Our mutual baby changed our stepfamily dynamic in unimaginable ways.
by Jacquelyn B. Fletcher
Two years ago I joined the Mommy Club after years spent hovering around its edges as a stepmom to three kids, now ages 10, 12, and 15.
When I discovered I was pregnant, we told the kids and talked about how this event might evoke all sorts of different emotions in them—excitement, worry, jealousy. We assured them that the baby would just bring more love into our family. Everything seemed picture-perfect.
The cracks in our family began to show when I saw a picture of the baby in my belly and she became real to me. I found myself less and less tolerant of my stepchildren. The power of my emotional response floored me. But when a new baby is welcomed into a home where at least one parent has children from a previous relationship, stepfamily dynamics are split wide open again as people decide how they will relate in this new phase.
Us Against Them
When my daughter was born, I could suddenly see Us (my baby and me) and Them (my husband and his kids). Every time my husband was asked to spend more money, more time with his first children (and they suddenly became his children, not our family), I became more resentful as I imagined all of the resources my own child would not have. And because I really do love my stepchildren, I worried my vastly different feelings for the children living in my home would be transparent to them.
Luckily, I found out that I was not alone in my worry-a-thon.
Andrea has an 11-year-old stepdaughter and a 1-year-old son. She was concerned that she would show favoritism to her own child at the expense of her stepchild. “I love them both dearly, but with my son I had this rush of love,” Andrea says. “I don’t love my stepdaughter less than I loved her before. There are things I share with her that I will never share with the baby.”
Many new parents who have older children from a previous relationship or stepchildren worry they will love the new baby more, but that’s a normal feeling, according to Anne C. Bernstein, a family psychologist in Berkeley, California, and the author of Yours, Mine, and Ours: How Families Change When Remarried Parents Have a Child Together. “Any parent who has more than one child will tell you they don’t feel exactly the same about any two of their children. It is unrealistic to expect oneself to feel exactly the same about one’s stepchildren as about one’s children.”
Ultimately it’s less important how you feel about each of the children in your home and more about how you treat them. “It’s one thing to feel differently and it’s another thing to privilege one person’s needs over another, and that’s what you need to guard against,” Bernstein says.
‘Because I Said So’
I parent my stepchildren from the back seat. If any big decisions have to be made, my stepkids’ parents have the final say. But my daughter has only one set of parents. We don’t have to run anything we do by anyone else. It’s fantastic, but not without complications. My husband and I have had to learn how to parent together in a new way.
“When you’ve been parenting, there are some established patterns that may need to be rebalanced, but I think it’s very important that the new baby not be seen as the exclusive responsibility of the parent who has not been a parent before,” Bernstein says.
As Bernstein discovered in her research, a mutual child tips the parental balance so that couples who operated smoothly before the birth of the child suddenly have to redefine how they will relate to each other as parents. Talking openly about your new roles and responsibilities can help.
Many variables affect how a mutual child will feel. In blended families with children who’ve had vastly different childhoods, the older kids may experience jealousy and the mutual child, embarrassment.
“Challenges for the mutual child mostly have to do with comparing themselves to their half siblings,” says Bernstein. “There can be what some psychologists have called survivor guilt. ‘Why do I have it better than someone else?’ And that’s another reason why more differential treatment of children can have a negative consequence for the mutual child.”
When relationship expert John Gray, author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, married his wife, Bonnie, she had two daughters. They later had a daughter together. “In my case,” he says, “the stepchildren quite often resent the birth child because it seems she is getting more. And she does get more time on some level, because the stepchildren will go visit their other parent.”
When my own half-sister was born, I was 16 years old. I was jealous at first, and worried that my father would no longer have time for me. Once I saw that my dad would still be involved in my life, I felt better. But even today, I feel a little pang when I think that my sister grew up with two parents, who are still together today, and I didn’t. Showing the older kids you understand that the birth of a child can bring up both happy and sad feelings for them can really help them deal with their tumultuous emotions.
In stepfamilies, transitions call into question the very nature and definition of the family because some of the members are not related by blood. Allow your feelings to come, whether they’re positive or negative. Acknowledge them and talk about them. Although it might not feel like it right now, your household will settle down once everyone figures out their new place in the family.
Jacquelyn B. Fletcher is a stepmother of three children and mom of one. She’s the author of the award-winning book A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom (HarperCollins, 2007). Visit her website at www.becomingastepmom.com.