The Extra Wicked Stepmother

A recent manifesto written by a law professor/grown stepchild and published on Yahoo brings to light the deep resentment often carried by individuals from divorced families.

She (stepmother) hates immigrants, children, and from what I can tell, my sisters and me.

Having been published before, it was no surprise that Kat Macfarlane’s ability to describe her stepmother as being racist was a creative way to distinguish her experiences from those of other grown stepchildren.

Cristina worked in personnel and interacted with people from all over the world desperate for a chance at a coveted UN gig.

This required a great deal of self-control because Cristina is a committed xenophobe. She kept her racist asides to herself during the work day.

She’d let it rip at home, though.

One of the quickest ways to unify a group against someone is to declare the person to be a racist.  This disparaging tactic is widely overused in today’s society, yet remains an effective way to rally troops for an attack.  Social liberals from far and wide take up arms at the mere mention of the word, often without considering the validity in the accusation or the intentions of the accuser.

Once past the obvious attempt to devalue the stepmother based on moral justice and to proclaim her own actions as superior, the all too common similarities between Ms. Macfarlane’s hostile and unresolved feelings toward her father and his wife become clear.

The evil stepmother, Cristina, was criticized for being too short, drinking too much, being boring, hating children and exercising in front of her husband’s children.

“David,” Cristina murmured, “the toilet is disgusting after they use it, tell them to clean it!”

Dad would sigh, exit the room Cristina was in, and deliver her message.

“Girls, if you use the bathroom, you need to clean the toilet after you use it. And light a match,” Dad paraphrased.

Our sins multiplied.

“David, the living room!”

“Girls, stop acting like pigs.”

When my sisters and I came to visit, two of us had to sleep on the living room couch’s pullout out bed. This was extremely disruptive to Cristina’s living-room carpet exercise routine. On her hands and knees, she’d kick the air behind her over and over again, a move she learned from a Claudia Schiffer workout tape.

Cristina dared to drag her husband’s children to her family’s castle in Italy, where the girls tolerated the visit as long as they possibly could before pulling their father aside and begging him to leave.  Lastly, Cristina was crucified for not wanting to share her shampoo and expecting the girls to contribute to cleaning up their own messes.

As kids, we spent Christmas Day at Castel Fusano. My sisters and I would find a quiet corner in which to bide the time. After four or five hours had passed, we’d track Dad down and beg him to take us home. But we couldn’t depart until Cristina was ready.

“David, my shampoo is almost gone!” Cristina whispered loudly.

“Girls, that shampoo is not for you. Use the other kind.”

Ms. Macfarlane diminishes the validity of her father’s decision to marry Cristina by claiming they only married so that her father, who had suffered from an embolism, could receive Cristina’s health benefits.  Yet Ms. Macfarlane suggests being disappointed that neither she nor her sisters were invited to the wedding.  It’s a double-edged sword when a grown stepchild attempts to minimize the father’s new marriage while also demanding to be recognized as the father’s true family during the ceremony.   Many blended families struggle with these common challenges, which often present as a win-lose and typically result in a negative-sum.

The scenario Ms. Macfarlane describes is one that increasing numbers of children find themselves in around the world.  Studies show that children are deeply affected by their perceptions of a family system or family belonging.

Family belonging is a family-level or holistic construct that refers to the entire family, not to any specific relationship. Of course, relationships contribute to people’s feelings of belonging.  “The total system has a unique coherence … adding the parts together will not produce the whole and members are not independent of one another”  This alludes to a second key tenet of family systems theory: All parts of the family system are interconnected, and changes or problems in one subsystem affect other subsystems.

In stepfamilies it is very common for individuals to feel as though they are insiders or outsiders.  The ones who feel left out often fight to feel included or quit trying.  The failure to blend and have all parties feel included affects everyone in the family.  Very often with grown stepchildren, there are no easy solutions.  Opinions are formed, hurt feelings live on and resentments run deep.

Biased perceptions on all sides often play into unrealistic narratives rather than adherence to facts. As in Ms. Macfarlane’s account, she describes a time when she yelled at her stepmother at a family Christmas gathering, “You’re a fucking fascist!” .  The author describes her outburst as stemming from a newfound boldness at the age of 21.  That is her perception of the night.  On the receiving side of Macfarlane’s outburst was a woman, who was celebrating Christmas with her boyfriend and her family members.  Kat’s intention was to publicly shame her stepmother.  I have a deep suspicion that the guests were more appalled with Macfarlane’s sense of entitlement than anything she had to say (or shout).

Because family cohesion is challenged when problems arise in individual relationships, the only way for everyone to feel included is if all parties share the same goal of being a part of the family unit.  Based on what Macfarlane writes in her article, it would seem she has negative feelings on not being included in her father’s family unit.

Successful relationships require trust, mutual respect and consistency.  Unfortunately, despite the image Ms. Macfarlane paints of acting out of justice, her outburst was not justified simply because her target was a stepmother.   And stepfamilies are never going to be all inclusive when deep fractions continue to exist.

