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

      Chris 

      3 days ago

      As a stepdad I relate to much of what is written above, because I am the one who tracks grades, coordinates chores, deals with the schoolwork and parent-teacher conferences and my partner (the stepkids' mom) is the one who rarely gets involved in academic or household stuff and who rarely expresses appreciation for pushing and nudging the kids. I have had to accept that my teenage stepkids don't want to act towards academic success; they are craving some kind of substantive attention from their mom, and they are acting out with bad grades, as that substantive attention from her is unlikely to occur and their bio dad walked out completely 15 years ago. As I accept this and partially disengage, I have more time to focus on my biological sons (7th and 11th grades). I try to find something to celebrate everyday.

    • profile image

      Julie G8580 

      8 days ago

      Im lost in it all as a stepmom all i ever wanted to do was be there for her. But its began to be so much more. I have been w my husband for over 15 yrs and in 2010 we gained custody of his daughter due to the mom being an addict for yrs i have been the one to do it all for her not anyone but me but for some reason her grandmother and aunt state that i aint anything to her and havent liked me for yrs. Just recently in the past yr we have allowed her mom to come into her life slowly letting her do for her and stuff but this is when things take a turn my stepdaughter went and said some awful things about me that we dont understand why she would go and say things like that. Is it cause her mom is telling her she wants this and that and telling her that she wants her to live w her and so forth. Like what is it? We dk. But heres the thing she hasnt been able to get her life together still til this day but yet her family does everything and anyhting for her she is not allowed to be around her till she does what is said on the court order papers. But yet when she goes over there shes w her mom. We all get that she wants to be in her life and were all for it but just take the drug test and get ur own rights like its not hard. Mind u she has 4 other kids one lives w the sister and 2 live w her and one lives w grandma and she still going thru cps. And both know that she not to be around the kids but still allow it all to happen. We want whats best for her but ahe just dont get it cause shes so brainwashed and thinking that lying is ok. I think at this point in my life im ready to disengage. But where do i start? And how does it work? Im just so stressed over all this bs!

    • profile image

      recovering step monster 

      3 weeks ago

      I can not tell you how much of a weight was lifted off of my shoulders after reading some of the other experiences stepmoms have had. I have been married to my DH for 14 years. When we met, he had two daughters ages 7 and 9 and I had 1 daughter age 3. We got married pretty quickly and became an instant family. He adopted my daughter as her bio-dad had passed away. His ex-wife remarried just 2 months after their divorce and the main reason for their divorce was were multiple incidences of adultery with several men, including some who were also married and now divorced because of her. My DH had his girls most of the time but they slept at their moms house so she could still get full child support. She also refused to report her private business income to the courts and so he was paying more than he probably should have all along. She was negligent of the girls with things such as hygiene, packing enough clothes, and would show up late, change plans last minute, and also call our house or have the girls call our house sometimes up to 5-6 times a night when they were not with us. We sought counseling, tried email communication in a calm manor, and would get nasty and hateful responses. So, we took her to court and had to set up set visitation times. We spent a lot of time with girls when they were with us and it was all about family time when they were at our house. At their moms there was a lot of adult parties and they were encouraged to yell, argue and fight it out if they weren't getting along. Any discipline or beliefs we had were met with rebellion and hostility from girls, their mom, and stepdad. Visitations lessened as girls got older, their mom became their "friend" as they reached high school, and their attitudes towards my DH and I was awful until 2 years ago when I had enough and had my DH to tell them I was not wanting to have a relationship anymore with me or my younger daughters. He did not confront them over the teen years much because they would get so explosive so we just tolerated it and put up with it. Since I have chosen disengagement, stepdaughters ages 21 and 23 have stalked my daughter and left gifts at her school, reached out to my family and other people in community to try and get to my daughters, refuse to stop sending gifts in the mail, and I have recently been stalked and harassed and tagged on Facebook from stepdaughter and their mom and my sister in law telling people I am abusive, playing the victim and evil and that karma will have it's way. My husband has tried to reconcile and communicate our side of things to them off and on for 2 years with no success. We believe this is a form of emotional parental alienation and tried hard to work on our behaviors and responses all along over the years. We went to counseling, read books, and did whatever we could to try and make our blended family work. I attempted to bond with them in many ways for years until I began a slow fade of disengagement. I was damned if I did and damned if I didn't. I was harassed, interrogated, bullied, misunderstood, and made to be the villain for a total of 12 years and now 2 more years after trying to disengage. My DH only has brief contact with the older daughter but we learned that she has been going back to his family and mom to give information about us. My children have suffered because I felt guilty for being their mom in front of my stepdaughters. I finally decided that I wasn't going to waste another moment on not being the best mom I could be. I am thankful to have my DH's full support. I know that is not always the case. I support his decision to try to mend things with him and will always be supportive of that even if they continue to hate me, they still deserve to have their father. Others are saying that I made him do this, that he is controlled by me, and that I ripped their father away, and that he doesn't want to see them. This is all a warped and twisted view of the situation. But, I have to keep moving towards healing and pray the girls and their mom get the help and healing they need as well. Fellow stepmonsters, you are not alone, you are not evil, and you do have rights. Validation is key to surviving this complicated role. God bless you all.

