One of the biggest points of confusion and controversy as I talk to people about Stepmonster and stepmother reality is the injunction, “Put the kids first” and “The kids should always come first” and other variations on this theme. It’s become a virtual mantra since Constance Ahrons introduced the idea of “The Good Divorce” and highly cooperative co-parenting after a breakup as ideal for the kids. The members of the ex-couple, Mom and Dad, should put their differences aside, Ahrons urges, for the sake of a more harmonious “bi-nuclear family” or divorced family that spans two households. This will spare the kids from ugly, painful loyalty binds and help with their adjustment to the shattering of family life as they knew it.
Ahrons is right. Numerous studies verify that high levels of conflict between parents pre- and post-divorce can be emotionally devastating for kids. And that’s evidence enough that exes who can’t stand each other will do well to turn to Co-Parenting with an Idiot, What to Do When Your Ex Drives You Crazy, and other books that will help them through the minefield of diplomacy and emotional gymnastics it can take to Put Your Kids First.
But it turns out that putting the kids first is not something everyone should be doing. Particularly stepparents. And most especially stepmothers. Sure, their husbands need to carve out time for just the kids when they show up for their time with dad and stepmom. But it turns out that kids generally don’t need or even want the household to revolve around their every whim—it feels uncomfortable for everyone (if they do want the household to run that way, or have gotten used to being in charge, it’s a sign that parenting has been way too permissive, and that it’s time for the tide to change). Putting them “first” in this context merely keeps them in the status as “special visitor” or “little prince/princess,” rather than integrating them into the life of the couple and the stepfamily as true family members.
It also builds stepmother resentment if every time his kids show up, she is suddenly shunted into outsider status or asked to cook, clean, and otherwise bend over backwards to accommodate them as her husband lavishes them with attention and refuses to draw the line when they misbehave, reasoning that “my wife has me all week but the kids only see me on the weekend, so she can just put up with it.” The withdrawal of affection that so often accompanies the kids’ stay frequently makes matters even more difficult for the woman with stepkids: many women told me their husbands won’t so much as hold their hands when his kids or even adult kids are in the house, making their visits synonymous with losing out on closeness. And this resentment will only worsen if the kids, as Mavis Hetherington discovered in her Virginia Longitudinal Study, are highly resentful of getting a stepmother, often for many years.
In short, one of the biggest reasons remarriage with kids is so hard on stepmoms, experts told me as I researched my book Stepmonster, is that dads who divorce and remarry too often confuse the obligation to keep things civil with an ex for the child’s sake with a duty to put the kid first in the hierarchy of relations in a home forever. Translation: not cutting down your ex in front of your kids is good; letting your kids run your household, be rude to your partner, and even have veto power over your new partner because you feel too guilty to draw the line is bad. “Who’s in charge here?” one woman reported asking her then-fiancé as his twelve-year-old daughter “jokingly” berated him, called him rude names, and demanded to be waited on instead of getting things herself. “She is!” he replied, as if it were the funniest, most endearing state of affairs ever. Too often, it is in fact the father/child relationship that is given priority post-divorce and even post-remarriage, instead of the husband/wife relationship. How could a woman who becomes a wife not chafe against such a fundamental imbalance when she lives it every day or on every visit?
“His kids should always come first.” If the kids are unenthused about having a stepmother, and/or in a loyalty bind because mom has not given them permission to like stepmom, Wake Forest University sociologist Linda Nielsen notes, it is especially counter-productive for stepmom to siphon energy she would otherwise put into self-care (stepmothering is a notoriously difficult and decentering role) and care for her marriage to attempting to win their love and approval. She would do better to focus on her partnership, her friendships, and her work and hobbies, Nielsen says, rather than handing his kids all the power on a silver platter. Indeed, hard experience has taught many of us that pandering to stepkids who don’t like the fact of you doesn’t get you anywhere except lower on the family totem pole, angrier at your partner, and more disappointed with yourself and your marriage.
There’s much that divorced and remarried fathers can do to make his wife’s life easier. The first step is understanding that these aren’t her kids, they may not be crazy about having her in their lives, and so some adjusting of expectations are in order. Wanting your partner or wife to put your kids first, love them as if they’re her own, and feel as lenient and all-approving toward them as you do, particularly if they are unhappy or ambivalent about having her in their lives and/or have undue amount of power in the home, is a recipe for resentment, misunderstanding, and marital disaster.
Remarriages are much more vulnerable than first marriages—the divorce rate is up to 72 percent, versus 43 percent for a first marriage! So it’s imperative that we rid ourselves, as individuals and as a society, of our dearly held but completely misinformed notion that the marriage has to come second when there’s been a divorce with kids, or the kids will be ruined for life. The truth of the matter is that the more we have our remarriages with kids revolve around the kids, the more of an Outsider stepmom becomes, and the harder it becomes for both the marriage and the relationship between stepmom and stepkids to evolve into something, real, meaningful, and reciprocal.
It’s often the case, Dr. Patricia Papernow notes, that the divorced and remarried dad feels loved, nurtured and supported by the very children his wife feels rejected, exhausted, and unappreciated by. The mandate that she and he put his kids first—before their marriage and before her own mental health—seems, in this context, the height of absurdity, if not sadism. His job is to invite his wife or partner to the inside of the family, to take a seat by his side at the head of the family table. The deep love he feels for his kids need not interfere with his ability to extend that invitation. Stepmothers are not supplicants in their own homes. Being loved and cherished, being an equal partner, is our sacred right.