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Ask a Psychologist: How Do I Keep From Screwing Up As A Stepparent?

Making sure the kids really are alright

Q: Dear APW,

I’m having some big anxiety issues.

So, some background (with apologies for my inability to be succinct): my fiancé and I are living together in a house we rented a couple months ago. His kids (ages fifteen and eight) are with us half of the time and with their mom half the time. I don’t have kids. Our wedding is in March, less than six months away. I am getting increasingly nervous (panicked?) about his kids’ acceptance of me, about my ability to be a good stepmom and not screw this up, about my presence in their lives causing them some anguish. I feel a lot of guilt. My fiancé’s divorce was not THAT long before he and I got together and I got to know the kids. (He and I had been friends for years but did not get together until we were both single.) I worry that the kids blame me for the divorce. That they wish I didn’t exist. This makes me feel like they need to be happy all the time when they’re with us, or it’s my fault and they’ll end up hating me.

I should mention that I’ve had no problems with either kid. My fiancé’s teen daughter and I get on shockingly well—we like to watch the same TV shows together, we ran a 5k together, she sends me Facebook messages sometimes when she’s at her mom’s and I haven’t seen her in a few days. His son, the younger kid, definitely likes me (or at least he did initially—I’m never sure lately, but I’m pretty paranoid). He’s very enthusiastic and loud, and made it clear he was happy when I was there. Lately he’s been making a lot of comments, though, about being excited when he goes to his mom’s (I made a nice spreadsheet for our fridge to help the kids keep track of when they’re with whom, and he’ll check it and say things like “Yes, I’m going to Mom’s tomorrow!!”), because he gets to see his cat. My fiancé tries to convince me that this really is just about the cat (who his son is admittedly obsessed with). But I feel terrible anyway.

I’m just so scared of screwing this up, of them hating me, of failing. I just keep finding articles online about second marriages failing, and how hard it is on kids, and basically just listing ways I could be doing damage. I suppose I should also mentioned that I have a history of depression and anxiety, ongoing since I was a teenager. I’m on Zoloft, and I have seen a psychologist in the past. (I think I need to make some new appointments with mine.)

So, my question: I’m not sure. How do I not screw up? Do you have any advice? I just can’t take the anxiety I feel whenever his kids seem less than 100% happy (and sometimes even when they do).



A: Dear Anon,

The media and larger culture have put all sorts of ideas in our heads about stepmothers, from Cinderella to Julia Roberts. In addition to having some of these negative stereotypes to juggle, there are the significant pressures put on parents today, specifically, the pressures to Be It All/Do It All and to Be the Best Parent. Let’s also acknowledge that entering into a family with children, especially having not yet had children, is very anxiety-provoking in itself. And right now, you are navigating All of the Issues and Feelings of new motherhood, as well as all of the issues related to marriage and entering into and creating a new family. That is enough to make anyone anxious. (Luckily, Meg has written some on-point, relieving, and mind-opening pieces on the topic of motherhood here, here, and here.)

It seems like you are marrying into a truly lovely family. You’ve given some beautiful examples of the positive relationships you have with your fiance’s children. There is no evidence in your letter that his kids are in “anguish.” On the contrary, there is lots of evidence of many positive interactions and feelings between you, your fiancé, and his children. And, kids don’t tend to beat around the bush. If they’re upset, you’ll usually be able to tell by observing changes in behavior (e.g. oppositional, angry, or withdrawn), which you haven’t seen. So, you may be in anguish over your anxiety, but it sounds like the kids are all right.

People cannot be happy, or, really, one particular emotion at all, 100% of the time. Most mental health professionals today understand emotions to be temporary, and to occur in somewhat of a wave form, with an increase, peak, and drop in intensity. This includes positive emotions. Yet, there seem to be a lot of messages lately that we should be happy all of the time, and that we should definitely be making sure that our kids are happy all of the time. One of my professors in graduate school once commented that in the 1800s, and maybe even into the 1950s, psychotherapy treated a culture’s repression of positive emotions. People were suffering because it was unacceptable in society to express their positive emotional experiences (e.g. sexual fantasies or experiences), so these thoughts were manifesting in dysfunctional ways. Now, we may be treating people who are unsatisfied and anxious because it’s unacceptable in society not to be happy 100% of the time, and if they’re not happy, then something must be terribly wrong. Fortunately, APW does particularly great work to dispel this myth in the context of partnership and marriage. Last, and importantly, the kids are allowed to be happy about seeing their mom. This is natural, and it’s an important relationship to them. Why is their being happy about seeing their mom mutually exclusive with their being happy about seeing you and your fiancé? Both things can be true. Stepparenting often cultivates a sense of competition, but it doesn’t have to.

There is also the sense of a deadline—the pressure and impending doom (increasing anxiety) surrounding the wedding date. There is the sense that everything must be in order before the wedding. Or… what? Relationships, like the topics Meg suggests talking about before marriage, involve an ongoing, dynamic, fluid process. They get figured out and settled into over time. And, if things are going well now, why is there the sense that, once the wedding happens, things will not continue to go well? You’re probably overthinking things if you’re getting into this pattern of wondering.

Then again, while too much anxiety is unhelpful, a little anxiety can be healthy, and is often actually necessary and useful. What might your fear of “screwing up,” the kids “hating you,” and your “failing” be communicating to you? What is this anxiety really about? Is it an ongoing, deeper anxiety, and thus maybe not entirely related to what’s going on now? Is it about concerns about what your fiance’s ex-wife thinks? Is it anxiety about your relationship or upcoming wedding or marriage? Or, whether the two of you will have your own children, and how that would potentially affect family dynamics? Maybe it’s all of the above. All of these anxieties are normal and would make sense.

Right now, it’s really important to work through all of this anxiety, to make sense of what anxiety is helpful and what is not, and also to ensure that your anxiety doesn’t affect the positive relationships that you have with your fiancé and his children. It is definitely a good time to begin seeing a therapist again. It’s also important to communicate your concerns to your fiancé, who sounds very understanding—but it’s critical to have your own space in which to safely, objectively explore your concerns. You’ll be a more relaxed person afterwards, and you’ll be able to continue to be an awesome fiancée, soon-to-be wife (!), and new stepmom. You should know that the APW community will be behind you, cheering you on.

More support for stepparents can be found in the online support forum here, and in Meetup groups here.

The information provided in Ask a Psychologist is intended by Dr. Brofman and APW to serve as general advice and guidance for all readers. The advice herein does not constitute a clinical recommendation or relationship, and Dr. Brofman and quoted mental health professionals do not take clinical responsibility for this information. Ask a Psychologist does not take the place of a confidential clinical consultation with a trained mental health professional. 

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