I've been a StepMom for nearly 5 years. Although, if we take a step back, nothing in that sentence is entirely true. I met my partner in 2014. I met his four kids, slowly and sporadically, over the next 6 months. I moved in to their house two years later, in 2016. We are not married, so I am StepMom by role alone, and not by marriage. So, to start again...
I've been an adult responsible for children who are not my own for some portion of the past 4 years. And over that period, I've spent a lot of time thinking about what that means, for us as a family, for me as a person, and more generally in the larger picture of our community and society. It feels like it has passed in the blink of an eye, and yet, I can't quite remember a time when these people weren't my family.
I know that every family is different, and every journey is different, so I don't intend for this to be a how-to manual for anyone else. It is more a reflection on how things happened for me. Hopefully, you can recognize some of the feelings and know that others have blazed a similar path before you! I envision my journey as a StepMom in different (and somewhat distinct) phases. A few years back, while trying to describe one of these phases, I used a swimming pool metaphor - and well, it stuck!
In the first phase, I was an observer. It's like I walked into a crowded swimming pool, and I tried to find a quiet seat at the edge. I dipped my toes in to see what the water was like, and then I pulled them back. I sat, and I watched. I watched everyone playing and swimming with ease, floating from group to group, playing games, or lounging in a chair. But, I just sat. And watched. If someone came up to me, I said hi. If someone asked to play, I did. I didn't initiate any games, or ask people to move to make room for me. I just sat, dipping my toes in, to see what the water was like. I was lonely. It turns out, sitting on the edge watching people have fun and never really being included is miserable. Trying to tip toe around everyone, in your own home (or pool) is exhausting. But, who can blame them for not wanting to include the weirdo who just sits around and watches. I realized that I was spending a lot of time feeling bad. And, I have learned now that when the phase I'm in is starting to feel bad, it's probably because it's time to change phases!
In the second phase, I was the lifeguard. It felt almost like I found a spot, whose role I understood, and I jumped into it. All pools need lifeguards, and here I came. I was organizing things, I was spouting out "rules", and I was "in charge". I was watching the 2 other life guards (the kids' mom and dad), and I was trying to follow suit. At first I felt like I was totally on top of things. I had it all running smoothly. I was soon to earn everyone's respect and admiration. Except, that, the kids really didn't like having an extra lifeguard, there were already plenty of lifeguards at this pool. And, trying to be the BEST LIFEGUARD EVER was exhausting, and not at all fulfilling. Now, I had a pool full of rowdy kids, none of whom wanted to listen to me. I felt like the bad cop, all of the time. And, if you can guess, it felt bad.
One of the things that sticks out in my mind about these first two phases is that I often felt lonely, and like an outsider in my own home. I also often felt like I led two lives. One when the kids were in our house, and one when they weren't. It felt like I had to hang my needs and emotions on a hook for a week, like a wet towel, and could address them once the house was quiet again. I was still hiding a lot of who I was, and what I wanted, and it kept me at a bit of an arm's length from everyone (not my partner, of course, but everyone else).
In the third phase, I was the camp counselor. I tried to focus only on the fun things. Of course, I tried to make sure that the kids were safe and supervised and happy, but I didn't want to lifeguard. I tried to keep them following the rules, to an extent, but I ultimately relied on someone else to really keep an eye out. I wanted to play the games. I wanted to be the fun cop! I wanted to be exciting - and, more importantly, I wanted credit for being exciting. My partner is fantastic, and he was amenable to this phase, even without me verbalizing that this is what I was doing. I wasn't even entirely aware that I was doing this. What was great about this phase is that I did a lot more of what I wanted to do. But, eventually, I realized that the kids were still thanking their dad for all of the fun things *I* was doing. And, then, I started to feel resentment, and very unappreciated. Here I was, spending all my time and effort to do nice things, and even still it felt like no one noticed. Or, if they did, they assumed that someone else was really the brains behind it all. I remember one day thinking in my head (thankfully not saying it out loud) that they were all so ungrateful, because I'd done this thing and no one even seemed to care. And, as I thought of that, I realized that I was my own problem. No one ASKED for me to do that thing. Is it their fault if I did a thing that no one really wanted? Am I always grateful for the efforts of others, that don't align well with my wants and needs? Of course not. And, this was when the third phase came to a close.
