Stepfamilies - Conflict and Acrimony
Conflict, hostility, resentment, anger, rejection, patience, flexibility, sacrifice.
If you are a stepparent, you may identify with some or all of the above keywords. Unfortunately, stepparents have always had a bad press. Have you, for example, ever heard of a stepmother being described as anything but “wicked” in fairytales?
Maybe you have custody of your stepchildren or maybe they live with their biological parent and stay with you and your partner at weekends or during vacations. Whatever the situation, it requires sacrifice, time and emotional energy. Nobody ever professed that being part of a blended family would be easy and it soon becomes apparent that the happy-ever-after scenario that is portrayed in soppy films, rarely exists in reality.
When you become a stepparent, you find yourself not just playing Piggy in the Middle between your partner and his/her children, but often between your partner and his/her ex, your partner and your ex, your partner and your children, your children and your partner’s children. The combinations are endless!
I was on my own with my three children, now aged 18, 14 and 13, for a number of years after my ex-husband and I divorced. When my current partner, Mike, moved in with us a couple of years ago, he was keen to make a good impression and, for a while it worked. My children sang his praises to my ex-husband and his wife and although we had a few problems with Mike’s ex-wife, life in general was very harmonious.
I was happy because I was in a stable relationship with a wonderfully caring partner and, consequently, my children were happier too, not least because they were now part of what society regarded as a “normal” family with two parents. However, Mike and I had to meet on common ground regarding discipline and whilst I had always been reasonably strict with my children, suddenly this new man, who wasn’t their biological dad, began to enforce law and order in their domain.
It wasn’t long before my eldest son became rebellious and uncooperative, which in turn caused us to react negatively and so on. It was a vicious circle, which culminated in my son moving out after some unwelcome involvement with the local Social Services’ department.
To further aggravate the situation, Mike’s two sons from his previous marriage, now aged 7 and 6, began staying with us at weekends. They were still coming to terms with their parents’ recent divorce, still clinging on to the dream that maybe their mum and dad would get back together again and, although their behaviour was appalling, Mike was initially conscious about not wanting to spend the entire weekend chastising them.
Mike’s ex-wife had already made the boys believe that daddy had left home because he didn’t love them anymore and he had to work hard to reassure them that that was absolutely not the case. However, it hurt my children to see Mike’s boys effectively ruling the roost and monopolising our time when they came to stay. My children were punished and denied privileges when they had been disobedient, yet there was little consistency in the way in which Mike treated his children. If his boys were naughty, which they were for a large part of the time, he still took them out, still cuddled them, indulged their fussy eating whims and generally gave them a good time. As a result, I felt that I had to compensate by giving my children the love of two parents, but because of my long working hours I wasn’t always able to be there at the times when they perhaps needed me the most.
When I broached the subject with Mike, he would use the excuse that he only saw his boys at the weekend and that I was fortunate enough to see my children everyday. However, I explained to him that it was quality of time, not quantity that was important and as far as I was concerned, my children had virtually no quality time with us. Besides, only seeing the stepchildren at the weekends is no excuse to tolerate bad behaviour.
As we were both working full-time, we devised a daily chores’ rota for the children, yet their only reward was pocket money if they completed their tasks satisfactorily. When we arrived home in the evening, we were generally exhausted, my daughter always had piles of homework and we had too little time available to take the children out. In addition, if the chores hadn’t been completed to a desired standard, the children would be grumbled at and it soon became apparent that Mike usually only ever gave them attention when they had stepped out of line.
One of the most heartbreaking times for me – and probably my youngest son, Carsten – was when he had received his end of year examination results, which dictated the sets he would be placed in when he began senior school. He had already ‘phoned me at work to tell me that he had received his results and I could tell from his tone of voice that they were good.
When Mike and I arrived home from work that day, Mike immediately focused on the dustbins that had been left at the front of the house and which Carsten had been specifically asked to move to their correct spot at the back of the house. Mike muttered some expletive and when he stormed through the back door, I knew that Carsten’s neck was on the line.
