With last year having marked the 20th anniversary of Diana Princess of Wales’ death, and 2018’s already intense focus on Prince Harry and his fiancé Meghan Markle, Camilla is once again becoming a central focus for tabloid and public discourse over her position and function within the royal family.
As a stepmother myself, and a psychologist specialising in stepfamily relationships, I am only too aware of the difficulties involved in building and developing a new family unit.
In the Duchess of Cornwall’s case she has suffered the added challenge of dealing with the raw grief of two young boys while being tried in the court of public opinion, and undoubtedly struggling with the widely accepted view of her partner’s ex-wife as a national treasure.
The fact that Camilla has worked to build such a close and special relationship with her stepsons over 20 years later is testament to how she has managed a near impossible situation.
Many of these sentiments will be familiar to stepmothers around the world. Sadly, becoming a stepparent is rarely easy and the role often brings its own unique challenges.
What function should the stepparent play? Are you a parent or a friend? Should you discipline the children or let your partner bear the brunt? How do you resolve differences in parenting approaches between yourself and your partner?
Five steps to stepfamily harmony
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix or easy answer, although there are a number of actions I can recommend to couples to consider if things are not going quite as planned.
The following top 5 steps will get you going. If you try and make some progress in these areas and give yourselves time to adjust, you should soon start reaping the rewards.
There’s no special training to become a stepparent. In some respects, it’s like being a parent, but in others it couldn’t be more different. Children have a mum and a dad, but society seems to get confused when we try and add stepparents into the mix.
It’s important to ‘normalize’ your feelings and recognise that the way you feel is just the same as other stepparents. Your stepchildren are not your biological children. You are not going to instantly fall in love with them, or they with you.
You will feel differently towards them than any biological children you might have. This is normal and to be expected. In order to move on and strengthen your new family, its important to first accept that you are different to a biological family.
2. Establish realistic expectations
Couples are often in a rush to move things along quickly in their new stepfamily. They love their partner, their partner loves them, so what could possibly go wrong?
Well, often the children involved have other ideas. Other relations may not be ready to accept everyone’s moving on, and friends may have divided loyalties. Stepfamilies are difficult because they’re complicated. It’s important to be realistic and set achievable goals.
Research suggests that stepfamilies take an average of four years to bond and become an integrated family unit. Others take much longer. Those that do make things work more quickly generally do so by planning and taking things slowly at first.
3. Strengthen the couple bond
It may seem counter-intuitive, or even selfish, but one of the most important things a couple can do when they start creating a stepfamily is to make time for each other.
Stepfamilies are created when children are already part of the family, which leaves very little time for the adults to get to know each other and, more importantly, spend quality time together.
Communication is key to solving problems. This is very easy to say, but extremely difficult to actually do. Make time for your partner and really listen to them without judging. If they are struggling with something they need your help, not your criticism.
4. Develop clear roles for stepparents
We can all describe what a mum does or what’s expected of a dad, but ask what a stepparent should do and you will get a range of answers. The good news is that there is no single correct answer, so it’s up to you to define the role in your family.
The bad news is that you need to agree this with your partner. If you’re the stepmum and you think you should just be a friend to your teenage stepdaughter, but your partner thinks you should be a ‘mum,’ you’re probably going to fall out and your stepdaughter will be left confused.
However, if you can agree to be a friend for the time being, and perhaps review things six months down the line when you know each other better, then maybe that could work. Think about the sort of stepparent you want to be and could be, and make sure you discuss it with your partner
5. Clear boundaries with ex-partners
One of the things that causes the most stress in stepfamilies is the perceived interference from ex-partners. Biological families have the luxury of making decisions within their family unit, while stepfamilies often have to negotiate with ex-partners, whether it’s about agreeing holiday dates, school pickups or the weekend rota.
My advice is for stepparents to accept that exes will always be a part of your extended ‘family’. However, it’s up to you and your partner to put clear boundaries in place for the communication.
Make sure that you involve your current partner in any decisions that affect them. For example, if your ex phones to ask if you can swap ‘days,’ don’t just agree to get them off the phone quickly. Check with your partner in case they have other plans that could be disrupted.
There are different ways of doing this. You can have a family calendar that you keep updated so it’s clear when children are visiting. Find your own way of keeping everyone updated, but make sure the boundaries are clear
As part of her PhD Prof Doodson conducted the UK’s largest study on stepfamily wellbeing, and published a book based on the research titled ‘How to be a Happy Stepmum.’ In addition to lecturing in psychology she also runs her own company, Happy Steps, which offers support and training to stepfamilies and professionals.