I think I'm here in my fourth phase (I guess someone should tell me now if I'm the only one going through these wildly different phases, maybe I'm doing it all wrong). And, I feel like I've hit my stride, like we've hit our stride. I think of this as my flexible phase. I've spent A LOT of time observing how this pool works - who comes and goes, who likes the diving board and who wants to get a suntan. And, I've spent a lot of time looking (and trying) all the roles here. There are lifeguards, and camp counselors, and swimmers, and people behind the scenes who come to clean up and cook food. And, in this phase, I'm all of those people. Not all at once; I'd die. But, I change roles. And, I've learned to communicate that change (sometimes subtly, sometimes directly) with my partner, with the kids, and with the other house. Somedays, I'm the lifeguard, and I coordinate with my partner, and the kids, to let them know, "I'm going to keep us sticking to the rules right now". Sometimes, I really don't have it in me to lifeguard, but I know that someone needs to, and that's when I tag my partner in, "Could you please go tell him to put all this stuff up in his room, so that I don't lose it?" Somedays, I'm the camp counselor, and I have found a fun activity for us to do, but I've learned to prepare myself, for the times when I want the activity to be a surprise, that they may not be grateful, and I can't be doing this for "credit". What I really like about this phase, is it allows me to be me more often, and it has helped me to really feel like a part of this family. It allows me to take a break from always lifeguarding, or always cleaning, or always planning activities. What is hard about this phase, is that it also requires me to be ready when someone else asks me to fill in a certain role that I wasn't wanting to play - sometimes without warning. There are other times when no one asks me, but I see that there is a role being left unfilled. I don't think I could have walked in on day 1 and jumped right into phase 4. I think I needed all of these other phases to get myself here. And, so, I won't regret the process. That process has shown to me that sometimes, when things get hard and I'm feeling bad, I need to re-evaluate my role.
In the course of my first three phases, I also was able to carve out a little spot for me in everyone's life. I don't have to tip toe around anymore, looking for an opening. And, it doesn't feel so devastatingly awful if I'm not initially included or thought of. I'm able to yell from the other side of the pool, "Hold on, wait for me!" And, they're accepting enough to wait, and make space for me. These initial phases also helped me to observe my own communications and actions. What's really crucial for the flexibility phase, is being more intentional and transparent in your words and actions. I am a "planner", and I can't turn that part of my brain off, logistics are my love language. But, I've learned to be more clear about that process. Instead of just saying NO to something quickly, I will instead describe my reasoning, or my concerns, and have the other person come to the conclusion with me. Or, have them offer a solution that I wasn't able to see. I've taken this newfound skill and used it in other aspects of my life, and it's been amazingly helpful!
Blended families require flexibility, communication, and patience. A lot of those. It often feels like a game, where the rules change on you just as you begin to feel comfortable. Because of this, I know that phase 4 is not my last phase! I know it will switch again. I'm hopeful that phase 4 will help all of us (kids, parents, step parents, etc) be a little more aware of our changing roles, and how to jump in and out of them, so that we can work together for whatever comes next.
This morning as I walked our youngest, a 4th grader, to the bus stop, I was struck by the comforts of this "new" role in my life. In the course of 5 minutes I waved to neighbors out walking their dogs, spoke quickly to parents about after school club schedules for the week, shouted down the street to some girls who were a little late to the bus which had already arrived, and griped with some of the moms about the inconsistency of the bus this year. I wished my stepdaughter a good day, and she leaned over for a hug and a kiss on the head. I waved goodbye to her as she walked onto the bus, already chatting with some of her friends. And, then I walked home, wondering how I got here. To a place where I am connected to my neighbors in a way I never have been before, connected to our community and the goings on locally in a way that is bigger than anything I've experienced before, and connected to a family that was already so full of people and love. The truth is, I got here slowly. By brute force, at times. Rewriting my expectations and goals continuously along the way.
Wherever you are in your journey, just know that with each changing phase you become a little bit more capable to hold things together. The lonely, left-out, bad feelings are not permanent, and can actually help you figure out when and what to change. Know that you are strong for even considering this role, and you are doing an amazing job with it!
If you would have asked me 20 years ago if I would envision myself marrying a man with children I would have laughed out loud, spouted off a few expletives and asked if you were nuts.
