Divorce isn’t harmful to children, but conflict is. When discussing co-parenting, that’s why keeping the peace and respecting boundaries is essential. When a spouse remarries, that’s multiplied. Your place as a parent feels threatened by the new partner, but open communication and awareness of roles can help transition into the new family dynamic with minimal drama. You and your children are family for life, regardless of different household arrangements.
Bonds don’t disappear, they evolve due to circumstance. With a new stepmother in the mix, a mother’s role sometimes feels threatened and a child’s loyalty is put into question. Furthermore, women and men are often drawn to traditional gender roles that create further tension between steps and co-parents.
The stepparent role
Typically, a mother feels threatened or a stepmother feels unwelcome when the co-parenting relationships change. The new arrangement needs to bring the two sides together, cordially, without creating stress for your child.
Step parenting is a delicate dance of responsibility versus authority, where the new stepmother is expected to hold a parental role, but somewhat less than the birth parent. It’s generally expected that, for example, discipline will come from a birth parents while a ride to the piano lessons or school may come from a step.
Respecting the boundaries on both sides eases the process, and it’s always important to remember any legal custodial decisions from the divorce. When a new step extends beyond the comfort zone or a birth mother ignores a stepmother’s suggestion (or existence), it heightens the conflict and no one wins. Children feel and mirror that disrespect.
Referred as “the gender trap,” stepmothers in particular are often drawn into “mother” roles in a household because of cultural norms. While it may not be intentional, there is an unwritten expectation that the woman in the house will take on a care-giving role, which inevitably challenges the already defined roles of the co-parents. This puts the child awkwardly in the middle between mom and stepmom. It’s important that the father takes a proactive role in care-giving when his house transitions. Otherwise, it threatens the established co-parenting arrangement.
The gender trap can pull a child in two directions, between dad and stepmom on one side and birth mom on the other. It creates a loyalty complex that’s important to minimize. Leading by example, the new parenting dynamics will settle into a routine with defined roles, removing the threatened feeling on all sides.
It’s important for birth parents and new stepparent alike to constantly be aware of their roles and to openly communicate between all parties. Falling into expected cultural roles and ignoring or overstepping bounds can quickly escalate a situation. Once tension is rampant, the conflict extends from co-parenting into the children’s behavior.