The Disengaged Stepmom: Is Disengagement Right for You?
Distancing Yourself From Stepchildren... Is It Ever Okay?
If you are reading this article, you are likely a stepmom on the brink of a blended-family-fueled mental breakdown. You've come to the right place.
For most stepmoms who are contemplating disengagement, when you met and married your husband, you probably wholeheartedly embraced your new role as a stepmom. You were likely eager and enthusiastic to be another loving adult in your stepchildren's lives. In the beginning, you were probably thrilled about your new family and the future you would all share together as a blended unit.
But over the years, those visions of blended bliss may have given way to resentment, annoyance, irritation, and maybe even rage. Your life feels chaotic. You feel others are taking advantage of you. You might feel your stepkids are rude and disrespectful towards you and don't appreciate any efforts you have made over the years.
If you find yourself nodding in agreement, you have come to the right place. This article will examine the meaning of disengagement in a blended family, help you decide if disengagement is the right choice for you, and discuss new ways to think about your responsibilities towards your stepchildren.
What Is Disengagement?
What is disengagement in a relationship? When a person chooses to disengage, they simply lose their willingness to invest any more energy, time, or emotion into an unreciprocated and imbalanced relationship. You disengage when you stop taking control, trying to help, feeling responsible, and attempting to take care of a person who doesn't appreciate your contributions or or a situation in which you find your energy unrewarded or unreciprocated.
What Does Disengagement Mean in a Blended Family?
No one singular disengagement solution is right for every blended family. Disengagement exists in a continuum, and it’s up to you to decide exactly how much will bring back your happiness and sanity. For some stepmoms, disengagement will mean having absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the stepchildren. For others, it may mean only disengaging from a few tasks, such as cleaning rooms or washing dishes. For every stepmom, though, disengagement means no longer accepting the responsibility of raising stepchildren.
For every stepmom, though, disengagement means no longer accepting the responsibility of raising stepchildren.
3 Reasons Stepmoms Disengage
- "Problems With the Kids." Many stepmoms disengage because they think they have a problem with their stepchildren. More often than not, the problem is actually with their partner or husband. This is especially true in high-conflict custody situations where children are caught in the middle of a loyalty bind between their mom and stepmom. (This is often known as "parental alienation," and I recommend this article on parental alienation in high-conflict custody cases.) In high conflict situations, stepchildren may be actively coached to hate or disrespect their stepmom or the ex-wife may place enormous unspoken pressure on the children to dislike their stepmom. If this is the case, the children will likely never feel comfortable thanking their stepmom for anything she does for them.
- Traditional, Unspoken, and Unfair Expectations. In many first marriages, when children are born, mothers take over certain roles in raising the children and fathers take on different roles. In a blended family, the father of the children often expects the stepmom to take over the roles traditionally held by a mother in an intact family. These tasks include many traditional household chores such as cooking and cleaning and many tasks related to childcare such as purchasing clothing, keeping track of the activity calendar, and being the main caregiver in the home.
- Built-Up Resentment. In many situations, stepmoms find themselves doing all of these tasks but receiving little or no thanks from their husbands or stepchildren. After a while, the stepmother begins to feel resentment and no longer wants to take on any of the additional duties that she once did. This is especially true if no one in the household seems to care or even notice all the work the stepmom does to keep the blended family running smoothly. The unseen work and emotional burden placed on the stepmom becomes too much and can begin to affect both the physical and mental health of the stepmom.
Is Disengaging the Right Choice for You?
If you have made it this far, you are likely wondering if now is the right time for you to disengage and what might happen to your marriage and stepkids if you do choose to do so.
First, both custodial and non-custodial moms can and do disengage from the day-to-day care of their stepchildren. Although it is easier for a stepmom to disengage from stepchildren who are only there every other weekend, full-time stepmoms have also successfully disengaged and taken back their sanity.
For example, Emily*, a non-custodial stepmom, had constant anxiety about her stepdaughter's grades. For years, she worked closely with the school and teachers to ensure her stepkids' assignments were completed and turned in on time. Eventually, Emily felt like she was putting in more effort than either her husband or her stepdaughter's mother. Emily decided to disengage from anything related to her stepdaughter's school.
Emily said, "It had gotten to the point that I was the only one checking the parent portal for missing assignments. My stepdaughter had gone from a straight A student to making C's in her important classes. I spent several hours a week trying to keep up with it all and trying to make her keep up with the work in the limited time she was at our house. My relationship with my own children was suffering because of it. I disengaged from everything related to school because I realized I was putting more work in than her mom or my husband and that wasn't right."
Emily also described what happened once she disengaged.
She said, "At first I felt an all-consuming guilt, like I had let my stepdaughter down. I hoped her parents would notice her grades were worse than when I was spending all my time trying to stay on top of it but they didn't. It was like they didn't even notice or care. Eventually I worked through the guilt once I realized it wasn't up to me to make up for her parent's lack of involvement. My job was to make sure my own children were successful in school and her parents were responsible for making sure she was successful in school."
Accepting Realities of Disengagement
For many years, stepmoms have turned to the virtual support site StepTogther for advice on disengaging. This online resource provides an essay on the realities of disengaging and lists ten realities that stepmoms must accept to successfully disengage. These ten realities serve to set excellent mental boundaries for stepmoms who do decide that disengagement is the right choice in their situation.
What to Remember While Disengaging:
- Your stepkids are not your children.
- You are not responsible for overcoming their previous raising.
- You are not responsible for what kind of people they are.
- You are not responsible for what kind of people they become.
- You are not obligated to become an abused member of the household just because you married their dad.
- You are not responsible for raising your stepkids.
- All the responsibility belongs to your husband.
- Your husband is not a mother.
- Your husband is not going to raise his children the way you want him to.
- Your stepkids are not going to turn out the way they would if husband supported you.
Links to Related Topics
Have you thought about disengaging?
Do you now think disengaging is the right option for you?
Does Disengagement Work?
Stepmoms often find themselves without a "tribe," and it can be very difficult to discuss disengaging from stepchildren. If you feel comfortable, please leave a comment about your experience with disengaging or choosing to remain engaged so that others who read this article can hear more real-life examples from experienced stepmoms.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.