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Loving your Stepchild and the New Baby

by Dr. Susan Bartell

I recently spoke with Cindy, who was pregnant with her first child. She is also the step-mom of Gabrielle who is 7 years old. Although Gabrielle lives with her mother, Cindy sees her at least two or three times a week. Although their relationship is quite good, Cindy was very anxious because she was experiencing confusing feelings about Gabrielle. She explained that she was worried Gabrielle was going to interfere with the "new family" she, her husband, and the baby were going to have. Cindy wished that she didn't have to deal with her husband's other child and that it would be wonderful if they could focus only on the baby. As you can imagine, Cindy feels terribly guilty because she truly likes Gabrielle and values their relationship. These feelings are unexpected and have really taken Cindy by surprise. She does not want to discuss them with her husband because she is afraid he will be very hurt and angry about how she is feeling towards his daughter.

The first thing I want to say is this: there is no need to feel guilty. I know that there are many, many stepmothers and stepfathers who are experiencing exactly the same feelings as Cindy and that these feelings are perfectly normal. When a new baby is on the way, a parent's natural reaction is to focus most of his or her attention on the upcoming arrival. This is especially true if it is the first baby for you-even if it's not the first for your partner. Everything is new and exciting, from the pregnancy to picking baby clothes to imagining life after the baby is born. It is the desire of every parent to have the "perfect life" with his or her new baby. Most parents have many wishes for their child and they may even fantasize about what that life will be like. Stepparents are usually completely unprepared for all these feelings until they happen, and they suddenly have to acknowledge to themselves that having a stepchild, even one they like, is rarely a part of the "perfect life" fantasy. This feeling is not something to be ashamed of nor does it mean that you are a "bad" stepparent.

Although your feelings are perfectly natural, the way in which you handle them IS important and can have a long lasting effect on your marriage, your relationship with your stepchild and your stepchild's relationship with the new baby (his brother or sister.) First of all, you have to decide whether it is a good idea to share your concerns with your partner. In many cases a partner will understand your feelings and be glad that you shared them. He will realize that although you love your stepchild, you are going through a confusing period, as you adjust to having your first child. It is even possible that your partner shares some of your feelings. Not that he would like to get rid of his older child, but that it would be nice for the two of you to be able to share the new baby in an uncomplicated and private manner.

If you feel your partner would be very upset or angry by your honesty, it may be a good idea to talk to other people about your conflicted feelings. After all, this is probably a very stressful time for him too, having to manage his own feelings as well as those of his older child. It may not be the best time to burden him with additional concerns about whether you are going to continue to have a good relationship with his child after the baby is born. Honesty is not always the best policy and in this situation it is very likely that your good feelings towards your stepchild will return once you have adjusted to the new life with the baby. Therefore, if you have other people to talk to, it may not be worth the stress to discuss it with your partner. If your negative feelings towards your stepchild do feel overwhelming and it seems unlikely that you will resolve them, given some time, it may be a good idea to talk to a counselor who is trained to deal with these confusing and negative feelings.

You should not share your negative feelings with your stepchild, no matter how old he or she is. Hearing that you consider him or her an intrusion will be hurtful, no matter how gently it is conveyed. In fact, it is important that you do not allow your conflicted feelings to impact on the way you interact with your stepchild. For example, because of your feelings, you may feel inclined to exclude him or her from preparations for the baby such as decorating a room, picking names or choosing clothes. However, a stepchild should be included in all these things, just as you would if he or she was your biological child. After all, the child IS going to be a brother or sister to the baby.

Although there are days that you will be feeling resentful about the presence of your stepchild, I bet there are also times when you will be happy and grateful that your baby will have an older sister or brother. It is important to focus on these feelings, rather than dwell on the negative ones. After all, your new baby and your stepchild will be siblings forever so it is very important to cultivate a bond between them, even if it doesn't fit your ideal of the "perfect life".

In summary, these points should help you to get through this tough and confusing time:

  • Acknowledge your feelings to yourself and don't feel guilty about them.
  • Talk to someone about your feelings It never helps to keep things bottled up inside.
  • Focus on your interactions with your stepchild and don't allow your feelings to impact negatively on him or her-after all your stepchild is probably even more confused than you are about having a baby come into the family.
  • Remind yourself that your baby will be lucky to have a brother or sister and that for the sake of both children, it is your responsibility to promote a loving and close relationship between them.
  • If you feel that your negative feelings are out of control, consider speaking to a counselor. You can learn how to manage them before they cause damage to relationships in your family.

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