When we entered the lounge, Carsten was sitting on the sofa clutching a brown envelope in both hands, his face glowing with pride. However, his expression soon changed to one of shock and anguish as Mike began attacking him verbally for not having completed his chores. He then snatched the envelope from Carsten’s grasp shouting, “And what’s this?” before ripping it open and reading the contents. Not being familiar with the grading system, Mike thought that Carsten had received low marks, when in fact he had received the top marks possible in his year. Mike began shouting at him again, but when I explained that Carsten had received excellent grades, Mike then launched into a bulletin on how it was pointless attaining academic excellence if he was too stupid to follow basic instructions at home.
By this stage, tears were already rolling from Carsten’s huge blue eyes and he looked totally crushed. He had been expecting praise and congratulations and instead had been belittled, once again. I felt as though my heart would break for my little boy. I told him that he had done very well, hugged him, then went and locked myself in the bathroom and sobbed my heart out.
An additional problem reared its ugly head when I began to discipline Mike’s children. I was bombarded with verbal abuse and whilst Mike’s younger son, Daniel, was generally far more accepting of my authority, his elder son, Christopher, would constantly backchat and treat me with utter contempt. If I told him not to leap all over the furniture for example, he would say, “Mummy lets us do it at home, so that’s why I don’t like coming here” or “Mummy says that you’re not allowed to tell us off.” At other times, if I chastised him, he would simply call me a stupid, fat, ugly cow or some other equally endearing name. He would also quote unpleasant remarks that had apparently been made by his mother about me. I didn’t always tell Mike because I didn’t want to appear as though I was always complaining about his children.
Christopher has always been more difficult to control than Daniel and his compulsive lying and malicious tendencies have been the greatest problems to handle. He has deliberately attempted to cause a rift between Mike and I by accusing me of heinous crimes, such as pushing him downstairs at his grandmother’s house, for example and fabricating things that I have supposedly said to him.
In July 1999, Christopher came out with what was, without a doubt, the most evil thing he had ever said to me. Mike had gone late night food shopping and had put the boys to bed prior to leaving. I was lying on our bed because, at five months’ pregnant, I was not feeling too well. The moment Mike left the house, I could hear thuds and crashes from the boys’ bedroom, together with agitated shrieks from Daniel.
When I went to investigate, I discovered Christopher leaping all over Daniel’s bed, whilst it was evident that Daniel was trying to go to sleep. I shouted at Christopher and ordered him back into his own bed, after which I told him that if I heard another sound from him I would ‘phone his dad. I turned out the light and left the room, but just as I was closing the door I heard Christopher mutter something. I walked back him and asked him to repeat what he had said. “Nothing!” he lied. with an expression of ill-concealed worry on his face. “Yes, he did”, piped up Daniel, “He said, ‘I hope Jan’s baby dies’”.
I was horrified and had to struggle to prevent myself from bursting into tears. Instead, I gave him an extremely stern lecture and told him that to wish death on someone was the most wicked sin of all. He hadn’t intended for me to hear him and although he had learned not to backchat, he was obviously still muttered obscenities behind my back! I also explained that just because his dad and I were having a new baby, didn’t mean that his dad was going to love him any the less.
My initial reaction, had one of my children spoken to me in such a manner, would have been to smack them hard, but I did not wish to increase the hostility that Christopher obviously already felt. Instead, I calmly explained that irrespective of how he was allowed to behave in his own home, when he was in someone else’s home he had to respect their rules, in just the same way as he had to at school, and that whilst he was staying with us, we were responsible for his behaviour. I told him that if he was unhappy, then he didn’t have to stay with us at the weekend. That way, I had given him the freedom of choice, rather than making him feel that he had been forced into an uncomfortable situation.
A couple of months ago, Christopher was asked by his mother to ‘spy’ on me when he was here and try to find out what sort of work I did. She then telephoned the CSA and led them to believe that I was earning a sizeable income by working from home on a self-employed basis.
This highlights that problems with stepchildren are not always confined to the children themselves, but can be fuelled by a vindictive ex-partner.
What I very quickly realised was that the battle towards acceptance and, hopefully, some degree of unanimity, was going to take time. I also learned from Mike that if his boys were rude to me in his absence, I had to report it to him immediately. I have to admit that I still don’t always comply with this, since they are rude so much of the time that I am conscious about not spending the entire weekend condemning them.
However, at the end of the day, I know that the boys’ behaviour is a reflection on their parents and not me.
