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Overwhelmed Stepmom

QUESTION: I need help quickly. I probably have the hardest job of step-parenting then anybody. I am raising a step daughter, 9, my daughters from previous marriage 14, and 11, and have 3 children from this marriage, 10 months, 2 1/2 and 4. Also my step childrens' mother has been deceased for almost 4 years.

I am having problems with the 9 year old because she and I both are very jealous people. I try to do everything fairly and evenly. My husband says sometimes I don't when he's the one who treats her like she is a queen, sneaking her money on the side for no reason He gets very moody when she goes to visit her aunt (her mothers sister) though he never got along with his ex wife. He doesn't get along with my 2 daughters too well. It's ok for him to yell and punish my 2 year old but not OK for me to do it to his daughter. His son is no problem and never was.

His mother and brother always treat these two as something special. Which I feel is wrong. I could go on and on. My ex husband is still in the picture with my 2 daughters which my current husband doesn't like. It's not fair it they get something from their father because his daughter doesn't. But she has everybody else giving to her. He works the craziest hours in the world. But raising all they kids and nobody to talk to about my problems is very difficult.

I love all my children and my husband but need some type of help. So if you can suggest a good book that may help me deal with things the right way let me know. We have been together almost 7 years and pulled our selves out of a big hole. We have a beautiful home and the kids are not doing without. The only one doing without is myself. Everyone else gets everything they need. My nine month old is a handful himself. He never sleeps all night. He seems like he is insecure. As long as I pick him up and nurse him back to sleep he's ok. I'm lacking sleep therefore lacking patience. I am doing the job of staying home with my kids, but need some air. It's hard to take 3 little ones with you everywhere.

ANSWER: You are a human not a saint! You cannot expect yourself to be the emotional caretaker to all. Nor can you expect yourself to even be "fair" to everyone. This is not your job. You did not cause the heartache that untimely death has wrought nor will your dealing with things in the "right way" answer the pain and sorrow that others must endure and work through as part of their life path. You cannot make up for the losses caused by ill fate. Over-responsibility breeds under-responsibility and vice versa. Who assigned you the role of "savior"? What might be your reasons for accepting it? Are there patterns of over- responsibility and under- responsibility in your childhood? Were women expected to be overly responsible for the emotional health and well-being of family members, while men assumed less than their share of emotional caretaking?

Obviously, both you and your husband have strength together and have been able to "pull yourselves out of a hole". You may be very healing to one another, but you cannot rescue the whole family from the grief of your husband's first wife, the mother of your stepchildren.

It is easy enough to be a "target" for negative feelings in the role of stepmother. By taking on the job of making everyone happy (society's conditioned role for "mother") you will end up failing miserably and feeling inadequate. And your well-meant efforts to reduce suffering in others, may end up thwarting their opportunity for growth. Maturity comes from facing pain, not running away from it.

Talk with your husband about the toll that this previous loss is taking on you. The ghost of his first wife is shadowing the family. Without naming it, there is little opportunity for resolution. Your stepdaughter's jealousies may be due to her unexpressed feelings about her lost mother, which she may need to come to terms with in some way. Your idea that her pain has to do with your jealousies may be overstated.

More importantly, your husband's moodiness following his children's' visits to their maternal Aunt may indeed be stirring up feelings that are not being addressed. Your spouse seems to be exhibiting guilt related to his wife's death and the effect on the children. He cannot make it up to them by changing the resources your children receive from their father. It is not your ex-spouse's job to make up for this loss, nor should your children be deprived of the relationship they have with their own father because of it. Sensitivity and compassion are required, but this can only happen if the family recognizes the loss that your husband and his children have endured through sharing feelings and talking about the pain. At no time, however should your children be expected to "make up" for the absence of their step-siblings mother. Room for grieving should be observed, however major responsibility for working through this grief needs to be shouldered by their father.

The children that have been born out of the union of yourself and your current husband represent a blending of the two families. However you cannot ignore the separate histories of each of the families that has come before! To do so will encourage the myth of "instant love" prevalent in stepfamilies which leads to inevitable heartache and disillusion. Reality explodes fantasy. Even if the fantasy is based on good intentions.

Despite the popularity of the '80's hit show "The Brady Bunch" , there is no "instant love" or "instant family". Stepfamilies must progress through their own histories in order to blend together. Ask your husband to go to individual counseling regarding his feelings of loss from his first marriage. Addressing his guilt, pain and ambivalence about the marriage before and after his wife's death are critical pieces to the puzzle. You may also want to do some marital counseling after he has faced some of these issues on his own. At this point, a realistic approach to blending the stepfamily with all of the diverse needs of its' individual members and sub- systems can be discussed.

In the meantime, take a step back! Talk with your husband to establish setting boundaries around your children and their relationship to their own father. It is your job to protect them from feeling guilt over their connection to their biological father. It is not their fault that their father lives, while their step-siblings' mother has passed away. Stop expecting yourself to make up for others' losses in the family. Instead, support your husband to initiate helping his own children grieve their mother. It is his job to separate out his ambivalence regarding his first marriage from his children's need to know who she was and how she loved them. They must find a place and a way to honor their history with her, without disrupting the very family relationships they must now depend upon.

Take your feelings seriously regarding your instincts and views because it is not fair to you to do otherwise! Claim your voice in the family. Your role as a wife is to influence your husband when you see things he does not. Require that he work with himself in sorting through his feelings and taking initiative for helping his children grieve their mother. Then the two of you can work towards a more realistic balance of addressing the needs of all family members, based on personal history and individuality. Read books on stepfamilies together, not alone! It is imperative that this education be a joint endeavor to succeed. Emily and John Vischer's book, "How to Win as a Stepfamily" as well as my article "Making Healthy Stepfamilies" can give the two of you a jump start at together working out how to answer the complex task of meeting the emotional needs of all family members.

And last but by no means least, include yourself! You are a person with needs of your own beyond caretaking. What are you doing to soothe and nurture yourself? It is not fair to ignore your need to explore personal interests or recharge your batteries in the very difficult role of mother and stepmother. Getting childcare so that you can have some personal time is important to your mental and physical well-being.

Do not martyr yourself, as you will only be resented for doing so! All of the children will benefit from the role model of a mother who takes her own needs seriously. Drowning yourself in an effort to save others runs the risk of passing sainthood on to your daughters. And unrealistic visions of women as saviors on to your sons. Take care of yourself, expect more from your husband, and your future daughter-in-laws will thank you!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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