Parenting Stress, Perceived Child Regard, and Depressive Symptoms among Stepmothers and Biological Mothers

Article excerpt

Although stepmothering is a common undertaking in American families, little research has investigated the mental health consequences, and their correlates, associated with adopting a stepmother role. To help fill this gap, the current study examines parenting stress and participants' perceptions of their (step)children's regard toward them and the family as mediators in the relation between parenting role (stepmother or biological mother) and depressive symptoms. Participants included 60 biological mothers and 75 stepmothers living in the United States. Stepmothers reported more depressive symptoms and parenting stress and lower perceptions of child regard than did biological mothers. Further, the relation between parenting role and depressive symptoms was mediated by parenting stress and perceptions of child regard. Results suggest that stepmothers are at risk for depressive symptoms and illuminate possible contributors to this risk, providing important directions for research and intervention.

Key Words: depression, parenting stress, stepmother.

The proportion of couples living with stepchildren has nearly doubled since 1991 (Teachman & Tedrow, 2008), and, according to the 2004 census, of the 40 million households with children, 9% include at least one stepparent (Kreider, 2008). In addition, longitudinal research on divorcing families suggests that within 20 years following marital dissolution, 87% of divorced fathers remarry (Ahrons, 2007), reinforcing demographic research finding that men are more likely than women to remarry (South, 1991). The prevalence of remarriage among divorced men indicates that many families will eventually include a stepmother. Despite the prevalence of stepfamilies, relatively little is known about adults' well-being in stepfamilies. Research on stepfamilies has primarily focused on the experiences and mental health outcomes of children (e.g., Ahrons, 2007; Jeynes, 2007; King, 2007; Sweeney, 2007). In contrast, the experiences of stepparents, and particularly stepmothers, have received less attention despite suggestive evidence that stepparenting can be a challenging and stressful undertaking (Ceballo, Lansford, Abbey, & Stewart, 2004). Stepmothers, perhaps more than stepfathers, are subject to a range of negative stereotypes (Whiting, Smith, Barnett, & Grafsky, 2007) and face challenges such as difficult relationships with biological mothers, conflicted or limited support from spouses, and resistance from stepchildren (Hart, 2009). The unique challenges and stresses related to stepmothering may result in an increased risk for mental health problems, although this link has not yet been tested empirically.

As a first investigation into these issues, this study examines the relation between family experiences and depressive symptoms in stepmothers and biological mothers. In particular, this study examines the contributions to depressive symptoms of parenting stress and maternal perceptions of children's regard for then family constellation in general and mother or stepmother in particular among biological mothers and stepmothers. Findings from the current study may help to identify the mental health needs of stepmothers and, as a result, improve the functioning and well-being of stepfamilies and stepchildren as well.

Families in general (Hargrove, 2009) and stepfamilies specifically (Hetherington, 1992) have been described in terms of systemic models such that each member of the family participates in multiple dyads (e.g., parent-parent, child-parent, child-child) simultaneously. The dynamics within and between these various dyads are determined by the specific roles (delineated by age and gender) of the people involved in them and affect the functioning of the family system as a whole as well as each individual within it. Family systems theory provides a useful framework to conceptualize how members of families, including stepfamilies, might be differentially affected by each other and the complexities of the dynamics within the family. …