Co-parenting with the stepmother of our children can be a bigger challenge than co-parenting with our ex-husband. A Stepmother can have a way of overstepping her boundaries whether she realizes it or not.
Whether she is “the other woman” who was involved with your ex-husband before your divorce, or the “new woman” who has entered the life of your children after your divorce, dealing with stepmother boundaries can be a challenge.
As moms, sometimes we view the stepmother much like we view the ugly, mean, heartless stepmother of Cinderella. The only trouble is, often our children’s stepmother is usually not physically an old crag, and may be more like eye candy for your ex-husband. And she may be trying her best to impress children and new hubby alike. Just the same, almost all cultures have a “wicked stepmother” story. (That may be unfair, but just saying!)
Some stepmoms flagrantly overstep their boundaries either by trying to replace us or by trying to convince their new husband about what a good choice he made. Others simply view our children as a nuisance … who “get in the way” of what she really wants … their dad.
Often the difficulty divorce causes for our children is more devastating to us as mothers than the trouble our divorce is causing us as women. Children are precious and can be fragile, but they are also resilient and strong, and it’s important that we reinforce that.
If your children are young …
The stepmother will most likely be playing a bigger part in the lives of your children than you want. The biological mother/child bond is precious, and we are very protective of that relationship.
One of the women who came to Midlife Divorce Recovery for help talked about opening up her pre-teen daughter’s suitcase, after a weekend with her father and her new stepmother, to find some beautifully wrapped cookies that the stepmother had baked for her with a note that said something like, “I miss you already!”
The mother was furious and immediately put the beautiful treats unceremoniously down the disposal before her daughter could see them! I’m not condoning that action, but I am confirming that most mothers in that situation might want to do that very thing!
If your children are older …
The stepmother may be closer to your children’s age than to your age. In that case, she can become:
- The “cool” confidant
- The young, healthy running companion
- The skinny “friend” who likes the same music our children do … making us feel old, discarded and useless, but more importantly, threatened that we are losing our connection as mother to our children.
Early on, I struggled every time I sent my then teenage son to his dad’s house for his specified time. If there had been a stepmother there at the time, it would have been worse.
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Types of Overstepping
Talking Negatively About You
Talking badly about the other parent is common in divorce. It’s hurtful to the children, but it’s common. But it’s just as bad if the stepmother talks negatively about us in front of our children, or worse, talks badly about us to the children directly.
When children hear their stepmother badmouth us, it feels traitorous not to stand up and say something in our defense. The children may feel hesitant to stand up for us because they are trying to keep the peace between you and their dad or between the stepmother and their dad. It puts them in a very uncomfortable, confusing position.
If the stepmother is badmouthing us, it’s not only hurtful to our relationship with our child, but it’s infuriating! We can’t defend ourselves when it happens, and It usually makes us furious at both the stepmother and our ex-husband, too. And the children are given one more difficult situation to navigate.
By the way, the children’s father should be the one to nip the stepmother’s badmouthing in the bud!
Badmouthing Choices or Traditions
Another kind of badmouthing that is confusing to our children is when the stepmother criticizes our traditions or other sensitive choices like religion, Often, as mothers, we are trying to maintain spiritual and holiday traditions in the midst of this mess, while the stepmother sometimes demeans, makes fun of or discounts those traditions.
Again, the children’s father should not allow the stepmother to undermine what you are trying to instill as the children’s mother.
Breaking Parenting Rules
Most states mandate co-parenting classes for divorcing parents. One of the most difficult areas of co-parenting (including step-parents) is maintaining parenting rules. The primary parents should be the rule-setters for the children. The stepmother (or stepfather) should back up the rules set by the primary parents.
Trouble often shows up when the stepmother has her own children and has different ideas about parenting. There should be serious conversations about “house” rules that are applied equally to all children in the blended family.
Pre-teens and teens are, by design, usually pushing the boundaries of discipline. Even without divorce and stepmothers involved, there are challenges when children this age are becoming more independent and more outspoken about family rules and discipline.
