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Designer Stepdaughters - Facing Off With The Fairest Of Them All?

"Everything I do is wrong,"laments a dejected Annette. The 17 year old Las Vegas senior is referring to her fractious relationship with her stepmother, Nancy. Annette has every right to complain. "Whenever I try to do anything, and I mean anything - Nancy immediately has to invoke her 'right to decide.' She has to correct, admonish, cajole, provoke, and generally reconstruct me in ways that resemble her, not my mom. Nancy is brunette, and I'm a blonde, like my mom. Well, guess what? Nancy insisted, even hammering my dad, to get me to dye my hair!! The stress of living with her was so intense that I moved back to Iowa with my mom!"

It's a picture befitting a scene out of Vogue: Languishing in lounge chairs, Sylvie and Anna are gossiping over a cup of hot chocolate while having multicolored hues of blonde weaved through their hair. They resemble twin Christmas presents, wrapped up in sparkling silver foil while a manicurist paints crystal rhinestones on matching crimson nails. Best friends sharing a moment? That depends on how you look at it - Sylvie is Anna's stepmother - and Anna is only 10 years old. "I like Sylvie because she lets me do what she does," the young girl smiles. "We're like twins."

The Child vs The Challenge

"It's challenging enough to get them to like me," sighs Lori, a Philadelphia stepmother of four teenage daughters. "So when we can share shopping and the latest fashions, I feel like we can be a family. Otherwise they won't relate to me at all." On the trail of two tempestuous pre teens, Melinda has another reason. When her stepdaughter, already an emotional casualty of two divorces, spends weekends with her father and Melinda, she explains that her stepdaughter appreciates this type of quality time, "like designer clothes, tea parties, and monthly manicures that are important to both of us, and for me to do this for her, and that's puts the focus on what she wants," Melinda says. "We can totally relate to each other." And Lori admits, "I feel like they won't like me if I refuse them."

Mini Me or Mimic Me?

The fabled Narcissus, who drowned in a pool of water while staring at his own reflection, is a classic example of self-obsession, but such obsession can manifest itself in other ways. Practically any stepmother will confess that trying to bond with your spouse's kids demanding, so being patient and angelic can become tiresome and old. For many of these women, recreating their stepdaughters is something emotionally gratifying for them. "They are able to formulate the better side of themselves in the reflection of their own creation - their stepdaughter - which can be their most promising subject," says Kate C. Bradley, MA, MFT, a marriage and family therapist in Lompoc, Calif., and the author of the upcoming self-help book, I'm Not Your Mother. For so many of these women, realigning their relationship with these girls means one thing: becoming part of a whole. Who's the fairest takes on a completely new understanding." Mary Lynn Rapier, MA, a therapist in Santa Monica, Calif., who specializes in narcissism explains, "With a narcissistic parent, most of what happens can be 'just fine,' but the emotional underpinnings are not. Instead of providing a supportive, emotionally attuned response for the child, a narcissistic parent presents a mirror that reflects her own needs and expects her child to react to those needs."

Identifying with but feeling threatened by her stepdaughter is generally the main reason why a stepmother unconsciously begins to recreate her stepdaughter in her image, rather than allow the stepdaughter to bring her mother's persona into the family infrastructure. "Imagine how this can be unnerving," says Kate. "Having the ex-wife not only in your checkbook every month but a daily face in your life. It can get to you." And laments one angry stepdaughter, "I know my mother doesn't live here but she's my mother and I'm part of her, but my stepmother is trying to erase the part of me that reminds her of my mom!" Sighs14 year old Mariska, "my stepmom has expectations like nobody else. I fought a forever Pyrrhic victory... and I lost. It's so much easier for me to let her win."

If a mother is narcissistic, and that includes a stepmother, she will likely see her child as incredibly wonderful and their talents as mythic--an indication that they are being used as an extension of the mother's grandiose self. The child becomes an extension of the mother and any developing autonomy--or age-appropriate separateness-- becomes a threat to the mother's emotional balance. "When it comes to these families," says Bruce Gainsley, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in Sherman Oaks, Calif. "Many stepmothers are not aware of how they are suffocating their stepdaughter's individuality. Even if they are conscious of some aspect of this dynamic, it usually is not in a psychological context, such as realizing that 'this just isn't good.' And of course, her perspective is the only perspective, with the constant demand of validation that what is doing is laudable.

