The Disengaged Stepmom: Is Disengagement Right for You?

Updated on April 3, 2018
Alice Marlowe profile image

Alice Marlowe PhD, PMHNP, RN, holds a BA in Psychology and is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner.

How Did You Get Here?

If you are reading this article, you are likely a stepmom on the brink of a blended-family-fueled mental breakdown. 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 the lives of your stepchildren. In the beginning, you were undoubtedly thrilled about your new family and the future you would all share together as a blended unit.

Over the years, the visions of blended bliss you had on your wedding day have given way to resentment, annoyance, irritation, and maybe even rage. Your life feels chaotic. You feel others are taking advantage of you. You probably feel your stepkids are rude and disrespectful towards you and do not 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.

Definition of disengage
Definition of disengage | Source

What Does Disengagement Mean?

dis·en·gageˌ

disənˈɡāj

verb

  1. separate or release (someone or something) from something to which they are attached or connected

synonyms: remove, detach, disentangle, extricate, separate, release, free, loosen, loose, disconnect, unfasten, unclasp, uncouple, undo, unhook, unhitch, untie, unyoke

What Does Disengagement Mean in a Blended Family?

No one singular disengagement solution is right for every blended family. There exists a continuum of disengagement and it’s up to you to decide exactly what will bring back your happiness and sanity. For some stepmoms, disengagement will mean having absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the stepchildren. For other stepmoms, 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.

Have you thought about disengaging?

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Why Do Stepmoms Disengage?

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. 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 not like their stepmom. If this is the case, the children will likely never feel comfortable thanking their stepmom for all she does for them.

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.

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 was once happy to do. 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.

Quote from a non-custodial stepmom who chose to disengage.
Quote from a non-custodial stepmom who chose to disengage. | Source

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 disengage.

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.

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 assignments were completed and turned in on time. Eventually, though Emily felt like she was putting more effort in 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."

Do you now think disengaging is the right option for you?

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Accepting Realities of Disengagement

For many years stepmoms have turned to the virtual support site StepTogther for advice on disengaging. The 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. Here are the realities as found on StepTogether:

  1. Your stepkids are not your children.
  2. You are not responsible for overcoming their previous 'raising.'
  3. You are not responsible for what kind of people they are.
  4. You are not responsible for what kind of people they become.
  5. You are not obligated to become an abused member of the household just because you married their dad.
  6. You are not responsible for raising your stepkids.
  7. All the responsibility belongs to your husband.
  8. Your husband is not a mother.
  9. Your husband is not going to raise his children the way you want him to.
  10. Your stepkids are not going to turn out the way they would if husband supported you.

Disengaged stepmom mantra
Disengaged stepmom mantra | Source

Tell Others About Your Choice

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.

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    • profile image

      Lori Sims 3 days ago

      Disengaging with the NachoKids method saved my sanity and marriage!

    • profile image

      Lynne 500 10 days ago

      I am learning about disengaging. I wish I had heard of this 30 years ago when I thought it was my responsibility to be the mom I thought my step children needed . I walked into that house and did everything I could to be the great mom I feel like all children deserve. I have been treated like an outsider since day one and now the grown step children I raised treat me like I don't exist. They spend time with their mother who basically deserted them. My self esteem has been rock bottom, but now I have heard about disengaging. It never would have occurred to me because I love my kids. I am realizing now though that they truly do not love me or care about my decision to parent them. The more I keep them out of my everyday life, the better I feel. I don't deserve to be hurt like this anymore. My self esteem has been trashed but I am starting to see myself as someone worth while again. I am trying to look at what I did for them is a gift, but have the freedom to move on.

    • profile image

      YesIndeed 12 days ago

      Think it is pretty important to stress the fact that all co-parenting is hard. There is a certain difference in step parenting and raising a non step child. But, it is imperative to know when to start taking off points for bad behavior, and when the other person needs to step up as a regular parent. It's actually pretty normal for one parent not to support the other one. (That's true if the children are small and teenagers.) New parents, especially, need to know the difference between normal parenting fights and step parenting problems. Saying "I feel like if this were OUR child.... " can be a dangerous assumption. Comparing the young child that the couple now have together is still not the same.

      It cannot automatically be assumed the problem is the "step problem" without considering it may just be how the other parent raises children. Doing so can result in over expectations of the other's parenting skills.

      All moms feel like they are treated like maids, are under appreciated at times, don't always get the support warranted, etc. Only point is- start calculations where the real step parent problem are, and then work up from there. It may or may not be a step problem. It may just be that a good part of the problem is just the other parent.

      Either way, diagnosis should start at a reality "ground zero" and work up from there. Zero out the minus 5 points for the regular bad parenting skills, where applicable, and then start counting the step deficit from there. Only then can any real calculations be figured.

      It would be a shame to disengage and find out only 1/10 of it was due to being a step parent and the rest because the other parent just stunk at parenting skills. You can really be selling yourself short of an otherwise recoverable relationship with a normal rebellious teenager.

      Over crediting the step word can also give you self confidence issues, as well as rob you of joy you might otherwise have with the child.

      First step must be to accurately assess how much to attribute to being a "step." If you have a younger child together, you also need to know where to be stronger now, rather than later.

      Otherwise, careful not to totally disengage before you correctly diagnose the cause, need and degree of action required. Step parenting can be very rewarding for everyone involved.

    • dashingscorpio profile image

      dashingscorpio 2 weeks ago

      If you don't get along with someone's children you probably shouldn't marry into their family. That's probably the best way to avoid unnecessary stress and aggravation.

      In a world with over 7 Billion people odds are in all of our favor there is someone for us who does not bring a boatload of drama! :)

      If your or your mate has to change your (core being) in order to make a relationship "work" it means you're with the (wrong person). Compatibility trumps compromise.

      Like attracts like and opposites attract divorce attorneys!

      The problem with "disengaging" is it means you have to "change" and more often than not it's impossible to be happy if you can't (be yourself) in a relationship or marriage. Keeping your mouth shut when you want to say something, looking the other way, and walking on eggshells is not a way to live.

      The goal is find a "soulmate" not a "cellmate".

      Each of us (chooses) our own friends, lovers, and spouse.

      Each of us has our mate selection process/"must haves list".

      Each of us has our boundaries and "deal breakers".

      There are only two ways to experience joy and peace of mind in relationships: We either get what we want or we learn to be happy with what we have. Accept them (as is) or move on.

      Choose wisely!

      "Never love anyone who treats you like you're ordinary."

      - Oscar Wilde

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