But setting strong, reasonable boundaries is important during divorce and especially when step-parents are involved. Normal kids complain about rules, stepmothers or not, and that’s okay. But they desperately need the security of definite, clear boundaries for behavior when so much of their lives is swirling around, out of their control.
Giving children of all ages secure boundaries that are discussed and consistently enforced, makes them feel more secure and more loved. When we become so busy and overwhelmed about our own lives, sometimes we think we are making it easier for children to be more relaxed about the rules. We are not.
Keep in mind, though, that we also need to be flexible. For instance, a teenager’s time for bed is set for 10:00 pm. At 10:00pm he or she may be really upset or worried about something and just needs to let off some steam shooting baskets in the driveway. Teenagers may just need to be allowed to communicate with a friend outside of the determined hours. Be sensitive to kids’ needs and allow for some flexibility in situations like that.
Trying to Replace You
Let me be clear. Your children’s stepmother will never replace you! You are your children’s biological mother. That will never change. It is wrong for a stepmother to somehow try to replace you in your children’s lives. She is there to support their dad and be available for your children within the boundaries of that new role.
Sometimes she is also mothering her own children who may also now be in the family, and that compounds the possibility of favoritism or caring for some children differently than others. It’s definitely a fine line to walk.
What To Do About It
The best thing we can do for our children after divorce and especially when a stepmother comes into the picture, is to get better ourselves.
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We need to be getting stronger physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually, and in every way we can. We need to make our children’s time with us “normal” and the best it can possibly be. We cannot control anything that goes on in our ex-husband’s house (unless, of course, you fear for their safety!).
- Don’t ask too many questions about the stepmom or their dad.
- Don’t press your children to talk about their time away, but let them know you’re available if they want to talk.
- Don’t get enraged or sad when your children talk about things that happened at their dad’s house with the stepmom. Ask instead, “How did that make you feel?” Then talk about that.
- Maintain your own boundaries and rules when the children are at your house.
- Focus on teaching them the powerful lessons of resilience during this challenging time.
- Let them know that you are okay … that they don’t have to protect you or be your support system.
- Be confident, joyful and excited about life, and that will rub off on your children.
- Let them know you are all in this together and you will get through this.
Remember, co-parenting with your ex-husband and the stepmother is not a competition. It is a team effort with the goal of providing the most secure, stable, functional families for your children possible.
Talk To Her
Sometimes, it is helpful to have a face-to-face (or phone) conversation with the stepmom, as difficult as that might be, especially if she is the “other woman” who you feel had a part in destroying your family. Maybe writing a letter could be helpful.
Don’t immediately think of her as an adversary. She may have children of her own, and she may be trying to do the best she can in a very difficult situation, just like you are.
Make clear your desire to work together for the best for the kids. Discuss any areas of conflict calmly and reasonably. (Difficult, I know.)
Talk To Your Ex-Husband
Having a frank conversation with your ex-husband about the welfare of your children is something that should happen early on. Be clear about your expectations, and listen to what he is concerned about. I know it is a difficult situation, but remember, that your top priority is what is best for your children.
Make sure that you provide the kind of environment, so that when your children are at your house, they feel safe, secure, loved and happy. You can’t control what happens at your ex’s house, or what your children’s stepmother is doing, but you can control what happens at your house. Make it good!
Try our Parenting Through Divorce program, developed by an older child of divorce. Grady, my youngest son interviewed several of his 30-something friends about what they were thinking and needing during their own parents’ divorce. It can give you some new insight straight from someone who was a teenager during our divorce. You can try the first installment free.
Stepmothers aren’t usually “the enemy.” But we have to provide the best environment possible for our children (and their friends) when they are with us. No one can destroy our biological bond with them. The best thing we can do is make their time with us good and fun and nurturing in every way we possibly can. To make that happen, we have to get better ourselves after our divorce. We can help. You can get started today with the free Crash Course.
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