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Stepmom-To-Be Needs Help
Developing Parenting Skills

QUESTION: I am 31 years old and have never been married. I met a wonderful man on the Internet, and we are engaged. He has two children, a 14-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son. The kids live with him, and I have recently moved in with the family.

My problem is that my fiancÚ wants me to help discipline the children, but whenever he sets rules -- such as phone curfews or no food in the rooms -- and I try to enforce them, he tells me I'm being too restrictive. Then later on, he will rant and rave about how the kids don't want to help out around the house. I feel this happens because there is no structure.

Am I doing the wrong thing here? The kids know that they are supposed to listen to me, but lately I've been afraid to say anything that could get me labeled restrictive or inflexible. He says he'll choose his own battles, and that sometimes he decides not to say anything. But when I ask why, I don't get a straight answer -- he just tells me I look for trouble.

Please help. Is there a support group for stepmoms that I could attend? The kids' mother is hardly ever in the picture, and when she is it just seems to upset them. Am I on the road to becoming a wicked stepmother?

ANSWER: Look out or you may indeed turn into the wicked stepmother! Your betrothed's lack of follow-through on the rules, his desire for you to take on a disciplinary role with his children prematurely, and his willingness to make you the "inflexible" one in the family all spell trouble. In addition, your fiancÚ is delivering two contradictory messages: Take charge of the situation and stay out! And he is giving his children conflicting messages about what is expected of them.

More than half of all remarriages end in divorce, partly because of unrealistic expectations and role confusion in the formation of a stepfamily. The two most important factors for success in stepfamilies are a strong bond between the couple and, between the stepparent and stepchildren. It is not possible for you to take on the role of disciplinarian until you have established a bond with the children based on affection and friendship. Your move into their home may also prove precipitous. It is a lot of adjustment all at once! And the myth of instant family togetherness is just that. There are no short cuts to true intimacy.

Your quick entry into the children's lives could result in your becoming the scapegoat for all the negative feelings the family endured prior to your arrival. Do not jump into a parental role with these children. Instead, work to develop a friendship based on genuine affection before attempting any discipline. Your place in the family must be established through the agreement and support you receive from their father.

Insist that your partner work with you to set house rules, and that he be consistent in enforcing them. Your observation that he has developed a pattern of setting rules, bending them and then exploding in anger and resentment is a useful one. Your job is to continue pointing this out to him.

But beware! Stepfamilies aside, most divorce is the result of prolonged unresolved conflict. And your fiancÚ's style of communication may have contributed to ineffective problem-solving in his former marriage. If your relationship is to survive and thrive, you must be able to empathize with each other's experience rather than attempting to minimize the feelings. True negotiation will evolve from a genuine understanding of your partner's point of view, not an insistence on scoring points.

Once you establish the rules together, your partner and you must be willing to hold the line for long-term gain rather than bending it for short-term relief. For help in this task, contact the Stepfamily Association of North America (1-800-735-0239) for information on stepfamily support groups in your area.

This is your home now, too. You are partners! Do not accept a back seat in negotiating agreements with your usband-to-be. Also, do not make the mistake of trying to "fill in" for his lack of consistency with his children. Disciplining them is his responsibility, but it is up to the two of you to negotiate a realistic, shared vision for your future marriage and family relationships.


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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