Fast forward to today…I have married a man with 3 children and have been a step mother for 14 years. We also have 2 children of our own.
I’m assuming you’ve read countless articles, books and blogs on being a stepmother. I did too. I thought I had a solid basis to start my stepmother journey….WRONG! So when I was asked to write for this month’s StepMom’s Association blog, I considered what advice I needed when I was new to my role as a stepmom and hope you find this helpful.
P.S. I thought I’d just give the “Do’s” as you can read through the lines of what the “Don’ts” would be. 😉
-speak positively of your partner’s ex
It’s never, ever a good idea to badmouth the ex to anyone, not to your neighbor, your girlfriend, a Mom you’ve befriended in the school and especially to his kids. They love their Mom unconditionally, no matter the situation, and saying negative things will just put them on the defensive -and stick up for their mother- which makes you the bad guy. I have no doubt you are in the right about so many things, but really, no one cares except you and your husband and in my experience, the last thing he wants to talk about is his ex. Besides, it’s a small world, and gossip eventually makes its way back to the mouthpiece, don’t give her the satisfaction. In the long run, goodness always wins over anger, resentment and jealousy.
-give the ‘good’ with the ‘bad’ when parenting his kids
If you don’t have kids of your own, it’s tough to understand how your husband can go from yelling at his child to hugging them minutes later. This is due to the unconditional love between them. As stepmothers, we don’t magically receive this trait with the marriage. This unconditional love happens over time (longer for some than others). As a parent, your job is to teach the child to be the best version of themselves. At times, we have to be harsh, maybe raise our voice or dish out consequences. Kids don’t like this, especially coming from a parent that’s not theirs. But following it up with encouraging words, a hug, a note or even a light touch on their arm comes from a place of caring, concern and maybe even love for them. Use the stick, but make sure you follow it up with the carrot, or maybe some ice cream so they know you care and aren’t just a mean step monster. Remember that you are the adult, so act like one.
-give your husband and his kids space to have time without you
Your husband chose you, his kids did not. Tough fact, but true. Giving them space to be together without you is normal and healthy. It reduces the resentment of your presence, creating a positive environment. Some kids don’t have a lot of time with their Dads, it may only be every other weekend or a few nights a week. I used to tell my husband, ‘they’re coming over to see you, not me,” to which he did not take kindly. But I knew it was important for them to have special time with their father because they missed him and they needed his undivided attention. Encourage your husband to take his daughter to lunch or a movie or go for a bike ride with his son. Healthy father/child relationships foster confidence and security. Encourage this. Use positive words like, “I thought you and your Dad would like some quality time together. Have a great time.” Which leads me to my next point….
-try to do things with your husband’s kids alone
I know this can be intimidating to consider but without Dad around, the dynamics really change. You may get some eye rolls or some mumbled, ‘whatever’ when you ask to do something together, but don’t be discouraged. Long term, the investment you’re making does make an impact. I enjoy cooking and took my step daughter to a cooking class when she was 9. She still talks about it to this day and it makes me smile. My step sons are sports crazed, and while I did grow up with 2 brothers, I was no expert on the subject, but I joined their NCAA basketball pool, played lots of poker and attended many sports games with them. All these extras you do show them you’re there because you are all a family (i.e., creating unconditional love). Feeling like an outsider is tough and for some of us, part of the program for a period of time. It’s much easier to give up and retreat to our rooms to get away but we have chosen this life, so if we love our partner and want to make the marriage work, we should do what it takes, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us.
-set up boundaries with the kids and the ex
Oh boy, if only I figured this out years earlier….with split houses, multiple schedules, different rules, and undefined parameters, things can get pretty tense. Boundaries must be set. As an equal partner in marriage, you have this right and deserve it. As it pertains to the ex, establish your rules-whatever they may be-so everyone is on the same page. This could be as simple as writing them down or discussing it in person. I know this is super uncomfortable but it’s in everyone’s best interest to create proper boundaries. If speaking with the ex is not happening, ask your husband to speak with her. Your step kids should have respect for you, your home and your rules, as supported by your husband. But keep in mind, respect goes both ways. A lot of kids are shuffling back and forth between houses and the rules of each house are blurred; it’s frustrating for them to not have stability. They want their own space and their feelings heard. Use compassion and patience as your starting point.
