The question of “can you love your stepchildren like you love your biological children?”, seems like a reasonable question right?
I think it actually could be a very manipulative and harmful question.
The lawyerly person or even just fans of law & order on TV … might point out that this question potentialy has a problem as a question because it includes an assumption. On close inspection this question may actually make a few assumptions.
Do you see them?
It can be tricky to see assumptions built into questions.
Especially if those assumptions line up to agree with your thoughts.
That’s called a confirmation bias.
It’s important to learn to look for these because those assumptions can lead you to a direction you might not have otherwise gone.
That’s why sometimes these are called leading questions.
The question above makes an assumption that there are different styles of love for different situations. It also assumes that love is the only emotion you want to talk about here. It also assumes you have biological kids and stepkids. It includes the assumption that you feel differently between the two things. It assumes that you have a judgement or valuation about the love between the two things going on.
All or none of those things might be the case which is what might make it a problematic question.
A different or other (more helpful) type of question is more like: how do you feel about your stepchildren? We call that an open-ended question because you can answer any way you want and not invalidate the question.
Okay now that I’ve thrown out a bunch of complicated vocabulary. If you’re still with me let’s break down what’s behind this question and talk about love.
Love is just a 4-letter word how complicated can it be?
Love seems simple.
Love can be super complicated. Think about all the ways we use the word love. We love food. We love activities. We love movies. We love pets. We love art.
Love can mean sexual attraction.
Love can mean deep emotional connection.
Love is the muse for literally millions of books, songs and poems.
Love can make you cry.
Love can make you angry.
And love is a little bit different for everyone.
I am not an expert in love but I will go ahead and say that love can be very confusing.
When we talk about love within a family this is an interesting topic.
Love versus Attraction
Attraction is a physical sensation. Probably very biological. I am not a biologist.
We don’t really have a sense of physical attraction until we are of an age where we can procreate.
While I’m not a biologist or an expert on this, anyone who has experienced this sensation knows that it can be very overpowering. This is a very strong urge and common sense might say that this is related to the idea that the future of our species is tied to this experience.
Some smart people at Harvard include Lust with Attraction. They credit this feeling to chemicals in the body including hormones like estrogen and testosterone as well as dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. That’s like a happiness cocktail for sure.
Mutual attraction feels amazing. It’s one of the very best feelings that there is.
Am I right?
Here’s a thing though.
Not everyone experiences the sensation of mutual attraction to other humans. There are humans with very little interest or reaction to attraction to another person. Not everybody is attracted to the same types of people. It’s not an instant or automatic or absolute phenomenon.
It just isn’t.
Even if we feel intense attraction to another person this sensation does not last continuously forever.
It just doesn’t.
Love versus Attachment
The feeling that we experience with children as caregivers is not sexualized. It does not feel the same as the attraction we feel to another adult.
In the blended family world there is a very strong and outspoken group of people who will tell you that this is biological and that you will never feel anything like this for your stepchildren.
I don’t agree with that idea in that limited form.
I’ll tell you why.
I happen to know from personal experience that not all biological parents actually attach to their children in healthy ways. I also know many examples of strong attachment bonds between people who are not biologically connected.
Attachment is something that is actively being studied. There are several theories that are grouped together as Attachment Theory.
I think it is pretty accepted as true (at least for the moment) that an early life connection can foster a sense of attachment. Part of that theory is that young children attach to caregivers as a way to be safe and secure.
What’s interesting is that it’s not always biology that is credited for fostering this connection. Attachment theory is about the age of the youngster and the proximity of the caregiver. So an infant will bond with the person who cares for them.
The older the child the longer it takes to form the attachment to a caregiver. But still biology is not the biggest component. It’s time and proximity.
Think about how attached you were to your friends as an adolescent. They feel closer than family … right? Think about how attached you feel to your partner when you are engaged in a loving relationship. My point is that you probably definitely already know that we can form strong strong attachments at any age.
Blended families do have unique situations with this. Namely that you are adding additional caregivers where there is sometimes an existing relationship. What I mean is that for example when I stepped into my stepchildren’s lives they already had a mom who was doing a solid job loving and caring for them. This is not always the case. I think the details might matter — sometimes a lot.
Again, the research on this tends to show that what matters is the age of the child and how much time they have with the new caregivers as well as the role of the former caregiver. I want to be clear here that there isn’t a lot of high quality research about this in stepfamilies. Where there is research is I find to be more in adoptive families.
