Monday, November 23, 2009

Review by Shellie: Stepmonster – A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do by Wednesday Martin, PhD


Review by Shellie:

This is not a self help book. That Wednesday Martin has a Ph.D in comparative literature helps the reader understand the methodology used within the writing of Stepmonster. Where she does just that – compares literature from various sources. This provides the reader with a virtually seamless and multidisciplinary book about step mothering.  It is a myth busting mélange of information to  help the reader understand this complex and misunderstood relationship.

Examining fairy tales from all over the world about step mothers, including Hansel and Gretel and Snow White, Wednesday addresses some of the beliefs we hold in our cultural consciousness from the retelling of these stories – they are not the best. In addition she enlightens the reader through referencing data collected from sociobiology, anthropology, and psychology. All supporting the notion that step parenting is a challenge regardless of country or culture and in the animal kingdom as well. She reveals  that  there is an array of misinformation surrounding the relationship even with psychologists, and those whose job it is to help with the relationship. Where it becomes apparent that  within our culture’s current child centered rearing practices it is often the stepmother whom is the least sympathized with and understood.

Warning: It is not an easy read. Several times is became esoteric due to scientific data (which also solidify the book’s concepts), as well as the fact that it addresses difficult emotional content. Ultimately, Stepmonster is enlightening. I truly believe it to be an absolute must read for every step mother, any woman considering being seriously involved with a man whom has children, and a recommended read for step children. I give this important book 4 Stars.

Below are two informative articles by the author which will provide further insight into some of the issues around step mothering. The first helps one to dispel some the misinformation while the second provides some tips to women considering being involved with a man whom has children.

Misinformation From the Step Mothering Industry
by Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., 

Books for stepmothers tend to perpetuate certain myths. The myth of the blended family and the myth of the maternal stepmother are the most glaring examples. These books' relentlessly upbeat tone can make stepmothers feel as though our own occasional negativity and impatience regarding his kids are freakish. Other books on step mothering are so lighthearted, so insistent that we see the humor in our situation and in our responses to it, that reading them feels suspiciously like being told that our concerns don't matter and that we just need to lighten up. But the real problem with many books for stepmothers is not what they imply, but what they actually say:

  • Remember that his kids will always come first.
  • Leave the disciplining to him.
  • You will regret it forever if you lose your temper or say something nasty to your stepchildren, so whatever you do, don't.
  • With patience and love, they will come around.

The fact that these directives have become a virtual mantra, the unassailable golden rules of step mothering does not mean that they are right. For example, a number of stepfamily experts concur that in a remarriage with children, giving the couple relationship priority is crucial (see chapter 6). It may jar us to learn that our concept that "the kids are the most important thing" is misguided, even destructive to our partnerships. The ideas that you should be second and should accept it, that his kids came first chronologically and so are first in his heart, and that his believing and acting on these ideas makes him a good person are powerful, deeply ingrained beliefs. But all of them can be fatal for the remarriage with children. They are even bad for the children, giving them an uncomfortable amount of power and focusing an undue amount of attention and pressure on them.

Andrew Gotzis, M.D., a New York City psychiatrist and therapist who works with couples, echoed the advice of a number of marriage counselors when he told me, "In a remarriage with children, the hierarchy of the family needs to be established quickly and clearly. The kids need to know that the husband and wife come first and that they are a unified team." Otherwise, Dr. Gotzis cautioned, the kids can split the couple apart and create tension in the marriage indefinitely. To remarried couples with children, the scenario of kids turning to Dad when Stepmom has said no, or vice versa, in an attempt to split the team is all too familiar. A woman with stepchildren may exhaust herself with her attempts to resolve such situations. For this reason, sociologist Linda Nielsen notes that a woman with stepchildren will have more success when she adopts the attitude "My main goal and my main focus is to build an intimate, fulfilling relationship with my husband and to take better care of my own needs, not to bond with or win the approval of my stepchildren." Nielsen notes that a shift like this cannot happen in a vacuum; the woman's partner needs to be on the same page with her. If the marriage is to work, Nielsen insists, "her husband has to be committed to creating a [partnership] around which his children revolve rather than a marriage that revolves around his children. Especially when his children dislike their stepmother, the father has to make it clear that the kids will not be handed the power or given the precedence over his marriage."

"Things didn't improve until I let my daughter know that, even though I loved her, my ultimate loyalty was to my wife," one man who had survived a rocky early remarriage with children observed. We can only imagine the resultant fireworks in that household. But the outcome was a stronger marriage. This in turn gave his daughter proof that marriages can last. It also replaced what could have become profound confusion about her unchecked power in the family with a sense of secure belonging.

