WHY DO STEPMOTHERS SO OFTEN SEEK
CUSTODY OF THEIR HUSBAND'S PRIOR CHILDREN?
A recent (April 2012) inquiry from a
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
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
(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.
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.
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
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.