From local African folk tales and modern stories, stepparents especially mothers have always had bad press. They are depicted as cruel and sometimes even witches. Yet the stepfamily has become a common type of household in many parts of the world.
Such families are indeed faced with many challenges and the biggest challenge is undoubtedly raising children.
Gregory Musana, a renowned businessman who imports and exports franchise around East Africa, has a lot to say about step parenting.
He divorced his first wife in 2000. After several relationships, in 2002, he finally remarried a second wife Joannah Wanjiru, who also was a divorcee with three pre-teenagers.
“My first wife always had the upper hand when it came to our only son Timothy so I was ill prepared to deal with problems related to bringing up my stepchildren,” Musana narrates. “It didn’t occur to me in a practical sense that, now that I had married their mother, I was automatically their father.”
“I failed to understand the children’s attachment to their biological father and in a futile attempt to gain their affection I made several mistakes,” he adds.
When it came to disciplining the children, Musana says tensions arose between the couple.
“Where their mother was liberal, I was a staunch disciplinarian who believed in inculcating morals in these ‘spoilt’ children. She let them do what they wanted arguing that ‘her’ children needed loving discipline. I was devastated when all I got from the children were phrases like ‘you are not really our father!’,” says Musana.
These arguments went on for long and strained their marriage. In February 2009, Musana divorced for the second time.
From a professional aspect, Dr. Damian Ngabo a psychologist says, “The basic challenge for step parents is not understanding the background of the children they are taking on.”
Dr. Ngabo said, the challenges of step parenting are mostly related to emotions.
“It is not easy to tell how the children will react to different emotions like anger, frustration or even joy,” Dr. Ngabo says adding, “...the stepparent therefore always has the fear of not doing well.”
Though step parents may face challenges of a vast magnitude, they are adults who are expected to deal with the experience accordingly. However, when it comes to stepchildren and how they cope, it’s altogether a different matter.
Johnson Mutabazi, a carpenter in Gisozi says he did not like his father because his endless flings with different women put a lot of strain at home. When his mother died after a long bout with HIV/Aids, his father remarried one of the very many ‘indaya’s’ (prostitutes) he frequently met at his drinking joints.
“I did not like her at all. Because of my frustration, I was forced to pack and leave home when I was 19 years,” Mutabazi said.
He settled in with one of his distant cousins from his maternal side and did not visit them again.
According to Dr. Ngabo, the causes of separation vary from death of a spouse or divorce, but whatever the case, when a single parent decides to remarry, parents should prepare their children for the change.
“Preparing the children for a new family involves talking, explaining and reassuring them that all will be fine. This of course depends on their age,” he says.
Brenda Nakanyike, a mother of three living in Kigali, recalls her mother’s remarriage with fond memories. She was 13 years when her mother remarried.
“I took to him almost immediately. My stepdad was loving and caring where my real father was an insensitive abusive drunk. He supported us financially and made my dear mother smile. Life was better with him and to this day, he is the perfect grandfather to my children,” she said.
These two contrasting life experiences show how different children react to the concept of having a new mother, father or siblings.
Building on from Dr. Ngabo’s advice to parents, on-going dialogue with children at all times is essential.
Therefore, parents should find out how the children are coping with their new family members. This coupled with showing affection towards the children will lessen the stress and discomfort that may arise when a family has to take on new members.