Here is an overview of some of the the findings from my PhD research on stepmums in the UK, carried out between 2005 and 2009. The aim of my research was to investigate the effect on women's wellbeing of taking on the role of stepmum. It's only by conducting extensive research in this way that we can truly understand the impact; and once we understand the impact we can focus on how to make changes that improve the outcome! I've included some of the key findings below but all of this (and more!) is covered in my book 'How to be a happy stepmum'.
'Integrating' everyone into your stepfamily
Stepfamilies are formed by merging two separate 'biological' families or individuals, each with their own histories and backgrounds. While in the early days of the relationship it can feel more natural and easier to feel protective of your 'own' children, in the long term it's important for all the individuals in the new family to feel included within the new unit. By including everyone - whether they live permanently in the family or just visit at weekends, they're all part of your new family. If you act in this way, others will start to think of you as a family. So for example, make sure you include all your children (biological and step) on christmas cards, talk to friends about what all the children are up to. By changing the way you think, you can change your behaviour and the way you see your new family. In turn this improves your welbeing, reducing anxiety, depression and increasing your overall happiness within the family relationships.
Defining clear, unambiguous family roles
Role ambiguity is an issue which many stepparents face. There are no rules or social norms for stepparenting as there are with biological parenting. Psychologists have for many years believed that the stress experienced by stepmothers was in part caused by the absence of so called ‘social norms’ or role models to help them define their role within their stepfamily. As the roles are so vague, it’s difficult for stepmums to assess whether they are succeeding (or failing) in their roles, leading to ever increasing confusion and anxiety. Role ambiguity and resentment are often linked closely with stepmothers’ wellbeing, so when feelings of resentment are running high and women are confused about their role, they generally feel more anxious. It's therefore really important that you work out, with your partner what your roles are in the family. Do you want to be a parent to your stepchildren or perhaps more of a friend? Try and find a compromise that works for everyone. If you can learn to reduce your feelings of resentment and better define your role in your family you are likely to feel less anxious and become happier in your new family.
The research found that stepmothers were much more prone to anxiety than women who were just biological mothers. Anxiety can take many forms but feelings of restlessness, excessive worrying, panic, feeling fearful and 'butterflies' can all be symptoms. Anxiety in itself is a perfectly natural reaction but it's not necessarily a good thing to be anxious for long periods. The aim is to reduce anxiety to more manageable levels. The amount of support you get from family, friends and your partner for example can significantly reduce your anxiety. Even if you feel you can't discuss your problems with your partner, try and talk to someone close to you who can lend a sympathetic ear. It can sometimes help you see things more clearly. The way you cope with problems can also affect how much anxiety you feel. People use different ways of coping with stress and some are more effective than others. 'Denial' such as ignoring something or pretending the problem doesn't exist does not help in the long term and only seems to increase anxiety. Similarly venting your emotions, such as shouting and getting angry, with no thought to finding a solution to an issue, does nothing to reduce anxiety! It's far better in the long run if you can learn to deal with problems by facing the problem, sometimes having to accept it (such as the fact that your partners ex will always be a part of his life, even though you might wish she wasn't), or putting a plan into place to deal with the problem, rather than burying your head in the sand and hoping it will go away!
Support from our family and friends is really important for your wellbeing and acts as a 'buffer' from stressful events in our lives. Without this support we're in danger of suffering from greater anxiety and depression. Research showed that stepmums often have to rely on less support than biological mums, particularly from friends and their partner's family. This can be due to factors such as an enduring relationship between their partner's ex and their in-laws, and the fact that they have less in common with their friends who are often still single and struggle to understand the demands of being part of a stepfamily. It's really important to recognise the significance of support from those around us to help us cope with problems. If you find that you don't have the support you need try and find ways of improving the links you do have or finding others who you can turn to when things are difficult.
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