A recent (April 2012) inquiry from a stepmother researching child custody issues for the purpose of increasing her husband's timeshare with his adolescent son contained no comments at all about what her stepson wanted or needed, or how he ostensibly would benefit from increased timeshare with his father's family. I also noted that, as is common, it was the stepmother, and not the father, who was researching these issues. I also noted that the inquiring stepmother has one or more of her own children, and no apparent recognition as to how having a stepsibling as permanent resident in the household might affect their interests. (No matter how supposedly terrific her "relationship" with her stepchild is, it is extremely unlikely that those feelings come close to how she feels about the children to whom she gave birth.)

I strongly suspected that her motives included one or more of the following reasons that stepmothers push for custody of stepchildren, even though, were they to be honest, most stepmothers, especially if they have their own children, don't want his children, and really would rather not have responsibility for his children. The reasons stepmothers (and some girlfriends) do this are:

(1) Maintaining the exclusivity of her husband's familial interests and affections toward her, and by extension, "her" family. This gives rise to the common emotional need to redefine the stepchild as belonging to the stepmother, i.e. "ours", and part of the stepmother's nuclear family. Stepchildren are competition for fathers' limited free time and resources. This is true whether or not the stepmother has her own children.

Unlike in an intact biological family, the father's interests are going to be conflicted in a blended family situation. There is no fully satisfactory solution to this, and it is one reason blended families do not function so well (and have such high divorce rates). Someone is going to suffer, and if it's not the adult relationship, then it's the children.

This is a problem for the adult relationship (and subsequent half-siblings) when the father spends time with (and "joint money" on) his prior children in activities that by the father's choice or of necessity exclude his later-born children or wife. There are many examples of these: court-mandated father-child only activities, dinners out, and therapies; parent-teacher conferences and school events also attended by the ex; pick-ups and drop-offs that can take considerable time away from the intact family, derail spontaneity in outings, and may also include impromptu visiting with the former spouse; continuing communications with the former spouse; activities during timesharing with the older stepchild that are not suitable for including later children or the stepmother; timesharing and school holiday schedules that conflict with the stepmother's children's time off or interfere with holiday plans, etc.

Conversely and perversely, it's also still a problem for the stepmother who wants to pretend that "they" are an intact, rather than blended family. Many stepmothers resent that they and their husband, or "the family" (if she has children) never get "family" vacations or activities or celebrations without including the stepchildren. It's especially problematic when the stepchildren are in and out of the household, and others' schedules start centering around the "timesharing" schedules of individuals outside of the functioning nuclear family system.

Some men try (consciously or subconsciously) to resolve the inherent conflicts by directing the bulk of their emotional and financial support toward the children of their current wife, rather than their own children from other relationships, even if the current wife's children are not his. This is the perhaps easier and more natural, traditional solution of "men moving on", but it's the one that's widely condemned these days in the public discourse.

Other men (more and more these days, because of the trendy rhetoric about continuing "father involvement" and the pro-joint custody "timesharing" laws) cause undercurrents of strife in their current marriages by voluntarily or involuntarily continuing to divert a not insubstantial part of their free time and emotional and financial resources to a competing family system. In the latter situation, these men's current wives consciously or subconsciously react by attempting to resolve this resulting deficit in their own relationship or family system (women tend to manage family systems) by creating one unified family and/or by engaging in a pretense of loving the stepchildren and the timesharing arrangement, especially if they have no choice in the matter.

In addition to the foregoing, many women lack insight into their own feelings, subsuming these feelings under a need or strong desire to please their husbands. There already is a natural tendency for them to adopt his perspective and join his "team". But even if they don't, some women have no practicable choice but to carry the banner of their husband's ongoing complaints, gripes and excuses, or displaced guilt about how his choices might have harmed his prior children, because if in fact they stopped cheerleading, their marriages would falter. (It's not unusual that he married them precisely to be a "replacement" for the woman he now may hate.) And if he doesn't gripe? If he has a friendly relationship with the ex? It's still a no-win for the stepmother. Jealousy is a natural emotion, so when the fathers aren't actively disliking their former wives, these new female partners silently chafe while he continues to maintain a "good relationship" with the people who had first claim on him and have shared experiences with him (excluding her), all the while spending on strangers what the new partner perceives to be "her" family's time and marital resources.

(2) Reducing the child support, and possibly spousal support, her husband has to pay. This is especially pernicious inasmuch as the subsequent wife should have been aware of her mate's prior obligations when she decided to marry and have children with him. Some women, however, often those who were childless when they met him, did not at the inception fully appreciate the financial impact of the prior obligations, the possibility of increased child support in later years, the insulting effect of their own financial contributions toward limiting his deductions in the child support calculation process, how this would impact their own emotions down the road or their future children (or their subconscious vision of a future intact happy family), or any of the attendant blended family emotional and authority issues. Financial issues are the tangible symbol of the loyalty and unhealthy alliance problems, and are a more easily perceived and articulated irritant. And money all by itself is a strong motivator.

(3) Obtaining a vague hoped-for better situation on balance for her own children, such as the older half-sibling's affection (if the stepchild is more attached to his mother's other children than to hers), or even free babysitting. Notwithstanding men's fond hopes, however, it is nearly never that a stepmother feels about her stepchildren as she does about her own children. Unfortunately, when it comes to figuring out what to do to make their romantic and marital relationships and families function well -- or even to marry at all -- women try stuff and hope. Love is blind, somehow they will overcome all (and his divorce of course was the ex-wife's fault, whereas now he has "true love"), and everything will end, Brady-bunch-like, happily-ever-after.

