In myth and fairy tale, the stepmother is usually the heavy, whether she is abandoning Hansel and Gretel in the forest, making Cinderella clean out the fireplace or feeding Snow White a poisoned apple. Now, as the number of U.S. divorces continues to soar, step-parenting has become a way of life for millions of remarried people. An expert on the problem is clinical psychologist Irene Goldenberg, 43, director of children’s psychological services at UCLA, who herself became a stepmother in 1963 when she married Herbert Goldenberg, a psychologist and the father of a 10-year-old boy, Philip. “One day when Philip was 12 his mother called up and said, ‘Here, you take him—I’ve had enough,’ ” she recalls. The Goldenbergs subsequently had two children of their own. Did she have stepmother problems? “I had them all, “she laughs. Her funniest? “I spelled Philip with two I’s the first two years; he was furious with me. “Dr. Goldenberg talked with Suzy Kalter of PEOPLE about the troubles that often face stepparents and stepchildren.
How many stepchildren are there in the United States?
Between 15 and 18 million stepchildren, with 20 to 25 million stepparents. The figures are increasing daily.
Stepparent is such a loaded word. Should there be another one?
No. The word stepparent, meaning related because of remarriage, is derived from fact. It’s a difficult and complicated job. The stories of Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel represent just how hard it is. There’s wisdom in those fairy tales you can’t gloss over.
With all the divorce and remarriage, has the American family structure changed?
Yes. Today we have what I call the new extended family made up of ex-spouses, new spouses, stepparents, assorted grandparents and the children and their stepsiblings. It’s astonishing sometimes how children can keep so many relationships clear.
Have the television shows about big families and stepparents helped the public’s understanding of stepparenting?
No, they are definitely harmful. We used to watch TV programs with perfect Dick-and-Jane families and know they weren’t real because we had our own families to compare them with. But with The Brady Bunch or Eight Is Enough, we have no way of knowing they distort the truth. They depict stepparents as supremely saintly and always functioning in concert with their spouses. Real life just isn’t like that.
How do children view stepparents?
Usually with some positive anticipation and a great deal of suspicion. This new person is not part of the initial family, and the stepchildren are angry at the intrusion. There are competitive feelings toward the stepparent. But underneath, stepchildren hope intensely it will work out. Once children give up the fantasy that the original Mommy and Daddy are going to reunite, they are freer to accept the stepparent.
What should children call their stepparents?
A stepmother or stepfather may expect or ask to be called Mommy or Daddy. Sometimes this works out fine, other times it sets up a barrier. You can’t mechanically take over where one parent left off. The children should be consulted, and what they call you usually changes over a period of time. If you’re a stepmother, you go from “she” to your first name, then “my stepmother” and finally “Mom.”
What is a “blended family”?
This is a new word for a family in which both adults bring children from a previous marriage into the new marriage. Like The Brady Bunch, blended families are on the rise, in part because more men are getting custody. Frequently there is a wide age range of children in the family, with younger children needing more time and attention and not getting it. Sometimes the older children are jealous because there’s not enough love to go around.
What is the biggest problem a stepparent has that a natural parent does not?
Unrealistic expectations. Women and men, but particularly women, have fantasies about how good they are going to be at stepparenting. Women frequently feel, “I can do this better than so-and-so”—the ex-wife. They enter the relationship with tremendous enthusiasm and commitment and not enough realistic concern.
Is it more difficult to raise your own child or to be a stepparent?
Probably being a stepparent. In raising your own child, you know your own values, standards and patterns of behavior, which you will pass on to your own children. When you are given a child whose attitudes and standards are out of sync with yours, you may have serious problems.
Is it being unprepared that makes step-parenting so difficult?
Being unprepared emotionally. The skills of mothering can be learned in time. But rejection from children is something most people are unprepared for. Here they are doing their very best, giving as much as they can, often out of duty to their new spouse, and they feel ripped off. As for the man, nothing is worse than to see that his wife and his children, the people he cares most about, are miserable.
Why do women have more fantasies about stepparenthood than men?
Men are brought up to think they can’t handle children, that it’s women’s work. Women generally feel differently—they are “good with children.” A woman may already have a toddler and be feeling fine about her mothering abilities and then get an adolescent stepchild to care for, which is entirely different. Single women who have never had children are the most at risk here—they see stepparenthood as an opportunity to prove themselves. Any real parent knows how hard it is to raise children. The instant stepmother wants to show she can do it and jumps in, so the natural difficulties are much more painful and surprising.
What do you do when a problem arises between stepparents and stepchild?
It has to be thrashed out then and there. You have to say, “In this family we do it this way,” and make yourself clear. You don’t pack up the kid and send him back to his other parent. If the natural parent supports the child in his actions, and you tolerate this, you will always be miserable.
How do finances affect stepparenting?
There are two sides to this question. Most studies show that lower-income families have better step relations because they are more used to taking in extra members of the family. On the other hand, having money for outside help—camp, nursery school, a babysitter or therapy—lessens the strain.
What happens when the ex-spouse bad-mouths the new spouse?
This usually means that the adult is not finished with the relationship or is trying to maintain a relationship that no longer exists. If the new parent criticizes the former spouse, kids can feel that they are betraying their natural parent by visiting the home of the stepparent.
What is the answer?
If you’re the new wife, usually you should tell the ex-spouse, not the children, what you think of her and work it out. You owe it to the children to be honest, and you can’t say you love their mother when you don’t mean it. But you should settle your differences on an adult level.
If you really don’t like your stepchild, what can you do about it?
You should share your dislike of that child with your spouse. Don’t take out your anger on the kid. Tell your spouse you can’t stand it anymore. This allows you to release some of your own frustrations. If you can do this, half the battle is won. And remember, you don’t have to love your stepchildren, or even like them; you just have to be a good parent. When we tell both men and women they don’t have to love their stepchildren, it reduces their guilt enormously.
Is anybody happy in a step relationship?
Yes. I think it’s fantastic in the long run. It’s like any relationship you sweat over: When you succeed, you feel really good about yourself because you know how hard you worked. Stepparents and children can have the closest of relationships when the kids are not worried about competition between sets of parents and are free to like the new parent for who and what he or she is.
What are the advantages of being a stepparent?
It’s nice to get a child you didn’t have to toilet train or stay up with all night. You may have the opportunity to raise a child of the opposite sex from the one you already have. Then sometimes you find qualities in a stepchild that are rewarding because they are different from what your own children offer. There’s also gratitude. The stepchild who gets through the early adjustment feels grateful for what you’ve done.