I get emails from women all over the country who go into great detail as to the specifics of their marriages to men with children. Some have children and some don’t. These women are in anguish, wringing their hands and wondering what to do.
As a psychotherapist, I work with women who would find a lot in common with the women who write me. Women who come into my office with their “dirty little secret”, ashamed and disappointed with themselves. I coach stepmothers on the phone and I can hear it in their voices…the guilt and remorse. And all over what? What is this issue that is causing so much consternation?
“I need to confess this to someone. I feel so bad about this, but I don’t, um, I really just don’t, um, you’ll think I’m a horrible person for saying this, for admitting this, but, um, I just really don’t love my stepchildren.”
I laugh when they say this and they are taken aback. What kind of cruel and twisted therapist am I that I would laugh? But I am quick to reassure, “So what? Of course you don’t love your stepchildren. Why should you? Just because you fell in love with their father doesn’t mean you will automatically love his children. Some women do, but many women don’t and there is nothing to feel guilty about! You married your husband because you were in love with him and wanted to create a life with him, DESPITE the fact that he had children from a previous relationship. You can’t manufacture love.”
The relief in their faces or in the tone of their voices is immediate and palpable.
“Really? I’m not some kind of monster?”
“No, you’re not. You’re human. You don’t have to love your stepchildren and no one can demand or even expect that. Geez, sometimes it’s a challenge to love our own children! But what you need to do is to be kind and courteous when they are in your home, and vice versa. That’s it.”
But then the familiar kicker comes into play.
“But my husband is demanding that I love his children. That he expects me to love his children.”
“That’s ridiculous!” I tell them. “No one can force anyone to love someone else. Love is a natural and organic process”.
Some say that love is a conscious choice. I would take it a step further and say that acting in a loving manner is a choice. As stepmothers, we can certainly act “as if” we love our stepchildren. We can act in ways that are loving and make choices in our daily lives to do so, but it doesn’t mean that we have to “feel” the love. Nor should we feel guilty for not feeling something as profound and intimate as “love”.
The confessions of the guilt-laden women continue. “Well, if the truth be really told, I don’t even LIKE my stepchildren.”
“So what?” I ask. “Are you nice to them when they are in your home? Do you act in a caring manner?” The answer is usually a universal and adamant, “Yes.”
“Well then, that’s enough.”
“But I just feel so guilty for not liking them… they are my husband’s children.”
Feeling guilty is not a great motivator to liking anyone.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not a woman who finds every baby adorable, pleasant or an instant magnet to my heart. There are many children I’ve been around that it would be quite fine with me if I never saw them, heard them or smelled them again in my life.
When I married my husband almost ten years ago, I had no expectation that he love any of my four children, the children who were deep in the throes of adolescence and were quite busy totaling cars and getting underage drinking tickets. I wasn’t greedy. My hope was that he would be able to tolerate them. Loving them was between him and them, and quite frankly, none of my business. But what I did expect from him was to treat my children in a loving and kind manner.
At one of my recent “Stepmonster” support groups, each woman in the room described her most current dilemma. When they were finished, I looked at them and said, “Did you notice something here? Each one of you is suffering; not because of the ex-wife, not because of your stepchildren…you’re all suffering because of the impossible expectations from your husbands that you love his children as your own”.
One woman nodded vigorously. She mumbled, “Last week, my husband told me that if I didn’t love his son the way I love our daughter, he’s going to divorce me.”
Her husband needed a big time reality check. As stepmothers, we cannot have impossible demands placed upon our hearts. As women, it’s our job to be true and authentic first and foremost to ourselves. It is the greatest gift we can give to our children and our stepchildren…the model of a strong and courageous woman who makes no apologies for the things that don’t ring true.
It’s an awkward subject to be sure and our true feelings don’t need to be volunteered casually while sitting around sipping on a nice glass of wine. “BTW, honey, I don’t love your kids.” There’s an advantage to diplomacy. But when we are pressed against the wall and cornered for an answer, “Do you love my children?” my advice to stepmothers is to say, “I care deeply about the welfare of your children and am open to the possibilities of building on our relationship in ways that feel genuine and authentic for me.”
I have found that stating that commitment, that intention, is enough for most well reasoned husbands. Stepmothers simply cannot be the first aid love doctor for their husbands, many of whom bring their own sense of shame and failure from their former marriages, and desperately want to have the new marriage clean up the messes from the first. It’s not realistic and it’s not fair.
The good news is this: We can have our cake and eat it too. We don’t need to love our stepchildren, or even like them, to have successful marriages. But we would be wise to treat all the people that come into our lives with human decency, courtesy and kindness. Anything other than that is just icing on the cake.
*Wednesday Martin's "Stepmonster" is an excellent resource for anyone in remarriage with children or contemplating marrying anyone with children. Wednesday's excellent research helps all couples deal with the many expectations (most of which are unrealistic) that many bring into remarriage. 71% of second marriages with children end in divorce. It's my belief that many of these divorces could be avoided if these expectations were dropped. "Stepmonster" has been a huge source of relief for innumerable stepmothers and their husbands.