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 15 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! Oftentimes, I’m asked what it’s like to be a Stepparent. So many people who have ‘traditional’ families are curious about how us “steps” do it. Looking back, I’ve considered what advice I needed when I was new to my role as a stepmom and hope to help others. 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 you 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.”
Kate Mundy is originally from Chicago, IL, where she met her husband. She now lives in the Washington, DC area. Outside of being “CEO” of her family, her professional background includes writing, marketing and event planning.