Coping Strategies and Responses
Women who experience role conflicts, but perceive their spousal role as distinct from and more personally relevant than their stepparenting role, often resolve any stress this causes them by reducing their investment in stepparenting (Weaver & Coleman, 2005). Rather than the mothering but not a mother role function that some stepmothers described, these women express their role function in a manner that Weaver and Coleman labeled other focused. Stepmothers who were other focused described serving as the liaison between their husband and their stepchildren’s mother or as a facilitator, attempting to improve relationships between their spouse and his children or between their spouse and his ex-wife. Vinick (1998) made similar observations about older stepmothers, who she described as often serving as “family carpenters” who tried to help rebuild relationships between their husbands and their estranged children. In both Vinick’s study and Weaver and Coleman’s, the stepmothers’ roles sometimes became an extension of their spousal role functions, and were performed to reduce stress and take pressure off their husbands rather than to provide care for the stepchildren. For example, because of hostile relationships between husbands and ex-spouses, stepmothers sometimes served as chauffeurs to transport the stepchildren from house to house, or they would make the arrangements for child visits. They also made recommendations to their husbands about parenting, they talked to the stepchildren in attempts to explain their father’s behavior to them (“Give him time, he’s just now learning how to be a dad to girls. Give him some time to learn how”), and they told the children how much their father loved them (Weaver & Coleman, 2005).
Another stepmother role function that reduced stress, Weaver and Coleman (2005) called the outsider. These stepmothers were either involved outsiders or had no direct interactions with and no responsibilities for the stepchildren at all. Involved outsiders were present but did not participate in family activities when the stepchildren visited. They were available to fix snacks, do laundry, and perform other household chores, but they were bystanders who stayed out of the way of their husband’s and his children’s activities. Other researchers have found this coping strategy as well (Doodson, 2014).
A similar approach to nonresidential stepmothering, called role by relation by Weaver and Coleman (2005), was engaged in by women who had no problems with role conflict because they did not believe they had a role function with the stepchildren; they did not see stepchildren as being important in their lives. These women saw themselves as the wives of the children’s fathers, and nothing more. The stepmothers in this study found this stance difficult to maintain when stepchildren moved into their households, often without the stepmothers’ input.
Other coping strategies have included reaching out to other stepmothers in online chat rooms (Craig et al., 2012), seeking support from friends and faith (Whiting et al., 2007), and making concerted efforts to get to know the biological mothers, to recognize their concerns, and to appreciate the perspectives of stepchildren and biological parents (Doodson, 2014; Whiting et al., 2007). There is little evidence of the effectiveness of these coping actions, but they seem likely to contribute to positive relational outcomes, at least more so than pushing fathers to return to court to change parenting plans, which was another strategy employed by some (Henry & McCue, 2009).
The idealized image of motherhood influences both mothers in stepfamilies and nonresidential stepmothers. The mothers felt as if they must always put their children first, that they are blamed if their children don’t turn out well, and that they are rarely praised if they do. The stepmothers worried about being seen as “wicked,” and they also felt that they must engage in saint-like behavior by overlooking incidents in which they felt they were being taken for granted, ignored, underappreciated, rejected, and treated rudely in general. They also worried about crossing boundaries and competing with the mother. The nonresidential stepmothers often believed that they would do a better job than the “real” mothers if they were allowed to fulfill a mother function with the children. All complained about poor parenting practices on the part of the “real” mothers (Weaver & Coleman, 2005 ).
Because researchers have typically assumed that family power is acquired by gaining resources (i.e., money, status) outside the family, there has been little understanding of the power that women have within families (Kranichfeld, 1987). Nonresidential stepmothers make frequent reference to their lack of personal and interpersonal control or power in their families (Craig et al., 2012; Doodson, 2014; Henry & McCue, 2009; Weaver & Coleman, 2005). Their concerns center on value differences they have with mothers regarding child-rearing, differences that negate stepmothers’ abilities to enforce rules and regulations within their own homes, and with decisions about child support, child residence, and visitation schedules that were either made before they entered the picture or without their input. No matter how much they invested in the stepchildren or how much attention and care they provided them, these nonresidential stepmothers feel they would still be completely powerless to influence them. If the marriage to the children’s father ended, they would not even have the right to continue seeing the children. Compared to most women in families, the position of these women was quite perilous.
Nonresidential stepmothers respond to feeling powerless in several ways. Probably the most common way for them to gain power within their family is to have a child of their own. A second commonly mentioned approach is to encourage their husbands to attempt to gain custody of their children. Gaining more access to the children may be seen as a means of diluting the influence of the mother and imposing the stepmother’s values on the children, to shape them as a “good mother” would want to do. The third way of dealing with the lack of control has been to encourage their husbands to pay less child support.
None of these solutions to nonresidential stepmothers’ perceived lack of family power has been investigated to any extent, especially in regard to consequences of these behaviors for stepchildren, remarriages, or stepfamilies. It might be in the best interest of the children if mothers shared their mothering role function to a limited extent with nonresidential stepmothers. Broadening women’s power beyond the boundaries of the family (e.g., better jobs, better pay, more shared household responsibilities) might also lessen the struggles stepmothers’ perceive they endure trying to gain a modicum of family power as it relates to mothering functions, at least in their own household.