These types of exchanges are difficult to forget and can feed resentments for many years to come, particularly if no attempt to acknowledge or retract the attack is offered.  While these surface exchanges are difficult to deal with, they are most often just representations of deeper feelings of grief, resentment and anger.  The feelings are understandable; however, the resulting behaviors are not and should not be tolerated.  For every grown stepchild who feels justified hurling demeaning slurs at their stepmother, is a stepmother who would prefer to lay eyes on their stepchild less often (i.e., no wedding invite for Kat).

There seems to be a blanket of assumed forgiveness for stepchildren, not just when they are minors, but all the way through their adulthood.  On one hand, we look for stepchildren and our own children to strive toward independence and seek out their own happiness in their life journey.  However, for grown stepchildren who are unable to shake off the disappointments from growing up in a divorced family, their resentful behavior is often dismissed by individuals who have also experienced life with a stepfamily.  Very often their behavior is overlooked by their own fathers.

As noticed in Macfarlane’s article, the father is not a main subject.  His parenting skills, his presence and his expectations are noticeably lacking.  This is quite common in non-blended stepfamilies.   Too afraid to speak up, many fathers prefer to step back and not take an active role in parenting their own children.  This is a setup for all, which raises the odds of having a deeply divided household.

Unfortunately, for many blended families, attempting to reconnect comes too late.   The time for parenting is over, the willingness for all to welcome each other and treat each other as family members has passed, and the ones who have their heels dug in deep are not likely to change their views.   For these individuals, nursing old wounds provides more relief than letting them go.

While empathizing with stepchildren and their feelings is understandable, what many stepchildren fail to do as grownup is consider how they are going to deal with their feelings and alter their behavior so that they can continue to have their fathers be in their lives.  Sadly, many relationships between children and their fathers eventually fade away as everyone tires of the ongoing conflict.

Beverly Bliss, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist offers the following advice for divorced fathers.  Below are Dr. Bliss’s words of wisdom for divorced fathers.  Hopefully more divorced fathers will step up and parent their children rather than choosing a more permissive path:

Step 1. Accept that guilt is a prime mover in your actions. Most men feel guilty because they lost their family and their power as father to that family. You may also feel guilty if you believe the mother of your children is not doing an adequate job of parenting.
Step 2. Make the most of your visitation. The rules of visitation need to be set precisely and specifically. Children need predictability.
Step 3. The children at your house live by the rules of your house. Your children need to become part of your household, not just guests in your home. Appropriate behavior and acceptable manners must be decided upon by the couple. Chores must be assigned; making beds, helping with meals, keeping the bathroom clean, etc. Structure equals love. Chaos and unpredictability creates low self-esteem in a child.
Step 4. Most men, even the strongest and most powerful, wimp out and turn into ninety-pound weaklings when their children visit. They endeavor to be “buddies” to their child. We so often hear fathers saying, “I see them so little; I don’t want to waste time being their disciplinarian.” Remember, discipline means guidance.
Step 5. Create high self-esteem in your children. This is done by creating predictable expectations for your children when they come to your house. Predictable rules and regulations will make your children feel safe and secure.
Step 6. Money is always a problem, no matter how much there is. It is often best when children visit to give them a specific allowance for the time they will be with you. In return for the money the child receives, he/she is expected to be a good citizen of the household, do chores, and then use the money as he or she sees fit. If a child needs extra money, we advocate “extra pay for extra jobs.”
Step 7. Build and maintain couple strength. Work together with your partner. Discussion is okay, but arguments are not. Be respectful of her reality as well as your own regarding the assignment of chores. Work this out between you, or seek the help of a Stepfamily Foundation counselor. The couple are the two pillars that hold the family together: She is the female head of the household; he is the male head of the household.
Step 8. The couple decides the rules of discipline. The couple decides the Rules of the House: chores and manners. The biological parent disciplines the child whenever possible. When necessary the stepparent says, “In this house we . . .” in order to avoid the “You’re not my mother; you can’t tell me what to do” syndrome.
Step 9. Creating a structure is vital for the children. This requires extending the Rules of the House to all events. This structure makes it easy for kids to know what to do at your house. It doesn’t matter that the rules are different than Mom’s. Creating a structure means creating high self-esteem. Children like themselves better when they know that they have done a good job and are part of a team.
Step 10. Remember that you are the father and the male head of the household. Men teach children the ways of the still dominant, male hierarchical business structure.

Self-reflection is necessary for all individuals in a blended family.  We all are continually learning and evolving.  While we can not control the actions of others, we can control our own.  It’s not feasible to believe we always know what each other is thinking, how others are feeling or how our actions have been perceived.  For instance, although Kat finds her accusation toward her stepmother over Christmas dinner to be justifiable, she has no idea how her stepmother felt nor how strongly she continues to feel about that night.

For grown stepchildren who realize the their father’s loss and wish to reconnect with him, family counseling can be just the tool to help everyone learn how to communicate effectively, to agree upon some standard and acceptable behaviors and to accept each other as human beings rather than the titles we all bring to the equation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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