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Stepmothers Aren't Wicked
"When it comes to being a stepmom, society typically views the woman entering the picture as an interloper," says Brenda Ockun, Publisher of Stepmom Magazine, an online resource written predominantly by therapists who understand family dynamics. "In other societies, it takes a village to raise a child. In North America, we expect one person to do it all."
Ockun feels there's a double standard for stepparents. "Stepmothers are seen as treading on a woman's turf; stepfathers are seen as heroes who rescue single moms." It's confusing for stepparents, who may not know where they stand. Society tells them to love the children as their own, but even seemingly harmless decisions like going to the Little League game or parent-teacher conference have to be measured.
Zoe is careful in how she speaks with her stepdaughter. In the morning, rushing to get everyone ready for school and work, she might be short with her four-year-old in ways she won't be with her stepdaughter. Her younger daughter has a confidence in their relationship that seems easily shaken with her stepdaughter, who is now also at the fragile age of 13. Zoe hopes that one day things will be less polite between them. "There's no bank for stepparents," Zoe says. "You're only as good as the last thing you did, only as loving as the last expression of love. If anything happens to change that, it's all wiped away." Matt feels it's a matter of learning each other's language and developing a language together. "You have to build the history," he says.
"One of the most important lessons is to follow the children's lead," advises Ockun. "And to understand that, over the years, things can change." Ockun started the magazine as a new stepmom herself. She knew that blended families face challenges like emotional adjustments and financial factors due to child support, alimony, and legal fees, which first families rarely do. A 20-year veteran of corporate marketing, she'd seen trade magazines and websites for just about every subject, but she couldn't find any resources for stepparenting. Yet Ockun feels educating oneself is really important.
Katz writes a column for the magazine and says, "Stepmothers are often unfairly blamed for the problems in stepfamilies. They shouldn't invest too much in trying to correct this image because it's often a waste of time." Instead, Katz suggests considering the role of a kindly aunt figure or friend, to ease the pressure. "Treat your stepchildren as you would anyone else you're getting to know. Some relationships will grow and develop into something really intimate and lovely; and some just might not."
Children of blended families are in a loyalty bind. If they like or accept a stepparent, they might feel that they're being unfaithful, unless they've received both verbal and nonverbal permission from the biological parent to build that relationship. As kids get older, loyalties might change. That constant state of flux often catches stepmoms off guard, and that's why Ockun feels letting the stepchild determine the intimacy level of the relationship is helpful.
From reading the magazine she publishes, Ockun has learned that one of the greatest gifts a stepparent can give to a stepchild is one-on-one time with their biological parent. Blended families can fall into the trap of wanting everyone to be one big, happy family, and so they plan a lot of group outings. "But just as you would in a nuclear family, sometimes kids want alone time with Mom or Dad," Ockun says. She says stepparents can gain a greater sense of inclusion when the stepchildren see that they get it, that they want a close relationship between the children and the biological parent, too.
For the Dunns, that means daddy-daughter time on the weekends, and an annual girls' trip with Zoe to New York City. "It's really nice to have both sets of parents involved in my older daughter's life," Matt says. "Often you hear about one parent being more involved than another. We have her 50 percent of the time, and she's richer because of it. The experience we offer her and the experience she has at her other house, it makes her a richer, well-loved person."