Holidays – Not A Stepmother’s Favorite Time of The Year
Holidays can be absolutely torturous for stepmothers. I’ve heard the same from so many women each year, for 20+ years and have experienced the same myself. They often wind up being highly charged events full of tension and passive aggression. This isn’t what any of us had in mind when we got married. As children, many of us actually looked forward to Christmas. It was a time to see family we didn’t get to see often, great food, beautiful decorations, anticipating Santa’s arrival, celebrating the birth of Christ and unwrapping presents. Joy, smiles, memories and laughter.
In contrast, a stepmother is really the last person many family members want to see during the holidays. With no motivation to appreciate or like anything she does, all of her actions can be up for critique. The food wasn’t good. Her gifts were dumb. The stepmother can try her hardest, and yet feel absolutely demoralized. If a stepmother has her own children or children with her husband, comparisons will always be made between how much was spent on her/their children and how much was spent on the stepchildren.
Eager to please and desperate for approval, many stepmothers shop long and hard for their stepchildren and spend the same amount on all of the children. Sadly, their efforts are very often met with disgust and zero appreciation. The general thinking from the stepchildren is that the presents should come from dad. However, the large majority of men hand those tasks over to their eager wives who are just looking for more ways to gain their stepchildren’s approval. This scenario gives resentful children another opportunity to snub their stepmothers, by only thanking their fathers for gifts.
Women around the world face this same dilemma. So why don’t these same women speak up and put some limits on how they will be treated during the holidays? Researchers Kay Pasley and Marilyn Ihinger-Tallman point out, “while kids have very little say in a parent’s decision to remarry and form a new family, they do have tremendous power to break it up.”
Additionally, British researcher Sara Corrie found that, “adult stepchildren face the very same feeling that younger ones do. These include not liking to see the parent and stepparent be affectionate with one another, feeling in a loyalty bind (“If I like stepmom, I’m betraying mom”), feeling competitive with the stepparent, and feeling pressured to have a relationship with him or her. Adult stepchildren can be very unreconciled to a parent’s divorce, hostile to the idea of getting a stepparent–and resentful of the stepparent him or herself.” 1
Writer Jacquelyn Fletcher wrote an article further illustrating why the holidays can be so traumatizing for stepmothers. “As Thanksgiving approaches, instead of feeling the warm anticipation of a day to spend with family, stepmothers across America are downing antacids. And really it’s no surprise. “All of our experimental and clinical research confirms that the sense of having little or no control is always distressful,” says Paul J. Rosch, MD, a clinical professor of medicine and psychiatry at New York Medical College and president of the American Institute of Stress in Yonkers, N.Y.” 2
There you have it. The stepchildren do have leverage, their behavior toward you is unpredictable and your response to their behavior might ruin their holiday and come back to haunt you.
As Wednesday Martin writes in her book, Stepmonster, “One option, of course, is to stick up for ourselves when our husbands don’t, or assert ourselves when they can’t, but such a strategy frequently backfires, or plays into the narrative that we are wicked, something we tend to want to avoid at all costs.
As stepmothers, we are expected to let it go—the rudeness and the hostility, the refusal to acknowledge us when we walk into the room, the mocking tone—often for years on end. If we can’t—if we complain or set a limit or tell them they’re not welcome if they can’t treat us civilly—we are petty, stereotypical stepmonsters. Caught in this set-up, we go silent; then we get angry and resentful, and finally we may lash out at his kids, completing the cycle, playing our role in a script we never wanted any part of. ”
Many women know holidays will be the perfect time for their husband’s children (and often other family members) to remind them of how much their presence is not wanted. And there’s nothing more lonely than spending holidays with a group of people who wish you weren’t there.
To add insult to injury, many second wives are not only dealing with resentful children during the holidays, they are also often dealing with in-laws who feel threatened. There is very little reward for inlaws to include the second wife, particularly when they see their grandchildren hurting. They often empathize with their grandchildren’s resentment toward the second wife, and sometimes even fuel their resentments. To say this scenario is toxic toward a stepmother is an understatement.
The stepmother is bound to fail, be miserable and it’s no wonder so many stepmothers are ridden with anxiety by mid-summer over this issue.
Dr. Martin also writes, “Inevitably, we are confronted with the simple fact, one that persists: unless we are extraordinarily lucky and circumstances are just right, we cannot like his children without reservation as he does, we cannot always feel enthused about their visit or the fact of them, and it is not always easy to disguise it. Paradoxically, admitting this charged truth is not what makes us bad. In fact, it will likely lower the bar and our blood pressure significantly, bringing a much needed sense of relief to what can feel like an endless struggle. Acceptance also sets the stage for us to explore just exactly what’s under the feelings that can seem so overwhelming, feelings that may sometimes seem to threaten to blot out the rest of the world.”
Many of the articles and books I have read on the subject suggest different ways stepmothers should try to make holidays in their blended families better. One of the suggestions I read recommended that the stepmother create new traditions with her stepchildren. When you have stepchildren who have their feet dug in firmly regarding your exclusion in their family, trying to persuade them to create a tradition with you is yet one more opportunity for you to be rejected.
In particular, if you’re dealing with grown stepchildren and/or have been in their lives for many years and have never experienced any noticeable change, I believe the answer is to stop focusing on your role as a stepmother. It’s time that you stop losing sight of what is most important to you during the holiday season, spending time with those you love and those who love you. If you’ve lost months and months of your life over the years stressing about upcoming holidays, it’s time to stop worrying about pleasing people who will never be satisfied with your efforts, and who are too eager to mock your attempts. Above all else, you’re a human being with feelings and needs of your own. Just because you got married does not mean that you agreed to spend your holiday season filled with anxiety, stress and rejection every year.
Are your stepchildren adults? Do they shop for you? If not, stop shopping for them! Is there a reason that your husband is unable to shop, besides his strong aversion to going to the mall? It not, let him be responsible for shopping for his children. They’ll appreciate the fact that he did it anyway. Do you go to gatherings with your husband’s family and know how you’ll be treated? If you don’t like how you’ve been treated, and especially if your husband allowed his family to mistreat you, stop going. If your husband insists on going, it will still be better than going with him and being miserable. There are other options to holidays than to keep doing what makes you uncomfortable and miserable.
Do your stepchildren come to your home for holidays? Do you deal with rudeness, rejection, snide remarks, stink eye, brags about their mother, criticisms about your cooking, and excessive fawning over your husband? Are you the one doing the cooking, shopping and cleaning? Have you ever considered going out to eat? How about everyone going to an inexpensive buffet, opening their presents afterward, and then you take a glass of wine into your bedroom and have a relaxing bath? Doesn’t that sound better than exhausting yourself for people who have persisted in making you feel like an outsider for many years?
This blog is obviously not one of those that encourages stepmothers to keep trying indefinitely to win their stepchildren over. There is a very good chance that your stepchildren will never accept you. Studies have shown that less than 20% of grown stepchildren feel close to their stepmothers. Can you live the rest of your life without their acceptance? Yes, you absolutely can. The trick is to stop focusing on their acceptance.
Oddly enough, one of the most effective tools I’ve ever witnessed for stepmothers to gain some sort of acceptance from long-time resentful stepchildren, is to stop caring. Why that happens is for another post on another day.