Thursday, June 9, 2011

Stepmother Stress as a Deal-Breaker

The divorce rate for second marriages is staggeringly high—70% of second marriages end in divorce as compared to 50% of first marriages. While there are a lot of factors affecting this statistic, I believe that the stress of step-parenting can be enough to cause a second marriage to fail. I understand this on a personal level—I’ve had to make a friend of mine called “the deal-breaker decision” regarding my own stepdaughter.

It all started when she turned four and started potty training. Trying to get her to use the toilet was a nightmare. She would scream and kick and cry out like we were torturing her. She would even scream “HELP ME! HELP ME!” at the top of her lungs. I’m sure the people in the apartment next door thought she was being abused.

For months she would go in her clothes just to avoid using the bathroom. Changing her and getting her cleaned up usually fell to me. She almost always had a terrible rash, and she would scream and scream for me not to wipe her since the rash made it hurt. She’d argue and plead and finally beg, screaming “NO, PLEASE, NO, DON’T HURT ME! PLEASE DON’T HURT ME!” over and over through her tears. I’d have to have to pin down her kicking, flailing little body just to get her clean enough to put on a fresh set of clothes. Afterwards she’d run out into the living room and I’d break down in tears in the bathroom. Then the whole thing would repeat an hour later.

Our time with her was miserable. Her anger and insolence spread from potty training into everything else. She argued over anything and everything; she talked back and broke things and threw tantrums. Endless, endless, shrieking tantrums. She became a huge, overwhelming source of anxiety in my life, and the worst part was that I felt helpless to do anything about it.

Meanwhile, the step-parenting advice I read either didn’t have anything to say about our situation (my step-daughter being so young) or just said that I shouldn’t be involved. I felt helpless for not being able to discipline her (that is, to get her to stop screaming) but also guilty for being included in her potty training at all.

Finally one morning I got into my car and burst into tears on my way to pick up coffee. I just don’t know if I can keep doing this, I thought. I pulled into a parking lot and called a friend. She told me, “No one would blame you if you decided that you couldn’t handle her.”

My heart ached at her words. Sitting there, I knew I couldn’t go that route—I loved my fiancé too much to leave him over anything, let alone a spoiled kid. Shaking and clutching the steering wheel I decided that things with my stepdaughter would have to change.

Looking back, I feel frustrated that I even reached the point where I had to make that decision. I wish that I had felt more empowered at the time to set limits, enforce rules, and enact time outs. Rather than worrying so much about what I was supposed to do to be a good stepmother, I wish that I had put my happiness first from the start.

I suppose everyone has to decide for themselves what their deal-breakers are. My hope is that the stepmother stress doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker for as many women in the future.

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