Wives of Widowers
Stepmothering Children Whose Mother Has Died
by Michelle Mares
It can be a very isolating experience being married to a widower and being a stepmother to children whose mother has died.
A hundred years ago, we were a common breed: scores of men were widowed due to the high incidence of maternal deaths during childbirth and pregnancy, and most of these men went on to marry again. Nowadays, the majority of marriages end through divorce rather than death, and those of us who have married widowers young enough to have dependant children, are no longer so commonplace. Like all stepmothers, we encounter a great deal of misunderstanding and false notions about who we are and what we do.
If you are a stepmother of children whose mother has died, you're in a different position from other stepmothers. You become the only living mother figure these children have — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You do all that a mother does, you are all that a mother is, and yet, you are not their mother. This can become a source of tremendous psychological pressure and stress. You may constantly question yourself, "Do I love these children as much as their biological mother would have? Can I give them what they need?"
You're generally perceived as a second-best substitute for the biological mother, and sadly, you may think this about yourself too. The assumption is that you cannot parent the children as well or love them as much as the biological mother would have.
This can create an acute identity crisis for you as a stepmother. You have to re-evaluate your position in society and instantly find your place within a pre-established family. People may unconsciously see you as a replacement when, in fact, you are a unique individual who may have very little in common with the deceased biological mother. Your husband may expect you to behave like a biological mother overnight, and you may end up feeling like an unpaid nanny/housekeeper: driving the children to lessons and to school, getting dinner for them, helping them with their homework, babysitting, enduring screaming tantrums etc.
Parenting can take over your whole life. Your identity can get swallowed up by the role of stepmothering, and you may find yourself trying to get out from under the shadow of the deceased biological mother. You may feel that friends and relatives are monitoring, observing and critiquing your every parental move. Everyone seems to worry endlessly about the children's welfare. But you are the one who's been thrown in the deep end of the stepparenting pool, and can barely keep your nose above water. The extreme pressure can cause nervous breakdowns in the strongest of women!
The most important little creatures at the center of this drama are, of course, the children. Depending on their age and their temperament, they will most likely be very much in need of a mother figure. They may call you "Mom" and depend on you for motherly care and attention. Children should never, however, be forced to call a stepmother "Mom" and should only do so of their own volition.
It is also important for them to feel free to talk about and remember their deceased mother (though it may be difficult to hear about her sometimes). Photo albums, a box of her treasures, and a few framed pictures in their bedrooms should be sufficient to serve this purpose. It is not, however, necessary to have shrines to her memory scattered throughout your home. Respect her memory, but don't become enslaved by it.
Even though a stepmother didn't give birth to her stepchildren, she does have a unique and important position with them. It is an exclusive relationship, which is unlike any other. This is especially true in a situation where the biological mother has died: she is the only mother figure and over time should expect to be granted full parental authority and recognition.
If the children do accept you as a mother figure, you should claim your place as such and be proactive in your family. People may question your motives for taking on such a big emotional load and may be suspicious of your love for the children. "After all," they reason, "you are only there because you fell in love with their father." The truth is that your love for your stepchildren can grow and become a very strong feeling indeed — many stepparents report that it can feel indistinguishable from what biological parents feel for their children.
Essentially, a stepmother of children whose mother has died becomes a full-fledged parent overnight. She often gets immediately saddled with the overwhelming responsibilities of parenthood without automatically being granted the rights and experience that should go along with them. She inherits half-grown children who have been sheltered and overprotected because of the loss of their mother and who have been brought up with values that may differ starkly from her own. She may feel inhibited to express her ideas about parenting, feeling that she hasn't got the "right" to bring these children up.
It is impossible to live this way. Once the decision has been made to marry a widower and create a stepfamily with his children, the stepmother and her husband must both dedicate themselves to becoming a parental unit with equal rights and responsibilities. This can be an unbelievably challenging task!