As for the advice "Leave the disciplining to him," whoever said it never went to a home while the step kids were visiting and their father was out. Certainly, no one is saying to step right in and start issuing orders to your step kids in your first days and weeks together -- and few of us are likely to do that, fearing that we will be perceived as wicked. But what works in theory -- you should hold back more or less indefinitely so that you don't seem like the villain, backing up your husband rather than doing things yourself -- doesn't always work in practice. What happens when a stepchild does something that crosses the line but hubby isn't around? Are you to sit on your hands and bite your tongue rather than issue a firm "That's not okay, and you know it"? Moreover, firsthand experience has often demonstrated that the longer a woman with stepchildren waits, the harder it is for her ever to draw the line or be taken seriously as an adult with authority. I can attest to this fact. Because I was more or less a fraidy cat in the first year of my marriage, I had to be a tiger for the subsequent two or three years, as my stepdaughters still occasionally tried to walk all over me, just to see if they could. This was hardly their fault; I waited ages to take a stand about things such as snide remarks, dumping suitcases in the middle of the floor, and ignoring me.

Sometimes it is easier and smarter to ignore a stepchild's annoying habit, to decline to get involved in an emotion-charged discussion over her sweet sixteen party, or to be the voice of reason when planning her wedding. A number of women with stepchildren have found that "disengaging" is, in some situations, far and away the best strategy for them (see chapter 4). Other times, ignoring bad behavior just feels like being stepped on and creates a breeding ground for more resentment. And then what?

The culture at large is eager to gloss over women's anger in general, and advice for stepmothers in particular is full of warnings that if we express it, the consequences will be dire and irreversible. This strikes me as absurd. It would be the rare stepchild who never went through a phase of wanting to provoke his or her stepmom. Of course we lose our tempers, inevitably. And although it can feel catastrophic -- What if they hate me? What if they think I'm wicked? -- expressing our anger is, in my opinion, something we should do sooner rather than later. Otherwise, we risk setting the bar too impossibly high for everyone and creating a situation in which kids, teens, or even adult stepchildren go on pushing our buttons forever in an attempt to see where our limit is. Most of all, we need to learn as soon as possible -- to experience firsthand -- that being disliked is an occupational hazard for stepmothers, not a referendum on our worth. "Dad's girlfriend Laura yelled at us once in the car," my stepdaughter told me solemnly in our early days together. I didn't know exactly why she was telling me this, but I knew how Laura must have felt, and I admired her for letting the girls know when she thought they'd gone too far.

You're not my mother! Most of us fear that it is yelling or disciplining or losing our tempers or not being nice enough or patient enough or selfless enough that will keep our husbands' children from accepting us or drive them away. If only we had so much control. Instead, unrealistic expectations about blending and being maternal, difficult developmental stages, competition that is largely inevitable and unavoidable, misinformation about step mothering, and a host of other factors play a bigger role in the way a reconfigured family group coheres -- or doesn't. We are not, in fact, their mothers. Happily ever after and happiness all around are ideals -- unlikely ones at that, even in traditional nuclear families. Eventually, we may find that we have arrived at a place of comfort, familiarity, and real pleasure with our husbands' kids. But if our happiness is contingent on his kids being happy for us, being happy with us, and loving us, then we have given away our greatest power and put everything at risk.

Copyright © 2009 Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., author of Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do

He Has Kids! Now What?
By Wednesday Martin, Ph.D.,

Experts estimate that half of all women in the U.S. will wind up living with or married to a man with kids -- and some put the number even higher. That means the chances that you or your best friend will wind up a stepmother or stepmother figure are . . . pretty good.

Here's your cheat sheet on being with a man with kids, whether you're seeing one seriously now, just dating, or interested "just in case." These strategies can make being involved with a divorced dad easier than you thought . . .

1. Don't rule out dating or getting involved with one on principle, or you might narrow the field -- and really miss out on a great guy. There are more divorced dads out there than ever before.

2. Be honest. When in the first stages of getting to know a man with kids, be yourself. Don't act more interested in his kids than you really are, for example, or paint yourself as a "kid person" if you're not. It's hard to buck the social pressure women feel to be loving and maternal every second, but it's never good to start out under false pretenses. You're not auditioning -- you're getting to know him.

3. Have a look at his parenting style -- it's part of who he is as a person and a potential partner. One woman I spoke to while researching my book Stepmonster told me that, the first time she went to her boyfriend's home, she got a good sense of his parenting style. "It was loving but firm," she told me. And since she was on board with that, she could relax into the relationship that much more easily.

