her nine-year-old half sister Marilyn on alternate weekends, during school holidays, and for a month in the summer. Even at this young age, Jessica understands that one drawer and a small portion of the closet in the room are not hers. They belong exclusively to Marilyn. And Marilyn knows that the clothes, books, and games which she leaves behind will be untouched when she returns.

2. Give responsibility

Donna realized the importance of making the visiting stepchild feel like part of the family. Is the child who’s spending every other weekend with you a guest or a resident? He really falls into neither category. Giving the child responsibilities will make him a contributing member of the household. Picking up after himself, helping with meal preparation and clean-up, and making his bed will send a clear message that he is at home and not a guest in a hotel. This will also benefit the other members of the family because the responsibility of cooking, cleaning, and caring for the household will be shared.

However, it is confusing for a child to live under two sets of rules. Much confusion can be eliminated if you have simple written chore and rule lists for the children to follow.

3. Establish the same age-appropriate rules for all the children

It is easy for a parent to be more lenient with the visiting biological child than with those children who live in the house full time. "After all," the parent rationalizes, "we have so little time together, I don’t want to spend it criticizing him."

If your husband’s resident daughter has to go to bed at 10 p.m. on weekends, is it fair for your visiting son to have the privilege of staying up until midnight? If your resident children have to make their beds and clean their rooms, is it fair for his visiting sons to be exempt from these duties? Whatever age-appropriate rules you establish for the children in your home, be consistent with all children--biological and step, visiting and resident.

4. Mentally prepare yourself for the child’s arrival

Donna said she’s found it useful before Marilyn’s arrival to use mental imagery. "I picture myself laughing with her, playing with her, enjoying our time together," she said. "Sometimes reality misses this mark, but more often than not, when I’ve envisioned a great weekend, we have a great weekend."

What problems recur whenever your stepchildren come to visit? With resident children, as one harried stepmother explained, "when you’re in the midst of family problems, there is not much time for reflection. "With visiting children, you have the advantage of time between visits to find objective solutions to recurring problems." Reprinted from Stepfamily Bulletin, Fall 1988.

Step Motherhood: A Collection of SAA’s best articles and research findings

My Stepson’s Shoes
By Reece Burka, Ph.D.

Stepfamilies Quarterly, Winter 1995

My stepson, Sam, had a pair of old, tattered deck shoes that he used to deposit in various locations around the house. I would find them in the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom, or just about any place except his bedroom. His behavior represented one of those eternal teenage mysteries that forever baffles parents. All my efforts to convince Sam that his behavior was inconsiderate and irresponsible had no apparent effect. Whenever he had a notion to go barefoot, he would slip out of the shoes and they would remain a source of irritation until Sam could be cajoled or coerced into removing them (or they were dumped in his room by his mother or me).

This behavior was not endearing. It frustrated my sense of order and authority. When I was his age the idea of offending my father was inconceivable; yet Sam seemed to treat my distress over his shoes as a silly bother. As his stepfather my word did not inspire the awe, the reverence, and the gratitude that I believed sons should have for their parents. Even my training as a psychologist was of little use in maintaining a reasonable perspective when my paternal ego felt threatened. As my wife was fond of saying, I was supposed to be "the adult." Yet all I could do was to recite the serenity prayer and try to keep such minor irritations from escalating into major power struggles where I became "the mean stepfather."

Then one day I found Sam’s shoes were in a new resting place--the back door steps. I waited a while to see if they would be picked up (they weren’t). So I began my campaign to restore order and respect. As usual, hints, requests, and demands all met with the same fate: the typical teenage blowoff (statements of good intentions; no follow through). After repeated failure to motivate him to do the right thing, it was left to me to either give up or get creative. Being nothing if not persistent, I shifted to a "right brain" stance to view the dynamic from a broader perspective than my simple need to remove the source of irritation and to get Sam to act in accordance with my patriarchal sense of the appropriate. Using my imagination, I pictured the interaction between Sam and me as a kind of dance where he provoked and I nagged in a parent-teen duo. In this context, the shoes functioned as an invitation to do our funny little circular two-step. Seeing the interaction in this way I was able to laugh at my role as the paternal fuddy-duddy in a 90s situation comedy. I was also able to see a way out of the double bind of being either the nagging parent or the silent martyr. My solution was to write Sam the following note:

Dear Sam:

The only reason I cam imagine

that your shoes are still on the

back steps is that you must want

me to nag you. . .



I included with this note a small cartoon of myself smiling and pointing to a pair of shoes. Within 24 hours of posting the note on his bathroom mirror, the shoes were back in his room.

The note took care of my problems with Sam and his shoes for a while. In fact, it recurred only once more. The setting was a vacation home in North Carolina that my parents rented every summer. Each year we would spend a week relaxing with them in the mountains. This particular year Sam came with his college sweetheart, Melanie, and a good time was had by all. By now Sam was on his way to becoming a mature young man and our parent-teen power struggles seemed a thing of the past.

Sam’s deck shoes resurfaced after he and Melanie had packed up and started their return trip to New England. I found the shoes at the back entrance to the house when I was cleaning up in preparation for our leaving. This time I kept my sense of humor and I had a notion that I might turn the situation to advantage. Without knowing what I would ultimately do with them, I wrapped the shoes in a plastic bag and threw them in the trunk with the rest of our luggage. When I got home, I stored the shoes in the back of my closet and waited for an inspiration.

As Christmas approached I remembered the shoes and I had an idea how to use them. In our family it’s not unusual to include gag gifts along with other presents. Since Sam had indicated that cash was the most desirable gift, I put fifty dollars in an envelope and shoved the envelope into one of his old shoes. I put the shoes in a box which I elaborately wrapped and placed under the tree. Then I waited for Christmas morning with sweet anticipation.

I was not disappointed. When he opened his present, Sam’s initial look of bafflement became one of bemused delight when he found the fifty dollars hidden in one of the shoes. He was a good sport who appreciated the joke as well as the money; and he was not shy about telling our assembled guests about the history of our interactions around the shoes.

In the year following that Christmas I got a strange looking Father’s Day card from Sam that had a picture of a man and a boy each with a shoe on his head. On the inside of the card I found the following note:

Dear Reece,

Although I may not always seem like it, I have been proud and glad to have you in my life for the last nine years and I look forward to many more to come. I’ve given some thoughts to our personality clashes and this card inspired one solution to a recent one. It would definitely be the last time I leave my shoes outside! Anyway, a very happy Father’s Day!




Now, every once in a while I receive some unusual gift from Sam which recalls the way we turned a parent-teen power struggle into an occasion for playful humor and psychological growth on my part as well as his. I just have to be careful not to throw away old clothes when he’s around (turnabout is fair play!).

Reece Burka, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist at Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans, a former SAA board member and a current professional affiliate member of SAA.

These materials were provided to Flying Solo® by Stepfamily Association of American, Inc. To find out more about SSA Membership, articles, and products, you can contact SSA in the following ways:

By e-mail --
By telephone – (402) 477-STEP (7837)
By facsimile – (402) 477-8317

By mail –
Stepfamily Association of America
215 Centennial Mall South,
Suite 212
Lincoln, Nebraska 68508

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