When I was a new stepmom I was told that if the child was older than 4 they would probably not accept me as a parent figure. I do not remember where I heard this information but I accepted that information. This has held true in my family in my lived experience. I am basically seen as an adult to the child I met that was older than 4. That’s okay with me. The child who I met when they were 4 literally has no memories of his life without me with his dad. These days he’s an adult but when he was a kid he pretty easily accepted me in a parent-ish role.
So that’s it then …
Not so fast …
I don’t personally believe that anybody should be pressured to form or maintain an attachment if it’s not good for them or if it’s not needed.
I personally think that this is sometimes what actually drives discontent in some blended families. The stepparent may wish for an attachment that hasn’t yet developed. The biological parent may also wish for the stepparent to have the attachment.
Love versus Obligation and Duty
As a stepparent in most cases there is not a legal obligation or duty to undertake the responsibility of care for a child.
Read that again.
As a stepparent it is almost always your choice whether you want to accept the job and duty to care for a stepchild.
Nobody can make you do this except yourself.
Right now people are screaming at the screen.
THAT’S NOT TRUE FOR ME!!!
NOBODY ELSE IS DOING THIS!!
MY PARTNER EXPECTS ME TO DO THESE THINGS!!
THERE’S TOO MUCH WORK! I CAN’T WALK AWAY!!
I get this.
I have myself felt this in my role as a stepmom. I felt like I needed to make the fancy meals, buy the special toys and presents and be all the places.
It’s still accurate that in most cases there is no actual obligation.
Why do we feel this way? … this is the question of why.
Why is almost always the more important question.
It’s also often a much tougher thing to think about.
That’s what we do in coaching. Because truly the why often leads to a roadmap to feel better.
A self-inflicted dose of obligation sometimes leads to a desire to be recognized for the work we do. This is a very common source of conflict in a blended family.
A self-inflicted dose of doing things out of duty can sometimes create a sense of competition with the other adults. This can create a huge amount of conflict as well.
What’s tricky about this is that if these are the sources of conflict the person can actually feel victimized although in truth they are creating their own conflict and victimhood.
It’s a tough place to be.
But not uncommon.
On the other hand parents can be legally obligated to care for their children.
Unfortunately, the legal obligation does not actually mean that all biological parents actually do care in all ways for their children all of the time.
This also does not mean that a biological parent is even able to care or provide for their biological children all or any of the time.
It definitely doesn’t mean that all biological parents do a good job of taking care of their children.
Obligation and duty is definitely a part of a successful adult-child lifelong relationship but it has very little to do with biology and more to do with choosing to take on this job.
What’s helpful about that is that when we see what we’re doing as a choice sometimes it feels a whole lot better.
Love versus Enmeshment or Codependency
So this loving conversation is about to get real serious real fast.
If they really loved me then they would …be more respectful, show more manners, stop yelling,
These are intense patterns that can show up in relationships. Enmeshment and Codependency are not love.
Codependency and enmeshment are situations where we entwine our emotions with the actions of others.
This can get confusing because children are dependent on adults. Small children need adults in their lives. The adults dress them and feed them and keep them safe until they are old enough and have enough skills to do things on their own.
Codependency is a word that was coined to describe the situation of a relationship between a spouse or partner who is connected to a person who has a substance misuse problem. The partner becomes dependent on the issues of the substance user. They are the “co-dependent”. They don’t realize this but they adapt to defining their worth and value based on the actions and behaviors of their partners. There is a book that is a good resource for this called, Codependent no More.
Enmeshment is similar but does not require substance misuse. I think it’s also a different visual that works very well for people. When a family or when family members find themselves enmeshed they are so wrapped up with other people’s problems that they make them their own.
Yup, no surprise here. Enmeshment is very common in families. It can be tough to see when we are enmeshed.
It is usually much easier for an outsider to pick up on this situation.
If we go back to the earlier example of children being dependent let me share how this becomes enmeshment. When the parent or stepparent gets their sense of value, accomplishment or worth from the accomplishments of their children. This also works in reverse. If you are enmeshed with the lives of your kids then when your children stumble in their achievements then you make it mean something about you.
The good news is that a life coach – like me – can help you see this and move through it to feel better.
Enmeshment with a partner is when one person takes on the emotional responsibility for the actions or misactions of their partner. An example is if one partner works harder to make money for the whole family if their partner refuses to get a job.
