Thursday, June 7, 2012

Stepmothers and Cognitive Dissonance

I think a lot of stepmothers get tripped up by something called 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.

The other part of cognitive dissonance theory says that people can’t handle this stressful feeling for extended periods—and as a consequence, our minds end up adapting by modifying our existing beliefs to reject one of the two ideas.

Meaning, we have these ideas about ourselves and expectations about what our step-children and partners will act like—but then we end up getting confused about ourselves when reality doesn’t match up with our expectations and self-perception. Maybe we act differenly than what feels natural for us because we think that's the way stepmothers are supossed to act, and then we think, "wait, this isn't me." Or our stepchildren disrepect us and we start thinking, maybe aren't the loving, capable, fabulous people we thought we were—because surely our stepchildren would respect loving, capable, fabulous people.

In my experience, I started out feeling a like a pretty together girl. I had control over my life and how I spent my time. But after I became a stepmother, I suddenly felt like I’d lost control over where I went, who I saw, and how I responded to problems like getting punched in the face with a sippy cup.

My stepdaughter visits about every other day, and for a long time I let my fiancĂ© stop me from leaving the house on those days—if she was over, he wanted me spending time with her. I had to rush to be home from work to go with him to pick her up from her mother’s house. I wasn’t allowed to take an exercise class with a friend because it fell on visitation days. I couldn’t go out for weekend coffee or weekday happy hours with my friends anymore. Meanwhile, my fiancĂ© would switch days with his ex without notice; I’d come home, yet again, to find that I’d have to change my evening plans. Not to mention the fact that all the step-parenting advice I read said that I shouldn’t be disciplining his daughter. In short, I was forced to schedule my life, all my “me” activities, around his daughter, while at the same time letting her get away with treating me poorly.

At first I thought, hey, no big deal, I just need to adapt. After all, that’s what the step-parenting books said I was supposed to do. Meanwhile, if I complained to my co-workers about how hard it was, they’d tell me, “well, that’s what being a stepmother is like” or, better yet, “you knew what you were getting yourself into.”

But as time passed I felt increasingly smothered by this tiny, screaming, tantrum-throwing child—and helpless to do anything about it. I felt so confused. How could I be a smart, capable woman but so out of control of my life? How could I have not seen this coming? How could I be strong and defeated at the same time?

After a while I couldn't handle the imbalance anymore. Cognitive dissonance kicked in and I thought to myself, maybe I’m just not the capable woman I thought I was. I guess I’m just a mess. I guess I can’t handle things. It was a very painful period of self-doubt.

After a lot of work to overcome those feelings, I want to warn new stepmothers not to try and act in a way that’s uncomfortable for you just because people or books are telling you that you’re supposed to. Sure, you need to be flexible—but you also need to feel like yourself if you’re going to be a happy stepmother.


  1. I loved this post. It hit at such a perfect time for me as I've had an argument with my husband today about it not being okay for me to express my dissatisfaction with something yet my husband, stepkids, etc. (the world) is allowed to do it to me.

    Thank you so much for reminding me of this term.

  2. We all go through this, exactly. Whether we're full custodial or every other weekend- or even only holidays. I've been a stepmom for almost 7 years now, and I went through the resentment phase and am on the other side, now. I used to rush home and I didn't make any me plans for years. Now I'm out the door as much as possible. I started planning my own stuff about 2 years ago, which has steadily increased because I just have to. Is it good or bad? I don't really care.

    There's also a difference, though. The kids are older, now. I feel much less "guilt" about not helping my husband with them or being there for "family" time. I'm still not great with my older stepdaughter, so the family time spent with them really hasn't paid off. I'm closer with my younger stepdaughter, but I think that happened more naturally or because she's just always had me in her life.