As a psychotherapist, I've talked to women all over the country about a dirty little secret: Sometimes, stepmothers don't love their stepchildren. "I need to confess this to someone," they tell me. "I feel so bad about this, but I don't, um, I really just don't, um, you'll think I'm a horrible person for saying this, for admitting this, but, um, I just really don't love my stepchildren."
I laugh when they say this and they are taken aback. What kind of cruel and twisted therapist am I that I would laugh? But I am quick to reassure, "So what? Of course you don't love your stepchildren. Why should you? Just because you fell in love with their father doesn't mean you will automatically love his children. Some women do, but many women don't and there is nothing to feel guilty about!"
The relief on their faces or in the tone of their voices is immediate and palpable. Then the familiar kicker comes: "But my husband is demanding that I love his children. He expects me to love his children." At one of my recent "Stepmonster" support groups, one woman mumbled, "Last week, my husband told me that if I didn't love his son the way I love our daughter, he's going to divorce me." Her husband needed a big-time reality check.
When I married my husband almost 10 years ago, I had no expectation that he love any of my four children, children who were deep in the throes of adolescence and were quite busy totaling cars and getting underage drinking tickets. I wasn't greedy. My hope was that he would be able to tolerate them. Loving them was between him and them, and quite frankly, none of my business. But what I did expect from him was to treat my children in a loving and kind manner.
Some say that love is a conscious choice. I would revise that: Acting in a loving manner is a choice. As stepmothers, we can certainly act "as if" we love our stepchildren. We can act in ways that are loving and make choices in our daily lives to do so, but it doesn't mean that we have to "feel" the love. Nor should we feel guilty for not feeling something as profound and intimate as "love."
It's an awkward subject to be sure, and we don't need to announce while sitting around enjoying a nice glass of wine: "By the way, honey, I don't love your kids!" There's an advantage to diplomacy. But when we are pressed against the wall and cornered for an answer to the "do you love my children" question, my advice to stepmothers is to say, "I care deeply about the welfare of your children and am open to the possibilities of building on our relationship in ways that feel genuine and authentic for me."
I've found that stating that commitment, that intention, is enough for most well-reasoned husbands. Stepmothers simply cannot be the first-aid love doctor for their husbands, many of whom bring their own sense of shame and failure from their former marriages, and desperately want to have the new marriage clean up the messes from the first. It's not realistic and it's not fair.
The good news is this: We can have our cake and eat it too. We don't need to love our stepchildren, or even like them, to have successful marriages. But we would be wise to treat all the people that come into our lives with warmth, courtesy and kindness. Anything other than that, though, is just icing on the cake.