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), especially if the father spends time with 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.

Some men resolve the conflict 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 her children are not his. Others 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, their current wives consciously or subconsciously attempt to resolve this problem (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.

Some women lack insight into their own feelings, subsuming them under a need or strong desire to please their husbands. Some 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 they stop cheerleading, their marriages will falter. Others just silently chafe, as he continues to maintain a "good relationship" with the people who had first claim on him.

(2) Reducing the child 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.

(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, it is nearly never that a stepmother feels about her stepchildren as she does about her own children. 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.

Moreover, the stepmother's own children, who have only one mother, do not benefit from sharing their one mother with a child or children who already have a mother elsewhere. 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 control and consistency that the stepmother needs for the benefit of her own children. Even though the presence of a stepchild denigrates the time and attention the stepmother can direct toward her own children, the stepmother may still believe that if the stepchild were integrated into the her family system, the detriment to her own children will be offset by more 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 the 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. Some 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". Other women develop their own negative feelings because of jealousy, especially when naive assumptions about being "the mother" in an instant family give way over time to the reality. Many women live to regret their credulity, and change their points of view considerably, if later on they themselves get divorced from the same man. This is particularly sad for second wives who did not have the children they might have had, and after years of effort, illusions are shattered when, post-divorce, they are no longer a de facto mother of his children as both of them formerly pretended was the case.

Are there exceptions to these rules? Sure. But far, far less often than not, and almost never if there is a stepmother leading the effort to change an existing custody arrangement.

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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