A Healthy Stepmother . . . plays the odds.

What are the chances that your stepchildrens’ mother will be a person you can collaborate and work with? What are the chances she’ll dig her heels in and be completely unresponsive to your attempts at a relationship? What are the chances she’ll simply ignore you and thereby not give her children permission to bond with you? Does anyone know the statistics on this? In all my reading about stepfamilies, I’ve never seen anyone actually studying the percentages of types of situations.

Let’s just imagine that stepfamilies, like almost every human behavior, follow a bell-shaped curve. The gold-standard in research, our behaviors and cultural patterns follow the bell curve over and over again. In essence, 10% of humans are at one end of the bell curve, another 10% are at the other end, and the vast majority, 80% or so are in the middle.

If we think about stepmother-mother relationships, it’s likely they follow the same pattern and 10% of them are the worst of the worst. And let’s be generous because, based on the number of blogs and books and comments on chat-rooms, there are a huge number of those stepmother-mother relationships that are volatile and damaging, not only to the women but especially to their children. To read some of these discussions and blogs, you’d think this was the norm, but in my personal experience it is not.

Playing the odds.

In addition, if we follow the bell curve and pad the numbers on the other end, maybe we’d find 15% of the stepmother-mother relationships are collaborative partnerships where everyone can set aside personal feelings and show mutual respect for all members of the dynamic. The children in these families are some lucky humans. This number is also a guess, based on the number of stories floating around about positive interactions.

Which leaves 65% in the middle . . . the rest of us. We aren’t in volatile situations, it feels more like a cold-war. Distance helps and minimizing contact has proven to be more effective than trying to be too close. Of course, given such a large number there is a range-within-the-range. Following our statistical “analysis,” this group makes up the norm and most of these families have their good days and bad days and a whole lot of ho-hum days in between.

Today when I was visiting a childhood friend, his wife, a stepmother to his children, told me that she simply “made up her mind” that she was not going to be one of “those” stepmothers and that she just took care of business and did what it took to not be “that way,” I nearly choked on my coffee. I waited quietly until she was done with her comments and suggested that with all due respect, she was successful in her endeavor because the mother of her stepchildren LET her be successful. The mother was willing to have a collaborative relationship and she could see the benefits of sharing communication, resources, and relationship-building for her children.

It was a good conversation because it helped me solidify my thoughts about this sticky topic. WHY is it not possible for more families to get into that upper part of the bell curve? Fear, worry, disrespect, jealousy? The possibility and responsibility for a collaborative relationship are held by both parties, this is not something one of them can do without the other. While it seems simple and there are books suggesting ways to accomplish this, it is also true that it takes two to tango and that some people don’t want to learn the tango or, when they do, they are not interested in dancing.

My purpose in writing this is to suggest that we look for the signs and take advantage of collaboration when it comes along, but that we don’t beat ourselves up when it just isn’t in the cards. And, dreadful thought, if you’re in one of the 20% of the worst stepmother-mother relationships, rush to get all the help and support and attention and care and feeding for you, your husband, and your stepchildren that you possibly can. And, remember the 10 Essentials, A Healthy Stepmother.

For all our stepfamilies and extended stepfamilies, may you meditate on what it would look like if you did take off the gloves and lowered your defenses and had a cup of tea.

2 thoughts on “A Healthy Stepmother . . . plays the odds.

  1. My husband’s ex’s current husband (my stepkids’ stepdad) is having heart surgery next week. I want to send her a note telling her he’s in our thoughts but I’m afraid it would be unwelcome. What do you think?

    • In my experience, you should follow your heart. If you think it won’t escalate tensions, then send it if your instinct is to reach out in that way. It might be received well, it might get misconstrued, but in the end you’ll want to answer the question. . . . what feels like the honorable thing to do? And make lots of space for any kind of reaction. I think it’s better to err on the side of exposing yourself and your sentiments, assuming you’re in the 65% middle of the curve. I’ve done the same and am glad I did. My regret is when I didn’t congratulate her on something that was important. Good luck, hope it’s received well!!

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