Today, after three years of emotional highs and lows, Mike’s boys have improved, although their manners still leave a lot to be desired. However, they now accept the fact that I have the authority to discipline them and when I tell them not to do something, they comply with my wishes, if begrudgingly. There is still conflict and they’re still unacceptably rude at times – both to my face and behind my back, but I suspect they probably always will be. However, it’s all part of the life process, part of growth and learning and at least Mike accepts that his children are far from perfect and disciplines them accordingly.
With respect to my own children, I have now re-built the relationship with my eldest son, who recently thanked me for giving him such good “training”. His flat is immaculate and he says that he now gets agitated when his friends come round and make a mess! He told me that had we not forced him to do household chores, he wouldn’t be as capable as he is now at managing his own place.
My daughter and youngest son accept Mike’s authority and although he’ll never be their real dad, he’s much more of a father to them than my ex-husband will ever be.
Our new addition, Lauren, is adored and pampered by all of the children and, so far, there have been no indications of jealousy from any of them. Yes, we still have problems and heated debates with respect to the behaviour of Mike’s boys, but we always discuss the issue and air any grievances that we may have. Communication is imperative in these situations, although sometimes I’ve learned it is better to grit my teeth and keep quiet.
On the day that Lauren was born, Mike brought his boys up to the hospital instead of my children. I was gutted. My children did not see their new sister until we came home the following day. The nursing staff sympathised with my plight and thought that this was completely out of order, yet had I said anything to Mike, I’m sure he would have tried to justify his actions. Unfortunately, nothing he may have said would have convinced me of the fairness of his choice.
Acceptance is hard when you feel that your partner’s children are given priority treatment over your own, but if you are honest, you will never feel the same way about your partner’s children as you do about your own flesh and blood. It’s human nature and whilst it may not seem ethical, it’s a fact of life.
There is no magical solution, but adherence to the following ground rules can certainly bring you one stride closer to living in harmony with your stepchildren.
· Don’t live in the past. One of the penalties of divorce and separation is not seeing the absent family as often as you would maybe like. However, you have a new life and they have a new life. When you have a new relationship and family to think of, you should never allow your first family to take priority. Don’t even consider, for example, taking the absent children on holiday and excluding the children with whom you live. If you do this, you risk losing your new family too
· You and your partner must establish firm ground rules in your home, irrespective of how your stepchildren have been allowed to behave in their own homes. When the children are on your territory, you have authority and responsibility for their behaviour
· Explain that everybody has different rules and that everyone has to abide by the rules of the house they are visiting, in exactly the same way as they have to abide by certain rules at school
· It is imperative that you and your partner agree on a level of discipline and stick to it. Serious conflict can be arise when parents have radically opposing views on discipline and what is or isn’t acceptable behaviour in children
· Try not to demonstrate obvious favouritism towards your own children in front of your stepchildren. Consistency and fairness are the order of the day
· In the beginning, accept the fact that the stepchildren may expect their parents to reconcile and that your relationship with your partner is only a temporary interlude. Sit down with the children, when the time is right and explain to them that sometimes two people who are married may find that they are unable to live together anymore, but that it doesn’t mean they love their children any less. This is particularly important for the parent who has moved out, since the children will inevitably experience a sense of rejection and desertion
· Don’t allow your stepchildren to play one parent off against the other. Whatever your feelings towards the biological parent, you should not condone any derogatory comments about that parent. After all, they are probably saying similar things about you or your partner to the other parent. The only time when it is imperative to listen and act is if you believe that the other parent is being abusive in any way
· Accept the fact that however perfect a stepmother or stepfather you are, you will never be the biological parent of your stepchildren. It is natural for a stepchild to feel a level of resentment towards you when you are imposing rules or restrictions upon them. However, life revolves around rules, wherever the place or whatever the situation, so it has to be explained that it is not only biological parents who are qualified to enforce law and order
· Show love. Sometimes children need love the most at a time when it’s hardest to give it to them. Whilst bad behaviour should never be rewarded with a cuddle or treat, when children are behaving well it is important to praise them
· Don’t be afraid to defend your own children if you genuinely believe that they are being treated unfairly by your partner. Likewise, don’t interfere and try and condone their behaviour if you know that they are in the wrong. Undermining a stepparent’s authority can lead to children having no respect for that parent. Similarly, if you fail to step in when they have been wrongly accused of something, they may lose respect and faith in you
· Set aside special time each week for your partner and yourself. You both need time to be yourselves and to show each other just why you chose to be together