    • profile image

      StepMom3 

      4 weeks ago

      Terrible advice below from dashingscorpio. Disengaging isn't about being someone else, walking on eggshells, and keeping your mouth shut. It's the freedom to STOP doing that because it didn't work at keeping the peace--all it did was encourage the crazy ex wife and brainwashed kids to use you and your husband and kids as a doormat and scapegoat for everything wrong in their lives (because you've taught them being the bigger person means you won't call them out on how nasty they behave, you'll try to reason with crazy). Disengagement is accepting that it will never change because crazy ex wife won't let it so all you can do is stop letting her and the kids control you by sucking you in to lies, namecalling, and abuse. They can continue, AND WILL, but you no longer care and refuse to acknowledge it or play the game. (Ex wife)You can't ignore me at school events and games or tell me to back off because I'm in the way of father/child time and don't belong there, have your kids do the same, AND get mad at me for not being at every event so you can continue the abuse game, because I no longer ALLOW any of you to treat me and my kids that way. You wanted a wicked stepmom to further your victim narrative? You got one. You created one. Disengaging after 7 years...

    • profile image

      Struckdumb 

      7 weeks ago

      Just a comment on dashingscorpio, I very much agree that disengaging is a horrible compromise of who we are, and a desperate last option when talking things though has failed, but I wasn't ready to give up on my marriage even when my dh was displaying the emotional intelligence of an amoeba, and guilt trip parenting at the expense of his marriage, he was, and still is otherwise my loving soulmate and I'm personally glad I played the long game and stuck it out, as we are all of us very happy and settled, moreover, my dh is now if anything over vigilant when it comes to any hint that I might appear to be not included, although disengagement has become a habit, and I take myself off because I want my own company, feel no obligation to cook, fuss, bother about a thing, my step kids come and visit and cook for me

    • profile image

      Struckdumb 

      7 weeks ago

      I am a veteran at disengagement, as I went there when my full time stepchildren were small, now they are adults and things couldn't be rosier

    • profile image

      Emily Barth 

      2 months ago

      I disengaged myself about 6 months ago. I've been a part of my step kids lives for almost 3 years and was still trying harder than ever to be accepted and appreciated. They are disrespectful, stubborn, hard headed and very hard to take care of. They don't listen and they treat everything like it's disposable. I was feeling needed but unwanted in my own home. Like I was the maid and should be getting paid. Bio mom left most responsibilities to dad and dad left them to me. I was handling things like school matters, dr. appts, dentist appts, hygiene, shopping for clothing and school supplies and at the end of the day I got no credit for busting my ass. I was cooking and cleaning and on top of all of this I have 2 bio kids of my own who were not getting none of my attention and starting to get upset about it, to the point where my oldest broke down and asked me if I still wanted her. I lost it and bawled for hours, literally before I finally let go of my expected responsibilities and told dad it was his job not mine. I didn't know there was such thing a "disengaging" until a few hours ago when I stumbled across it and I'm happy to see I'm not the only step mom who feels like this isn't my job! I didn't combine this family to give up on my own kids and life my life trying to raise and entertain someone else's. And for the comment below about how you shouldn't join a family if you don't get along with your SO's children... I did get along with them, until recently when the oldest (only 7) realized she can push her dad around enough to give her anything and now I've become the evil step mom and none of this is fair to me or my girls.

    • profile image

      2 months ago

      I am disengaging to the point of leaving. My son and I need this as we are tired of living in a house where the other "adult children" have no repercussions for their behaviours whatsoever. Bleh!!

    • profile image

      Cyntella 

      2 months ago

      Yup, this page made things so clear! I’ve been taking on too many tasks that should be done by my spouse! I care way too much for his 3 adult children (all 18 and over). I will NO longer actively provide advice, assistance or inquire about how things are going! I’m done, I’m totally disengaging.

    • profile image

      Notgoingtotakeit 

      3 months ago

      I disengaged a completely after four years of court ordered advocacy. I wrote the following email to the court advocate:

      There is no easy way to say this so I am just going to be direct.Child is not welcome in MY HOME until her behavior of vomiting all over my home or anywhere else is stopped and her eating disorder is addressed and clear actions are being taking by all the adults in her life. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. I have done everything humanly possible to give child every tool she needs to stop flinging her bodily fluids all over my home and child has chose to continue with the same behaviors.

      Friday night, while husband was working night shift child vomited all over her bed and over 80 % of the carpet in her room. Then, she proceeded to walk down the hallway and fling vomit everywhere. It took 4 hours to clean and get the vomit smell from my home.

      I can no longer ride on this merry-go-round and compromise my own health and sanity.

      The mother and the grandparents the child lives refuse to address the child's behave and eating disorder.

      The court advocate has backed me 100%. After 4 years of having a child vomit all over my home, crap herself and smear everywhere, sneeze and fling her snot everywhere. I have my sanity back and a peaceful home.

    • profile image

      Wini McGee 

      3 months ago

      There’s some comment from someone below the article stating, “All moms feel like they are treated like maids, are under appreciated at times, don't always get the support warranted, etc.” Gee, I thought SMs weren’t supposed to be moms. But, now we are? I get the insinuation here is that SMs are supposed to suck it up just like BM does? Pretty much all BMs get a gadzillion more rewards than any SM does, too. They get hugs, kisses, Mother’s Day gifts, cards, hear accolades all the time about near-Sainthood from everyone around them. SMs rarely get that; yet when it serves someone’s purposes, we are suddenly just like moms, and supposed to accept that “All moms feel like they are treated like maids, are under appreciated at times, don't always get the support warranted, etc.,” so what’s the big deal? Gag!

    • profile image

      Lori Sims 

      4 months ago

      Disengaging with the NachoKids method saved my sanity and marriage!

    • profile image

      Lynne 500 

      4 months 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 

      4 months 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 

      4 months 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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