Now you might think that sounds okay and like a healthy family for one person to take on a bigger role when another person cannot.
You could be right.
What makes it enmeshment is if it’s one-sided.
In my family we agreed that I would not work outside the home when my biokids were young. We planned for it and it was a deal we made together.
If I had been working and then just quit my job and refused to get another job and my partner didn’t talk to me but just decided that it was their job to pick up the slack. That’s enmeshment – one person makes the other person’s problem their own.
Enmeshment and codependency can foster resentment and anger.
Amy, this is confusing. Can a stepparent truly love their stepkids?
Yes. I believe that we can.
I think that love is something parents and stepparents do – it’s a verb.
Love is or can be a verb.
Like many other actions to feel it sometimes begins with doing the thing.
If you want to feel the experience of running … go run.
If you want to feel the experience of cooking … go cook.
If you want to experience the action of eating … go eat.
If you want to experience the action of loving … go do loving things. Do things that light you up and that you love.
My belief is that love for a stepchild is not something that may just automatically happen instantly like a lightning strike.
Loving our children is something we do. Behaving like a loving adult is daily actions we take.
I believe that this is true for children and stepchildren.
I also believe very much that being able to love others and to be loving towards others is more easily possible when we are loving to ourselves.
I can be loving to people who I’m not overly happy with how they happen to be behaving in the moment. I can be loving to a frustrating toddler. I can be loving to a hurt teenager. I can be loving to a distant and bitter ex wife.
It’s not always easy to be loving to somebody who is being outwardly mean to me. One thing to note is that behaving in a loving way can truly be giving them space to be themselves.
Because I believe this I do personally believe that I can love my stepchildren.
Maybe I’m fooling myself but I don’t worry much about my feelings for my kids being the same. Each of my kids and stepkids is a different age and stage. Not to mention totally different personalities and needs.
I don’t feel like the comparison is helpful.
In fact, I think that the comparison sets us up for failure.
In fact, I think that people who want to set up the comparison may really and truly be trying to say that they want permission to not behave in a loving way towards others and they want to blame the family structure for that.
I am going to say that again because it bears repeating. If you entertain the thought that you cannot love a stepchild because they are not your biological child you are providing a framework that you may be using as a reason to treat another human being poorly.
In my opinion, this is a potentially harmful thought that may be used to excuse poor adult behavior towards children and when that happens it’s a bummer. I hear stories every day of children being ignored and berated and pushed out and away by adults in their life — it’s very tough for me to hear.
I think that thinking about not loving our stepkids is possibly often a reflection of our inner dialog of not being lovable ourselves.
If that sounds a little too pop psychology for you. I understand. And yet it doesn’t mean that it’s not also accurate.
Instead for me I think I’ve learned to focus on being loving to myself. That includes creating a loving home for myself and my family and acting in a loving way to the people who I love and that includes my stepkids.
Before I sign off I want to say that while everything I write here is truth please don’t think I’ve never argued or fought or felt worn down by dealing with the details of being in a family and blended family. I have. I’m not perfect. I have yelled and fought and cried with and about all 4 of the kids that I’ve been a part of raising.
The lesson of leading and making decisions from a place that feels loving is a lesson that helps but I’m not perfect and I don’t expect you to be perfect either.
If what I’ve said here sounds good. If this resonates with you and it’s something that you’re struggling with that’s okay. I encourage you to reach out to me and see if working together could help.
Love and Beloved
Sometimes when I take clients through this process we discover that they feel like they are doing a lot of loving things and yet they are not feeling love.
I would offer a different word here which is beloved.
Beloved is an adjective to describe something that is dearly loved.
Many of us crave the feeling of being loved by others.
In this case where we start is by looking to discover what that means to you. Everybody has slightly different ways of showing and receiving love.
What’s interesting about this is that while most people think it’s universal and automatic … it hardly ever is.
Many people grow up without a great example of love in their families.
Many people really are unclear about what actions and behaviors help them feel secure and loved. If we don’t know what makes us feel beloved how can we enjoy it when it happens or how can we ask for it.
Sometimes these questions can bring on deep feelings of pain. Sometimes when I talk about struggling to feel loved people cry. I mention that because I don’t want you to feel like there is something wrong with you if that happens.
There are exercises and tools that can I can share to help with this. Reach out if you’d like to know more.