The Disengaged Stepmom: Is Disengagement Right for You?
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.
What Does Disengagement Mean?
- 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?
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. (This is often known as parental alienation, and I recommend this article on 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 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.
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?
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:
- 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.
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.
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.