Women and Children

'I was naive'


A case study from Elizabeth Church's survey of stepmothers.

Paulette's first husband had pretty much disappeared when her two children were only six and eight. She had been a single parent for eight years when she married Richard, who had three children. She and Richard had actually met through their children. Paulette's son, Anthony, was best friends with Richard's son, Scott, throughout school. Because Scott's mother worked long days, he often ate dinner at Paulette's, and her house became a second home for him. Paulette had been excited about becoming a stepmother. She envisioned the seven of them united into a strong, loving family, with Richard as a father to her children and with her as a mother to his. In order to accommodate evryone, Paulette and Richard decided to pool their resources and build an enormous new house. All the children had their own rooms and were allowed to decorate them as they wished. While her own children were enthusiastic about the new space, her stepchildren were lukewarm: "I expected the stepchildren to be, I guess, more appreciative of being a part of a big family, and everybody being very congenial, no friction, no tensions, no stresses. But I found that they were not really appreciative."

Paulette loved running and organising a household and was proud of her domestic and culinary skills. By contrast, she believed her stepchildren had missed out on a lot because their mother was so preoccupied with her job as an advertising executive. Her plan was to make up for this: "I was naive when I became a stepparent in thinking that the step-kids were going to think, 'Oh this is great! Isn't this wonderful!' You know, because I try to run a very organised home and my career is homemaking. I don't put anything ahead of that, and I expected them to see it as wonderful."

Their first Christmas together, Paulette ended up in tears. Christmas had always been a huge family event for Paulette, and she was eager to have the two families celebrate together, but her stepchildren refused to leave their rooms when the time came. Though she dedicated many hours to picking perfect presents for her stepchildren, they shoved them aside with the barest of acknowledgments. Dinner was a similar disaster. Paulette had gone out of her way to cook their favourite Christmas foods, but the children bolted down dinner without a word of thanks and went to watch TV in the den.

In retrospect, Paulette wonders if her skills in the kitchen and the house might have exacerbated tensions by making "their mum [seem] less than perfect." Although she does her stepchildren's mother inadequate and selfish, she recognises that her stepchildren do not share her perception. She also realises that her efforts to win over her stepchildren may have backfired -- the more she did, the more they felt they had to defend their mother. At the same time, it has been distressing that her stepchildren seem "to resent the fact if I try to have things nice". After two years as a stepmother, Paulette has tempered her expectations. When I asked her for advice for a new stepmother, she cautioned, "Don't expect too much too fast".


From: Understanding Stepmothers by HarperCollins: Copyright 2004 by Elizabeth Church. All rights reserved.