August 8, 2010 in Features

A stepmom’s unique burden

Successful transition includes layers of social challenges
By The Spokesman-Review

Janice Marich’s future husband, Douglas, made this clear while they were dating: He was a package deal.

The other part of the package? His young daughter, Elizabeth.

“My husband said, ‘If you are not able to embrace my daughter, we will not go forward,’ ” Marich said.

She embraced it all, and now, 20 years into her marriage with Douglas, she can’t imagine a life without Elizabeth Thomas, now 30; Elizabeth’s husband, Nicholas; and their three children, Sadie, 7, Emma, 5, and Nathan, 1.

“She gave me a family,” Marich said. “She gave me grandchildren.”

Successful stepmoms like Marich aren’t all that rare in our society, but you’d never know it.

Wicked stepmothers dominate fairy tales. Manipulative stepmoms spice up movie plots. And media stories often highlight stepmoms gone bad.

In Portland, Terri Horman, the stepmother of missing 7-year-old Kyron, is under suspicion in the boy’s June 4 disappearance. Even before suspicious revelations about her surfaced, website commenters had convicted Horman of the crime.

“Follow the stepmom!” one wrote in a typical sentiment on a CBS website. “Too often this is how these stories end up.”

But in reality, stories involving stepmoms usually don’t end in tragedy, though the stepmother-stepchildren relationship is filled with emotional and psychological land mines.

A University of North Carolina School of Social Work report examining dozens of stepmother studies showed that being a stepmom is more difficult than being a stepdad, and stepmothers also experience more anxiety and depression.

Plus, stepmoms carry this extraordinary burden: The quality of stepmother-stepchildren relationship is the major predictor of family adjustment in remarried families, according to the report.

With that pressure, how does any stepmom get it right? Well, many do. And successful stepmothers have several things in common, including:

Diana Hornbogen, a marriage and family therapist at St. Joseph Family Center in Spokane and a stepmother herself, does seminars on blended families.

“The whole myth of instant love is a big setup,” she says. “Kids are going to be indifferent. They don’t know this woman from Adam.”

Elizabeth was 10 when Marich came into her life. She lived with her mom two hours away, and she spent every other weekend with her dad and Marich.

Douglas’ work schedule precluded him from picking up Elizabeth; Marich volunteered.

In those rides, “we established a bond,” Marich said.

Elizabeth said the bond also evolved during bedtime talks.

“I remember lying on the bed together and chatting,” she said. “I felt like I could talk to her about anything. For me, that was really meaningful.

“It was difficult to have divorced parents. My mother was busy in her own life, and we didn’t have that intimate time to just talk about whatever.”

Hornbogen advises stepmoms: “Don’t jump in too quickly. You are not obligated to love the kids, and they are not obligated to love you.

“Be friends first. It may take a long time – if ever – to develop real love for one another.”

Marich made it clear from the beginning that she wasn’t there to replace Elizabeth’s mother. She and Douglas even invited Elizabeth’s mom to extended-family gatherings.

Stepmothers often walk into families deep in grief, Hornbogen pointed out. In some families, the biological mother has died. In most, the mother and father have divorced.

In her parenting-children -of-divorce classes “we talk about a divorce being a death,” Hornbogen said.

“For the husband and wife, it’s the death of a relationship. For the kids, it’s the death of a family as they knew it.”

Stepmothers who hope by stepping into a “supermom” role – or who try to replace the biological mother – exacerbate the grief.

The best help is to listen without judgment when the children open up, the experts say.

On one occasion, Marich said to Elizabeth: “It’s OK if you want your parents to get back together.”

This acknowledged Elizabeth’s feelings about her parents. Reunification is a common desire for many children of divorce.

“In divorced families, you hear a lot of negative talk about the other (parent),” Elizabeth said. “Janice never, ever spoke badly about my mom. So I never felt like I had to take sides.”

“When dad was single, divorced or widowed, his times with his kids were spent one-on-one,” Hornbogen said. “Now, there’s competition. The kids have to share daddy’s attention.”

“We always gave Elizabeth dad and daughter time,” Marich said. “I was not there to put a wedge in her relationship with him.”

Elizabeth remembered: “Dad always likes to go for country rides in the car. A lot of times Janice said, ‘You two go ahead and have some time together.’

“For me, it felt like I could talk to my dad with privacy. It was awesome she offered that. Even now, she’ll say, ‘Why don’t you and dad go shopping together and I’ll stay back.’ It’s essential to make sure the child feels important in their parent’s life and heart.”

Marich was determined from the beginning to be a good stepmother, because she experienced firsthand the sadness that can arise in tense step-parenting relationships.

Her mom lost her own mother at age 3. The father didn’t remarry until Marich’s mother was in her 20s, but Marich’s mother never overcame her resentment.

If people thought the stepmother was her mother, she quickly corrected them with a stern: “She’s my stepmother!”

Marich’s great hope was for Elizabeth never to feel that same tension about her. She hasn’t.

A Spokane County United Way vice president for community relations, Marich has also been involved in the Our Kids: Our Business campaign for four years.

The Our Kids initiative stresses that the more people who love children, the better. Stepmoms, if they understand the unique challenges of step-mothering – negative cultural stereotyping most of all – can make a huge difference.

“When you have an opportunity to love, do,” Marich said.

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