Thursday, December 8, 2011

Stepmotherhood and Self-Esteem

No one warned me. None of the books and articles I’d read when I first became a stepmother prepared me for how my new role would, for a time, negatively impact my self-esteem.

What it is about being a stepmom that can rob us of our self-confidence and positive self-concept? After doing a little research, I see three very important factors to consider:

Relationships and Family

Studies show that women link their self-value to their family role and successful relationships. According to this article, experts have seen that, “a large part of a woman's self-esteem depends on her stepfamily relationship going smoothly. Therefore when family situations are negative a stepmother suffers from low self-esteem and feelings of insecurity and guilt.”

Since pretty much all stepfamilies go through rocky periods of adjustment, we can see how most stepmoms would be vulnerable to these effects. Wednesday Matrin describes this very well in her new book Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do. She writes:
“women are relaters par excellence. Liking and being liked are generally of paramount importance to us, a kind of interpersonal bull’s-eye that makes us feel happy and successful. Predictably, then, the unremitting hostility and rejection that may come from our stepchildren can feel devastating . . . With our self-esteem thus undermined, we’re increasingly prone to anxiety, stress, and feelings of worthlessness.”
Clarity of Role

Research suggests that having a less clear self-concept is linked to having lower self-esteem. It’s no secret that one of the most stressful aspects of being a stepmom is not having a clear picture of your role. Are you a second mom, or an aunt, or a friend, or a stranger living in the same house? Do you discipline or not? What is your authority? Volumes have been written about the fact that, “the role of stepmother is the most stressful and ambiguous in the stepfamily.”

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the stressful feeling caused when a person tries to hold two opposite ideas simultaneously. I’ve also had this described to me as the reason people feel upset when they act in a manner that isn’t in keeping with how they see themselves. Over time cognitive dissonance negatively impacts our self esteem.

Before we enter into our stepfamily, we have perceptions about ourselves and expectations of our stepchildren and partners. However, once we face the difficulties of adjusting to our new stepfamily, we end up feeling confused when reality doesn’t match up with our previous expectations and self-perception.

As time goes by, we may act differently than what feels natural for us because we think that's the way stepmothers are “supposed to act,” only to later think, "wait, this isn't me." Or, our stepchildren disrespect us and we start doubting ourselves—wondering if maybe we aren't the loving, capable, fabulous people we thought we were, because surely our stepchildren would respect loving, capable, fabulous people.

Many stepmoms feel torn when they try to get their stepchildren to treat them with the respect they feel they deserve, only to end up feeling like wicked stepmothers for doing so. “As stepmothers,” Martin writes, “we are expected to let it go, often for years on end. If we can’t—if we complain, set limits, or tell our stepchildren they’re not welcome if they can’t treat us civilly—we are being petty, stereotypical stepmonsters.”


I know that I've had to consciously make a decision not to base my self-esteem on my stepfamily relationships. How have you coped with this issue?

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