DEAR ABBY: As a licensed marriage and family therapist, a licensed professional counselor and a stepparent, I would like to offer some information to "Ashamed in the South" (10/7) that might help to ease her mind.
She was troubled because she didn't feel love toward her stepchildren. There seems to be an unspoken expectation that stepparents should love their stepchildren. If stepparents do love their stepchildren (and vice versa), that is a definite plus, but it is not required. What IS required, in my opinion, is that people in stepfamilies treat each other respectfully. Love often comes in time, but not always.
In addition to your good advice, I would say to "Ashamed in the South": "Behave respectfully and kindly toward your stepchildren. Be open to the possibility of love, but give yourself a break. You are not a bad person because you don't feel love toward them at this time. Love their father and expect less from yourself."
Abby, I can't help but believe that if she can take some of the pressure off herself, she might find that she will begin to feel differently toward her stepchildren. -- FAMILY THERAPIST IN THE SOUTH
DEAR FAMILY THERAPIST: Thank you for a terrific letter, one which I know will ease the minds of many other stepparents who are embarking on the challenging role of blending two already-formed families into one. Not surprisingly, after that letter appeared, I heard from other stepparents wanting to offer support to the writer. Read on:
DEAR ABBY: As I prepared to adopt my child a few years ago, social workers warned me that I might not bond with him or her. They said the important thing was that even if I didn't feel love for my child, I should treat that child as if I loved him or her. This helped me have a plan, so my actions would ensure that my child felt loved. I was lucky. I fell in love with my son the moment I first held him. That's not true for everyone -- even with a biological child.
I say kudos to the writer of that letter, who, most importantly, is treating her stepchildren with love. In time she may feel love for them. But even if she doesn't, she shouldn't be so hard on herself. -- ADOPTIVE MOM IN MARYLAND
DEAR ABBY: Please tell "Ashamed in the South" that many stepparents feel bad for not immediately loving their new offspring. A wonderful family psychologist gave me some advice that has helped enormously: "Think of love as an action instead of an emotion." Thereafter, I acted as if I loved my stepchild, and over the years the habit of action grew into emotion. She's long since grown, but we're good friends, and my husband often teases me about the time we spend on the phone. -- NOT-SO-WICKED STEPMOM IN OREGON
DEAR ABBY: Growing up, my mother was always trying to turn me against my stepmother. My stepmother always treated my sister and me as if we were her own children. She became my best friend, and still is 30 years after walking into our lives. My relationship is better with my stepmother than it is with my birth mother, and the same is true for my sister. Our stepmother has always been there for us to talk to.
Please tell "Ashamed" that she could end up making a profound difference in these children's lives in the end. It was true for us. -- GRATEFUL STEPDAUGHTER IN FLORIDA