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geese and goslings

The Stresses of Stepmothering

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album
Reviewed by Heidi Radunovich, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

As the number of stepfamilies has continued to rise over the years, much attention has rightly been paid to the welfare of children being raised in these households. Perhaps surprisingly, however, little research has focused on the well-being of stepparents, though some small studies have suggested that stepmothers, in particular, may sometimes struggle with their role.

A 2011 study in the journal Family Relations compared 60 biological mothers with 75 stepmothers, asking women to rate their parenting stress levels, depression symptoms, and the feelings of appreciation and acceptance they got or didn’t get from their children.

Stepmothers reported significantly higher parenting stress levels, and were more likely to feel that their children did not accept them or were embarrassed by them. Relatedly, nearly twice as many stepmothers met the cut-off for clinical depression. The more stressed stepmothers were, and the less accepted they felt, the more likely they were to be depressed.

Although this study was relatively small and homogenous, its results are striking. The authors believe that stepmothers may be under more pressure than stepfathers due to the higher expectations placed on them by society as women. There are also many inherent difficulties to the often-tricky “second mother” role.

The number of stepfamilies has just about doubled over the last 20 years, so these issues will continue to affect many families. Increased support from partners and family may help women adapt to the complexity of stepmothering. Women and men who will be forming a new stepfamily may also want to consider preparing in advance for this transition. The resources in Further Reading can help.

(Photo credit: Goslings by Will Marlow. CC BY-NC 2.0. Cropped.)

Further Reading

Stepping Stones for Stepfamilies–from UF-IFAS EDIS

Couples Considering a Blended Family–from UF-IFAS EDIS

National Stepfamily Resource Center

Stepparenting Resources

Stepfamily Forum

Reference:

Shapiro, D. N. and Stewart, A. J. (2011). Parenting stress, perceived child regard, and depressive symptoms among stepmothers and biological mothers. Family Relations, 60(5), 533–544. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3729.2011.00665.x

(Originally published in a slightly different form as: Church, C. (2011). The stressed of stepmothering. [Radio broadcast episode]. Family Album Radio. Gainesville, FL:  University of Florida.)