-find yourself a good support system
Working through issues you aren’t prepared for is endless as a stepparent. Finding someone you can talk to, lean on, receive objective guidance or just vent to confidentially is important for your mental and physical health. Your friends just don’t get it and your family is tired of hearing it. One option is to make a regular appointment with a therapist who will listen and advise you. It took me 3 therapists to find the right one, so don’t give up if initially it doesn’t work out. And if therapy is not your thing or within your budget, find other stepmoms you can talk to. I started a local, support group years ago and still keep in touch with a few of those women today. It is very cathartic to speak with other women with whom you can relate. One caveat to carefully consider: beware as support is not helpful if it’s negative and judgmental, as you can often see within online forums and social media. In addition, looking to your husband for guidance isn’t always effective as he’s too close to the situation and it’s tough for him to provide you with objective advice. Marriage is hard, period. But keep in mind that many marriages don’t ever experience added layers of stepchildren, blended families, an ex, alimony, child support, etc. These additional elements can cause conflict between couples. So while you’re finding support for yourself, don’t forget about your partner too. I was advised, “take care of the marriage first and foremost.” This is something my husband and I still work on today and go back to the tools our therapist gave us years ago.
-find peace and joy outside of the madness
When I’ve talked with other stepmoms, it’s clear there is a similar thread: we want to make everyone happy and make things work. Our hearts are in the right place, but they won’t stay there if we aren’t taking care of ourselves. I know this is easier said than done. Start by making a list of things you enjoy, whether it’s church, synagogue, yoga, working out, hanging out with girlfriends, reading, or binging on Netflix. Taking the time to recharge and do something for yourself helps relieve stress and increase happiness. When you feel good about yourself, it naturally carries over to having a positive outlook on your family, partner and life.
-develop thick skin
I know, I know, easier said than done. This is essential to stepmother survival. You’ve made dinner, been a chauffeur, organized a birthday party and no one utters a measly ‘thank you’. It’s tough to let it roll off your back, especially when these ‘things’ you do add up and you feel unappreciated. Just like any birth parent, a step parent feels slighted for being ignored or disregarded. I tend to think stepmoms feel this even more because the thank you’s/hugs/kisses can be far and few in-between. Acting like it’s no big deal when you’ve not gotten a card, phone call, or even a text on your birthday or Mother’s Day is not easy. Truth is, you’re not their mother and unless your husband is educating them to thank you and be appreciative of all you do, they won’t understand your value until they become adults and figure it out for themselves. Just keep telling yourself: it’s not about me-it’s about them. You will surprise yourself at how naturally you become more tolerable of each stage your step child goes through. My husband used to always tell me “it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” to how we learn to become good parents. Take solace in knowing you are strong because if you weren’t, you’d never be in this situation to begin with. There’s a lot of talk of ‘baggage’ when you take on the stepmother role and while that is true, that term always bothered me. No marriage is without baggage, it just depends on what bag you’re carrying.
-there is a light at the end of the tunnel
This advice was given to me early on in my stepmother days, yet I nearly rolled my eyes out of my head. Now I can look back and say, ‘yes, there is a light,’ despite the fact it was tough to see some days. It’s important to recognize that each hurdle you get through helps prepare you for the next. Sure, there are bad days where you feel like you’ve lost your mind, question your decisions and feel isolated, but you are not a victim unless you live like one. Focusing on the negative is a waste of energy. Doing something to fix your situation or make it better is up to you. I wrote in a journal to express my struggles as well as my progress. Going back and reading these experiences made me realize I had strength within I never knew, and you will gain that strength too. Knowing I made it through certain situations encourages me I can truly get through anything. When people ask me how many kids I have, I can now easily say “5” and smile. The tough reality for some of us stepmoms is we aren’t often on the receiving end of appreciation or regard until years or even decades later. But when you do receive it, it’s like gold and you savor it for a job well done. I have learned to really appreciate the small things: the big hug and teary eyes when my step son left our family vacation early, the advice-seeking, girl talk and texts from my step daughter, and most recently, the card I received from my step son apologizing for forgetting me on Mother’s Day saying, “So appreciative to have you in my life-my only wish is that I got to spend more time with you.”