The levels of human interaction for the stepdaughter are usually denied or rejected altogether and these stepdaughters begin to feel objectified, like they're some sort of trophy." James Pierce, Ph.D., a family therapist in Fresno, Calif., echoes this point. "For many of these stepmothers, they're already drowning in their attempts at raising another person's child. They don't always have a lot of support so with a child of their own sex they can more associate with her on a personal level, whereas that girl can become an extension or mirror for their own personalities. At some point, if the girl is not responsive, the stepmother may feel rejected, enraged, and just plain discarded."

Others see it differently. "They are not taking responsibility for their own actions, which can cause emotional damage to the child," says Diane Platner, MS, MFT, a marriage and family counselor in Crescent City, Calif. "Not allowing her to individuate can create personality problems or severe acting-out behaviors."

Modern Day Mirror Images

When queried about their expectations for their stepdaughter, stepmothers are sometimes at a loss to explain themselves, but problems multiply when the stepmother actively attempts to recreate the stepdaughter into her mirror image. The stepdaughter, usually in a vulnerable state, is subjected to a relentless pursuit of perfection. "There seems to be a direct link between shame and narcissism," explains Kate. "But the likelihood of change isn't always imminent, especially when the stepmother believes she's acting in the best interest of her stepdaughter and how much shame that stepdaughter will bring the family if she's less than perfect." How do these stepmothers measure the meaning of perfect? "I just want them to do what's expected of them," corrects Lori, the Philadelphia stepmother. "My eldest is 16, so it's about managing her weight, her grades, and of course, no dating until she graduates. If she screws up, all eyes are on me. I'm basically raising her."

53% of stepmothers polled admitted they engaged in:

  • Bribery, in the form of designer clothes, games, iPods, and other desirable items. "I don't look at it as inducement or anything," says a Portland stepmother. "It's just that we think alike."
  • Emotional manipulation. "My stepmother corrects me when we're in public," says 11 year old Cathy. "When it's a belief my mom already holds, forget it."
  • Financial manipulation, such as withholding money for allowance or using an excessive incentive system. Although such methods are generally utilized as punishment and reward systems, some stepmothers confess that this type of treatment "works really well" when used in conjunction with having their own emotional needs met.
  • Coercion, in the form of threats and reprimands.

La Vie Vicarious

"I don't want to be left out of her life," admits Marie, a New Orleans stepmother who spent ten years "assiduously" raising three stepdaughters "to a near perfect degree since they were toddlers. Their mother was absent during this time," says the registered nurse. "For years I was their only mother, but a couple of years ago she suddenly reappeared, exercising her full parental rights to these three children she abandoned in the first century BC. I objected to how their 'mother' became the new personality. They took over an entirely new sense of character when she reappeared. I vanished as if I never existed."

86 % of stepdaughters polled insisted that all they wanted from their stepmother was:

  • Respect
  • Understanding, and
  • "Space - and lots of it!" And above all, never, absolutely ever, malign their mother.

Where does dad fit in? "Many men don't realize what goes on within the stepmother and stepdaughter dynamic," says Kate. "They seem to check out altogether with the attitude of 'if it ain't totally broke, don't mess with it,' which roughly translates to, if they aren't killing each other, it's working. This is not the case."

The idea of raising unique and autonomous stepdaughters shouldn't be a daunting experience. Remember, there are positives to step-parenting. By accepting who you are relative to your stepdaughter is a constructive endeavor in realigning, redesigning, or even salvaging your relationship. Starting over is more than just a beginning, it could open a whole new world of possibilities for you. "Try to assume responsibility without a power struggle and the problems may start to abate," says Kate. And that, she says, "shouldn't hurt a bit."


You're Not My Mom! Confessions of a Formerly "Wicked" Stepmother
Schneider et al.
Need we say more?

The Not So Wicked Stepmother Book
Veneable, et al.
Good read for those having "adjustment to stepmother issues.

The Enlightened Stepmother: Revolutionizing the Role
Norwood et al.
More tips for overcoming the stepmother's saturation point.

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