Being a stepmom is one of the most difficult parenting roles to take on in a blended family.
Despite the negative hype, it’s possible to make it work. Studies are beginning to shine a light on positive strategies to increase success as a stepmom in your blended family. Here is a summary of 11 research-based facts on stepmoms and some implications for what they mean for stepmoms trying to succeed against the odds in a blended family.
1) The number of families with stepmoms is on the rise as more biological fathers are getting joint or full custody of their children. In addition, the number of stepmoms counted in census and survey data is most likely an underestimate, there are more of us out there! Because many stepmoms don’t live with their step-kids full time, they are usually not counted in household surveys and as such are underrepresented in step-family statistics.
2) Studies have shown that stepmoms experience more stress than stepdads. Much of this stress comes from 3 key areas: relationship with the bio-mom, relationship with step-kids, and lack of clarity about the stepmom’s role. In addition to more stress, stepmoms are also more anxious, depressed and angry than stepfathers.
3) Depression rates are 2x as high for stepmoms when compared with bio-moms. This is based on a study that compared the occurrence of depressive symptoms and parenting stress in stepmoms and bio-moms in first time marriages, and suggests that stepmoms are at a greater risk for depression. This is worrying given that research has shown maternal depression puts children at risk for poor outcomes as well. Stepmoms have also been found to have higher rates of parenting stress, lower self-esteem and less role satisfaction than any other parenting type.
4) Stepmoms who experience the most conflict and frustration have high control needs. These include difficulty accepting the children, finding satisfaction in the father’s discipline of the children and competing for her husband’s attention. This finding suggests that letting go of the need to control may reduce conflict and frustration and increase marital and family satisfaction. This has definitely been the case in my experience... letting go of my need to control has been a godsend.
5) The more care-giving responsibilities that a stepmoms take on, the more conflict she experiences with her partner and the lower satisfaction she has in her marriage. Studies have also suggested that stepmoms who are well supported by their partner do better, implying an important role that the husband plays in mediating negative effects of blended family life on the stepmom.
6) The prevalence of the ‘wicked stepmother’ stereotype creates a stigma for stepmoms that impacts their self-esteem, role and family relationships. Many stepmoms subconsciously internalize society’s Cinderella or ‘step-monster’ perspective of stepmothers, and act in ways that try to prove they are not ‘wicked’. Exploring one’s relationship with this stigma is an important part of mindfully navigating the stepmom role.
7) Effective communication helps stepmoms develop positive relationships with their step-kids. This effective communication involves effective problem solving, conflict resolution and is facilitated by family quality time, access to resources, and a solid support system of friends and extended family.
8) Life is harder for stepmoms who don’t live with their step-kids. Research has confirmed that stepmoms living with their step-kids full time have more happiness in their marriage, less ambiguity in their role, and more security in their relationship with the kids than moms who don’t live with their step-kids. This is likely the case because moms who live with their kids full time have more influence and control over behaviors, and more time to bond with their kids.
9) Many studies show that stepmoms can benefit their step-kids. These benefits include bringing extra resources into the family, providing extra supervision for the kids, and acting as a gender role model. It's important as stepmoms to acknowledge and appreciate our own self-worth and all we have to give to our family. Being confident with ourselves and our role allows us to lead by example and be a positive mentor for our children.
10) Stepmoms can mediate the negative effects of divorce on children. Studies show that a clearly defined stepmom role results in increased step-family functioning, so it’s important to integrate the stepmom into the new family structure in order to reduce unnecessary stress for all those involved. In my experience, the stepmom role changes and evolves over time, so it's important to check-in and redefine your role on an ongoing basis as the responsibilities you take on change over time.
11) Cooperation between the bio-mom/stepmom requires a redefinition of family and an acceptance of the other. A recent paper that explores families with two mothers stresses the importance of work around a more expansive perspective of family, and accepting the other mother not as a threat, but as a mother figure to the children. A recent review of qualitative research concluded that step-families co-constructing a new family identity involves honoring the past, marking the present and investing in the future. When stepmom and bio-mom are at peace with one another, this creates a positive environment for everyone involved.
How does your experience compare to what the research highlights? Tell me in the comments below.
What can stepmoms do to overcome the drama?
Where did I get this info? See references here.
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Anna de Acosta
Stepmom, biomom, and wife... living life with the blended family of my dreams and being a lighthouse for love and inner peace.