Discipline is undoubtedly the most problematic issue in any stepfamily. Hours and hours of committed discussion with your partner are necessary to find your way through this intricate and emotionally-loaded problem. Unfortunately, a previously-widowed father will often defend his children's misbehavior at your expense. You will probably have to explain to him repeatedly that you are not harming the children when you point out and enforce consequences for misbehavior. You may become deeply discouraged by the fact that your husband feels the need to defend the children against you. You must persevere and continue communicating about it.
Ultimately, the healthiest approach for the children and for you as a couple is for you and your husband to present a united front: he backs you up, and you back him up in front of the children. You may disagree on how the other is handling things, but bite your tongue until later when you can discuss it behind closed doors. A note of caution: never shake or hit a child. No matter what your personal stance on physical punishment is, your actions may not be easily forgiven by either the children themselves or by friends and family. You might only add fuel to the fire of the "evil stepmother" prejudice.
Another common pitfall in any stepfamily is a division of loyalties. The biological parent has an unquestionable and eternal bond with his children and with the deceased mother, which predates his relationship with the stepmother. There will be many occasions when she will feel like the "new kid on the block." The loneliest and most desperate moments are those when she feels like an outsider in her own home and in the family she has married into.
Friends and family of your husband's may also feel proprietary about him and the children, especially if they were around during the grieving process. They are often blinded by the fact that you were't there "before" and believe you therefore cannot possibly know your stepfamily as well as they do. This is, of course, rubbish, but this misconception can serve to isolate the stepmother at a time when she needs friends and moral support more than she ever has before.
Be very discerning about whom you confide in! Almost no one can fully understand the emotional intricacies of being a stepmother to children whose mother has died. You may receive mainly useless advice, which applies to other stepmothers at best or to other biological parents at worst. You must also be careful not to criticize the children or express your exasperation with them to friends and relatives who don?t know you very well and who are just getting acquainted with you. You will only feed their socially-conditioned negative view of stepmothers.
Be positive about the children, show respect for the dead mother, and save your venting for people who know you well, or for other women in a similar situation. Be aware of all that you are doing, have confidence in your ability to mother your stepchildren, and counter insensitive remarks with facts.
In order to maintain a positive mental attitude, it is very important for a stepmother to create her own niche and unique personal identity. Stepparenting can take over your entire life. Make sure you keep a corner of your life just for you: stay in touch with your friends, do things that do not include your husband and his children, and keep your interests alive.
You must also spend enough time with your husband, alone. He may unconsciously expect you to become like a biological mother overnight and may begin taking your parental contributions for granted. He has to learn that you need romance and intimacy in your relationship and not just parental duties. Your husband should become your best friend and your strongest support. He needs to be like a rock for you, and the both of you need to learn to be on the same side. It takes two fully-involved adults to create a stepfamily!
The same applies to the children. If you are having problems relating to your stepchildren, plan more one-on-one time with each of them. You and the children need time to get to know each other, and you need space to develop your own unique relationship with them. You might be amazed how much fun "Johnny" is when he's not fighting for attention with his sister "Jenny" or with his father.
Creating a stepfamily takes a lot of time, patience and love. Experts say that it can take anywhere from two to five years before it begins to feel like a family. Do not underestimate the enormity of the task you have undertaken. You are becoming a parent. Read books on parenting and on stepmotherhood. Prepare yourself and arm yourself with knowledge. When you feel that you are going insane, be comforted by the fact that it is not you, but rather the fact that you're in a crazy-making situation.
It is an immense task to take on children who are not your own and to parent them in a society that holds such deeply-rooted prejudices about stepmothers. We can change these prejudiced views in our social circles, and we must reach deep down inside ourselves to our reserves of emotional strength, wisdom and maturity to do so. Like any great challenge, step-mothering children whose mother has died can bring out the best and the worst in a woman. Learn from the worst and move forward with your best!
Talk about it at the Members Cafe! Stepmothering Children Whose Mother Has Died
Michelle Mares is a Canadian who has been living in Holland for the past three years. She is a professional pianist and is happily married to a widower with two young children.