I think one of the best things you can do as a stepmother is to lower your expectations for your stepchildren and their mother. It ends up being easier on you if you don’t expect more from them than they are capable of.
I recently read The Explosive Child* by Ross W. Greene. Greene’s belief is that “children do well if they can.” (p. 11) He thinks that children are aware of what’s right and what’s expected of them and that if they misbehave it’s because they lack the emotional or intellectual capacity to behave well. Now, I don’t completely agree with this idea. One of my fundamental observations about the world is that people—especially children—will try to get away with whatever they can. I think there are times when kids misbehave to get something they want or find where the limits are.
So while I don’t support this idea as a kind of “free pass” for kids to act badly, I do think this idea can help you deal with your negative reactions to some of their misbehavior. It’s human to feel frustrated about something you can’t change, but when it comes down to it, it’s useless to get really worked up about a problem if there’s nothing you can do to improve it. It’s easy to get frustrated with your stepchildren and ruminate about things they do that make you mad. It’s easy to complain about these things over and over. But stop and think: is this something that my stepchild truly has the emotional, intellectual, or physical capacity to effectively deal with? Sometimes kids are rude because they’re trying to be mean. Other times kids are rude because they’re overwhelmingly angry or sad and don’t know how to constructively communicate their feelings with the right words.
My fiancé jokes that my stepdaughter is the Wild Child from Borneo. She usually comes over with food crusted on her face and mats in her hair, she has a hard time holding utensils and mostly eats with her hands, and she ends up spilling food and drink on the floor just about every time she’s here. I never gotten away with this kind of behavior at her age and I find myself frustrated with her over this kind of stuff. Then I remind myself that “children do well if they can.” She’s always been about a year behind in learning things; plus, I have to remember that it’s harder for her to learn things if her mother isn’t also teaching her at her other house. Neither of these challenges are her fault or my fault.
From my hunting around on stepmother message boards it seems like a lot of stepmothers feel, at least at some point or another, that the mother of their stepchildren is not doing a very good job with them. So what's does this have to do with you loving your stepkids? I don't have any research about this yet, but there's a part of me that sometimes feels—and this is hard for me to admit—that sometimes the frustration I feel for my stepdaughter's mother spills over to my stepdaughter. Being angry at her mother for letting her eat junk food and look like a wild child sometimes turns into me being mad at my stepdaughter for eating junk food and looking like a wild child. However, getting frustrated at her for things that are not her responsibility to control is not conducive to a loving relationship.
This can be tough because there’s a lot I shake my head at. My stepdaughter is constantly eating McDonald's, candy, chips, and all kinds of junk food. She stays up late but never gets a nap. She always needs her hair cut and her face washed. Her mother dresses her in high heels and lets her daughter argue with her and boss her around. Sometimes I just feel so puzzled by how she treats her daughter or lets her daughter treat her.
Interestingly, while reading Step-Motherhood: How to Survive Without Feeling Frustrated, Left Out, or Wicked** by Cherie Burns I came across the following passage that might help explain some of this:
“Divorced mothers frequently do, it seems, abdicate certain aspects of mothering when a family breaks up. Their world is often shattered, and they seem to relegate their children to the backburner . . . Stepmothers frequently complain about how badly the children are dressed. Complaints about table manners run a close second.” (p. 47) Burns goes on to quote a councilor as saying, “Her reward is not the same when the family’s not all there” (p. 47-48).
So while it may feel frustrating to see our stepchildren pushed to the backburner, maybe we should think about their mother in a grown-up version of how we look at our stepchildren: “people do well if they can.” All women love their children. If your stepchildren’s mother could do better then she probably would. So just like you can’t change your stepchildren’s behavior if they aren’t capable of what you expect they should be able to do, you can’t expect their mother to do more than she is capable of, either. It must be hard to send your children off to another woman, and I can only imagine how hard it must be to be a single mother.
(I try and remind myself of this every time my stepdaughter shows up in those little blue high heels.)
* The Explosive Child by Ross W. Greene Co. 2005 by Ross W. Greene; Harper.
**Step-Motherhood: How to Survive Without Feeling Frustrated, Left Out, or Wicked by Cherie Burns Co. 1985 by Cherie Burns; Times Books.