4. Read the clues. Debbie, another woman I interviewed, told me that the first time she visited her boyfriend's place, she immediately noticed that the family computer was in his bedroom. It gave her pause -- for good reason. It was a clue about how ready he was for privacy and romance -- two key ingredients for a relationship to flourish. Not very! But Martin, dad of an 11-year-old boy, had lived in the living room for years. He built himself a wall when things got serious with Martine -- letting her know he was ready to build a space for her in his life.

5. Don't worry if he doesn't introduce you to his kids at first. Many divorced dads are very slow to introduce their kids to a girlfriend for a lot of reasons. And some have nothing to do with you. For example, if his relationship with his ex is very high conflict, he may fear the kids letting her know you've arrived on the scene, for all the fireworks it could ignite.

6. Don't feel like you have to make it all about them. Many women report feeling very pressured to pay constant attention to a boyfriend's kids and "win them over." It's fine to be a couple and go out on a date. If he can't do that, or wants every date to revolve around his kids, he's giving you a big clue about where partnership is on his radar, and what the rest of your lives together might be like.

7. No need to fudge the truth about babies. If you're a person who wants to have kids of your own eventually, and the topic comes up, don't craft an answer you think he wants to hear. Give him the real one. If it scares him off, isn't it better to know that sooner than later?

8. Beware the phrase, "You just don't understand kids." If he says this, you can expect more of it -- and very likely some hesitancy to give you much authority in the household -- down the line.

9. Know that he might be time and cash strapped. Divorced dads are sometimes supporting two households, and trying to put in a full-time type effort with kids while holding down a full-time job. He could well be under financial pressure, and sad about not seeing his kids as often as he did when they lived with him full time. Can you handle that? Being honest with yourself -- and him -- early on can save you resentment down the line.

10. Know that it can be fun. Women I interviewed told me they had some wonderful times dating the man with kids they ended up marrying or seriously partnering with. Sometimes, the kids sealed the deal. Dawn told me she fell in love with her three-year-old stepdaughter-to-be before she fell in love with the kid's father! "She was and still is such a sweet little girl. She made it even easier for me to imagine us all together." Patty loved seeing that her beau (and now husband) James was an awesome dad. "I saw his gifts as a dad -- so sensitive, so committed," Patty told. "And that made him sexy in a whole different way. The other guys couldn't hold a candle to that."

©2009 Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., author of Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do

This book is included in the reading challenge  Women Unbound. Its relationship to it is that it provides logical information while helping women to be informed around their life choices.

unboundrosie For purchasing, author, publisher’s information, and another article by Wednesday Martin please see the Preview of Stepmonster.


Laurel-Rain Snow said...

Shellie, I have an award for you here:

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a great book, my daughter has a friend who is hell bent on driving a wedge between her mum and her stepdad which is really sad given how lovely both her parents are. Parenting and relationships are hard enough, blended families just have that extra challenge.

StepMom Magazine said...

Wednesday Martin is a regular contributor to StepMom Magazine. She is one of our most requested writers. We give her book 2 thumbs up and agree it is a must-read for all stepmoms!

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Hi Shellie, I was visiting Laurel-Rain and saw a link to your blog and as I love visiting other bloggers, I thought I'd pop over. An interesting blog, you certainly review a wide variety of books, congratulations on your award. It was nice to meet you.

Unknown said...

Laurel -
Thanks! I will be by to pick it up in just a minute. :)

Book Pusher -
Unfortunately - marriages with stepchildren have a high chance of breakup. Its a very tough road.
I am so sad to see that. I think that it is very common. Most people do not like their step parents no matter how wonderful they are.
Thanks for coming by :)

StepMom Magazine -
I agree 100%!
Wednesday is a wonderful writer. I loved this book. It helped me feel so much better about being a step mom knowing that what I was experiencing was common and why.
Thanks for stopping by.

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Unknown said...

Petty Witter -
Thanks for stopping by. I stopped by your blog and left a comment too. :)

I am glad your comment finally appeared here - something is up with the posting this morning.

Aarti said...

Wow, great post! So detailed and insightful. How interesting to do a cultural study like that. I feel anthropologists have very cool jobs. And a really great choice for Unbound. Thanks for sharing your layers of thoughts!

Unknown said...

Aarti -
Thanks! Just transferring information for us to all be more well informed as women. Those two articles are huge but informative.

This book is amazing in that she talks about the step parent and child relationship in a number of cultures some where women have many choices and other where they have none.

We are really very lucky here in the US and Western Europe... its not perfect but it beats some locations on the planet.

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