“I do it all and my step-daughter never appreciates any of it.”
“My step-daughter’s mom isn’t even in the picture but she still respects her more than me!”
“My step-daughter seems to resent me even though I’m doing nothing but loving her with all of my heart!”
“My step-daughter believes that her mom is going back for her some day despite the proof to the contrary.”
“I took her shopping and all it did was make her depressed!”
I can’t even count the number of times I have heard step-mothers repeat these phrases or variations on this theme. Being the step-mother of a female child holds a special kind of challenge that few of us are prepared for when we take the job.
Daughters naturally want to emulate their mothers. They look up to them; they want to be like them. But more than that, they look to them for a reflection of themselves, to structure their own self-esteem, to understand their own self-importance. If Mom works to build them up and make them feel great, if she shows them that they are worth her time and focus and energy, they will thrive. But, sometimes, that is simply not the case in divorce situations.
We are living in a society with more and more joint custody. Furthermore, our society is now more supportive of mothers without custody. While not the norm, it is no longer a taboo occurrence. This is creating a whole new world of problems for daughters growing up without mothers. When a woman marries a man with frequent contact or custody of his children, the woman becomes the ad hoc mother-figure in his children’s life. The more time they spend away from their biological mother (physically or emotionally), the more complicated the relationship can be for the new step-mom.
This can be hard for a step-mom to grasp. She is “doing the right thing”, taking this new daughter under her wing, loving her, agreeing to be the role-model, the mother-figure. The problem is, unless her biological mother is deceased, it is unlikely that she wants a replacement mother-figure. She wants the original. Accepting anything less can be next to impossible for a child. And the poorer the child’s self-esteem, the more desperately she will cling to the fantasy of the biological mother whom she imagines will return to her life, any day now. This can feel counter-intuitive for the step-mom who believes if she just does and says the right things that the child’s needs would be met.
Resentment is common on both ends. The child of an absent mother often views every action of her step-mom as a reminder of the loss of her biological mom. A day out shopping can feel like a special bonding time for a step-mom but, to the child, it may just remind her that her biological mother never spends the time or makes the effort to do these things. This can result in depression, anger, resentment or transferred hostility. What it rarely results in is gratitude! And because of the lack of gratitude and, often, the result being the exact opposite of gratitude, the step-mom often feels her own resentment, anger, rejection, frustration or depression. It is an ugly cycle.
It helps to understand that your new step-daughter is mourning a loss but is stuck in the grieving process right around the stage of denial. Because her mom is in her life in even a small way, she has continued hope – often fed by well-meaning biological mothers who have their own brand of continued hope – that the situation is only temporary. Any excuse that her mom offers for the distance, emotional or physical, will be embraced as if it is the word of God, himself. Absent an excuse, children are exceptionally gifted at inventing their own. Believing the reality is just not something that many kids can do until they are teens or beyond. And even then, the pain does not end. They may blame themselves, feel unlovable or look for unhealthy or addictive ways to fill the void left by an absent mother.
What can a step-mom do? Well, you can’t fix it; you can’t erase the pain or make the biological mom participate more than she already does. You can’t feed your step-daughter’s denial and you also can’t wake her up to the reality. However, you can insist that she act respectfully toward you. You can help her to key into her feelings and suggest ways for her to work through them: journaling, writing a letter, picking up the phone and calling Mom, talking to a therapist or exercising are all healthy ways of dealing with pain. You can keep the lines of communication open. You can defer most major parenting decisions, discipline and rule-setting to her father. But the best thing you can do is remind yourself that, like a biological child, you love her unconditionally and will continue doing what is right for her regardless of her inner struggles. You may not feel or see it now, but one day she will thank you.