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Stepfamilies - and how to survive one!

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Lisa Doodson is a psychologist and researcher at Thames Valley University. She is currently conducting research into stepmothers and is looking for volunteers. The aim of the research is to firstly understand the different stresses and challenges of being a stepmother and then to be able to identify strategies which will help women become more satisfied and confident in their role as a stepmother. If you are a stepmother and would be willing to complete a questionnaire to help with the research please contact Lisa via email on Lisa.Doodson@tvu.ac.uk. All responses will of course be treated confidentially.

Stepfamilies represent a growing social phenomenon. In Britain today there are about two and a half million children growing up in stepfamilies and many more living in homes where parents and stepparents co-habit rather than marry. It is estimated that over 30% of the population and at least one in every 4-5 children now live in stepfamilies. A study of lifestyle changes published by the Economic and Social Research Council (2004) in the UK showed that stepfamilies are the fastest growing family type. Given this shift in traditional family models, it's vital that we gain as much understanding of stepfamilies and how they differ from traditional nuclear families.

As a psychologist and stepmother myself, I am naturally interested in understanding the challenges stepfamilies face. Last year, as part of this research, I interviewed a number of stepmothers. Overwhelmingly the women spoke of their frustrations with a role that is both undefined and ambiguous. All had found the role much more difficult than they had anticipated and felt they had no-where to turn to for advice or support. The women found it difficult to discuss their feelings about their stepchildren with their partners for fear of hurting them. Some felt upset that they didn't love or feel close to their stepchildren in the way they felt they should. These feelings are all natural and are shared by many stepmothers. The aim of my current research program is to more fully understand these issues and others that affect stepfamilies - and are unique to them. In this way, we can provide new role models and role definitions for stepfamilies which will in turn provide the much needed support and reassurance for a growing number of families.

Findings to Date

I am currently in the process of analysing the responses from a study I've been running over the past 6 months. The study used a questionnaire to test responses from both stepmothers and non stepmothers and compare their responses on factors such as marital satisfaction, mental wellbeing and quality of life. Although this research is still ongoing I thought it would be interesting to share some of the early findings.

    Stepmothers and non stepmothers experience the same high levels of marital satisfaction.

I wanted to make this point first as I think it flies in the face of popular media belief, which seems to convey the message that second marriages are less successful than first marriages. The research indicates that despite the additional issues potentially faced within remarriages, women are as happy, if not happier, than first married couples. Something to hang on to when you feel the troubles of the world are on your shoulders!

    Stepmothers show higher levels of depression and anxiety than non stepmothers.

The questionnaire measured overall anxiety and depression levels for all women taking part in the study. From the findings it was clear that stepmums experience higher levels on both measures, however before I set panic amongst stepmums everywhere I want to make it clear that although the levels are higher, they are still within normal levels! The results seem to be indicating that stepmothers clearly experience additional stress in their daily lives which increases their anxiety and depression levels above those experienced by 'regular' families.

    Women who co-habit rather than marry present higher levels of both depression and anxiety.

When I looked at the results for anxiety and depression I wanted to identify any other aspects of stepfamily life which may be affecting women's wellbeing and it became apparent that women who co-habited were showing higher levels of anxiety and depression than their married equivalents. Again, I want to spread caution with this statement - and not elicit a rush down the aisle! These are the findings of a relatively small sample of women and I will be looking at this aspect on a much wider sample over the coming months.

    Women who stay at home rather than work show lower levels of depression and anxiety and higher quality of life.

The findings certainly indicated that women who stayed at home rather than worked suffered less anxiety and depression and a higher quality of life, which I personally found quite surprising. Again, these are only preliminary findings and subsequent research will look at the potential reasons behind this.

    Stepmothers with biological children in addition to stepchildren suffer the greatest effect on their mental wellbeing and quality of life.

As part of my study rather than simply treated all stepmums the same (which clearly they're not!) I looked at different types of stepmums, for example those that have their own children in addition to stepchildren and those that just have stepchildren. I found that women who had both their own children and stepchildren suffered higher anxiety and depression and an overall lower quality of life. I believe that this may be connected with the greater overall stress that this type of stepfamily has to deal with and the different emotional ties they have to rationalise. Again though, its early days and I need many more stepmothers to take part in the research to truly understand the findings.

I hope this has given you an insight into the ongoing research into stepfamilies. I'd like you to treat the results with caution - as I said, these are just early findings and the ongoing research with a larger sample may not substantiate these results or indeed identify other areas to consider. My work over the coming year will widen the study to attract as many stepmothers to take part in the research as possible and then focus on the underlying causes of the heightened stress of stepmothers. My belief is that if I can make women more aware of the anticipated difficulties I can help them cope better with the issues of stepfamily life - leading to happier and successful stepfamilies.

Tips for Stepparents

  1. Defining your family along biological lines (ie. 'my family includes only those people to whom I am biologically related') does not lead to a successful stepfamily. You need to learn to accept that both your children and your stepchildren form part of your new family.
  2. Be a friend, a carer, a guardian angel, a godmother to your stepchildren - but don't be a mother. Research has shown that women who view themselves as a 'mother' to their stepchildren struggle much more with their role.
  3. Accept that the bond with your stepchildren may be weaker than your bond with your own children - but enjoy watching it grow and develop over the years.
  4. Treat your stepfamily as a single unit. If you constantly divide your family down biological routes - 'I'll take my children out and you can take yours' - the two units will remain distant. If you don't see your stepfamily as a 'family' no one else will either.
  5. Make sure you make time for yourself and your partner. If your relationship is strong you can survive anything life throws at you!

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