Importantly, stepchildren do not benefit from being continually in a residential situation in which they are second-best to the better-loved biological children of their stepmothers. It's even worse, a double whammy, for them to have to deal with the fact that Daddy has new children (biological or step), who he spends more time with, and who at best, take his attention and resources away from them, and at worst, appear to have replaced them.

Moreover, the stepmother's own children will suffer in this arrangement as well. This is true whether or not her children are also his, or came into the marriage and new family relationship with her. Although stepmothers may not care much about whether the stepchildren suffer emotionally (even if they have the insight to understand why, and where their "misbehaviors" might come from), stepmothers also frequently fail to realize in advance that the (mostly thankless, by the way) burden of extra time and work on them will take away from their own children, current or future. Even if corners are cut -- and frequently they are (stepmothers on the whole invest less in the care of children then do their real mothers) -- the additional burden still means that the stepmother's own children, who after all themselves have only one mother, will have to share their own one mother's time and emotional resources with a child or children who already have a mother elsewhere. Fair? No. A recipe for resentment and conflict, whether overt or or whether simmering just as poisonously (and undetected or ignored) under the surface while it creates long-term emotional issues? You bet.

The stepmother's children also do not benefit from the continual presence of a stepchild who lives by other rules and values, or from witnessing their own mother's denigrated household and parental authority vis a vis the step-sibling. Most often, however, and more and more these days with the fatherhood rhetoric and parenting plans, the stepmother has no choice or control over the timesharing situation that directly affects her own family and marital life. Thus, having more control can seem preferable, and more "family" timeshare carries the possibility of more control.

These issues not infrequently are subsumed under the compelling and usually inarticulated or unrecognized emotional needs of the stepmother described under item (1), above. But they also are about a rational need for control and consistency that the stepmother seeks for the benefit of her own children. Even though the presence of a stepchild(ren) denigrates the time and attention the stepmother can direct toward her own children, the stepmother may still believe that on balance, if the stepchild(ren) were integrated into the her family system, the detriment to her own children would be offset by the greater hoped-for familial unity. Her goal is to reduce the father's split loyalties and the competition from the stepchild(ren) that turns his attention away from her family. If a stepchild is only another member of the group of children in the stepmother's home, then perhaps the father's time and attention can remain consistently directed to all of them collectively (e.g. holidays, family outings).

So not infrequently, stepmothers seek compromise strategies even though their real feelings -- albeit self-preservation dictates that they usually will loudly and indignantly deny these feelings -- range from tolerating the less-than-ideal situation (if they truly are fond of the stepchild or stepchildren), to fervently wishing that his former family would just vaporize and disappear.

(4) Satisfying a need, also widespread among childless stepmothers and girlfriends, to prove that she is, in all ways, the better woman and mother. This is a competition thing, often exacerbated intentionally or unintentionally by the husband, about the woman who was there first. During the courtship, just as she attends to her appearance, the stepmother wannabe coos over his children and tries hard to exude competence and patience with, and affection for, his darlings, so these women likely mislead him as well as themselves. Once set in that path, to the extent it is a pillar supporting the adult relationship, the new stepmother is trapped into the position of trying to make it a reality. (Is she going to tell him later, when he complains, whether speciously because of his guilt, or sincerely, because of ongoing support or custody issues, that honey, sorry I really don't want your kids? A few do. Most don't.)

Also, either naively or calculatedly, more than a few second wives uncritically adopt, attempt to create, and/or seek to reinforce the negative opinions of their husbands toward the first wife, vested in believing wholly in his skewed point of view and a reconstructed history of his prior relationship (e.g. "I never really loved her"; e.g."She is a negligent mother"; e.g. "Parental alienation", etc.). Not infrequently, their husbands deliberately or unwittingly promote this, and may even have remarried in part to obtain convenient homemaking and childcare from a preferred fungible (in his mind) "mother". The mutual whine reinforces the team feeling (us against adversity) and once this pattern is set in motion, the stepmother continues the legal war in the established habitual direction, without critical thought.

Other women develop their own negative feelings about the first wife because of plain old ordinary jealousy and territorialism, especially when naive assumptions about being "the mother" in an instant family give way over time to the reality, and the honeymoon period wanes. Some were competitive from the inception as "the other woman" -- self-absorbed, wanting to be married, and unable or unwilling realistically to consider the ramifications from their own positions, let alone the effects on others. For the unworldly, Hollywood also helps foster romantic delusions about the blended family, just as it fosters other fictional romantic nonsense. Finally, many men just do not have strong attachment to or empathy for their children (at least compared with their children's mothers for the children, or compared with these men's feelings about their current sexual partner), while others just don't think all that about any of these things or anything much beyond how their new honey makes them feel (because managing the family and family/social relationships is and always has been someone else's job).

Many women live to regret their credulity, and change their points of view considerably, if later on they themselves get divorced from these same men. It is particularly sad for second wives who gave up their youths, who did not have the children and families they might have had, and who, after years of effort, find their illusions shattered post-divorce (or merely once the children are grown), when they are no longer a de facto mother of his children as both of them formerly pretended was the case.

Are there exceptions to the above? Perhaps. They occur only rarely, and virtually never if there is a stepmother leading the charge to change an existing custody arrangement, or if there already existed ongoing child custody hostilities or litigation.

Note to judges, psychologists, custody evaluators, legislators and the media: Stop facilitating the fantasies. Stop creating and exacerbating the problems. Stop it. Stop it now.

-- liz





The Child-Centered Divorce Family Court is Not a Family-Friendly Place Parenting Coordination Dealing with forensic psychologists and discovery of test data in court


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