What is the most difficult and underappreciated role in a family? Why, a stepmother of course! No, I am serious. The majority of my current practice is working in family law, a.k.a. divorce. I work with all members of the family as they deal with the reality of divorce. In my last 10 years of working in this arena, one thing has become clear: the worst and most thankless job in a divorced family is the stepmother.
She is the target of blame for most problems in the family: the children’s misbehavior, the parents’ conflict, and the mother’s insecurity. I know this is not a popular comment, but it is true. Not to say that there are not stepmothers who contribute to the problems, because I firmly believe every family member plays a role in the dysfunction. Every so often I read an article or see a social media post where stepparents and parents get along well as one big, happy family for the sake of the children. When I see this I think, “Way to go adults!” However, most often, when women say I do to being “round two,” they do so while not realizing what they are taking on in accepting this role.
With that said, how does a stepmother undertake this honor with grit and grace?
1. Know your role.
I think the key is learning to not trump mom. That means respecting who she is, how she wants to raise the children, and accepting her decisions whether you like them or not. That means not cutting her daughter’s hair even if you think it looks scraggly. It also means portraying her as a good mother, even if you question her parenting choices. Do not encourage the children to call you mom or any version of it. Step back and allow the parents to parent. Believe me, if you can do this, the children will naturally grow closer to you and respect you because you respect their mother.
2. Protect your marriage.
The other key is protecting your marriage. Having children is challenging to marriage, even when they are your and your husband’s children together. Having children that are not yours biologically, but are your husband’s with another woman—well that’s really, really hard. You are not mom, no matter when you came into those children’s lives. Given this, it is important to work diligently on your marriage by learning about each other, spending quality time just the two of you, and not allowing the children and/or his ex to become the center of your marriage. Make it a point to work every day on your marriage, communicating and loving on one another even when it’s hard. It is these moments that give you strength when your stepchildren work hard to divide and conquer you and dad.
3. Embrace the good times.
Most importantly, know that there will be phases when it seems like everything is going well. It is not abnormal for there to be a “honeymoon” phase in blending families. Appreciate these positive moments and note what is working well. When the difficult moments happen, remind yourself of the positive times to carry you through the rough patches.
Lastly, know you have the toughest job in your family. Make sure you allow yourself grace to make mistakes and learn from them, because being a stepmom requires the most grit of any role in a divorced family.
The worst and most thankless job in a divorced family is the stepmother. She is the target of blame for most problems in the family.
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