If someone had told me that I was going to be a stepmom at 21 years old, aka a bonus mom, I would have laughed in their face. Not because I hated kids or because I was rude, but simply because that wasn’t a part of my plan. Funny how life works like that, isn’t it? You see, when I was younger, I was convinced—without a doubt—that I was going to be a traveling nomad. Laugh all you want, but it’s true. I’d always loved traveling, exploring new places, immersing myself in a different culture, and writing about it. But six years after graduating, I married a divorced man with two precious kiddos and my role as “bonus mom” officially began. And let me tell you, it has been the most rewarding, exciting, and exhausting thing I’ve ever done. While I make absolutely no claim on being an expert, here are 10 tips that have helped me navigate blended family life thus far. I like to think of them as the 10 commandments for bonus moms.
1. Have Your Husband’s Back
This seems elementary, but trust me, the burden of having to think about his children and his wife and communicating with an ex-wife is enough to wear down the strongest man. So whether he asks for it or not, have your husband’s back—even when you don’t fully understand or agree with the situation and even when you’re feeling a bit left out. Listen to him, support him, and most importantly, encourage him. He needs to know that in the midst of all the push and pull he has to endure, that you’re going to be there, not just physically, but emotionally, mentally, and spiritually as well.
2. Prioritize Your Marriage
Marriage is hard. Marriages intertwined with blended families are harder. On top of the usual everyday pressures of marriage, you and your husband are attempting to build a healthy foundation on top of loss, divorce, brokenness, baggage, and pain. You are navigating, guiding, and loving children stuck in the midst of two households oftentimes with conflicting values—but if you are going to be successful, you must prioritize the health of your marriage. The kids especially need to see that healthy, lasting marriages are possible after divorce, that beauty can come after ashes, and that stability is possible after uncertainty. You and your husband can be that model if you put in the work to solidify your marriage. So take advantage of the moments, the days and the times when you don’t have the kids and pour everything you’ve got into your marriage. Work for it. Fight for it. Give it your all. And have fun doing it. Blended life is stressful enough, so make sure to laugh and relish the happy times.
Ways to live it out: plan short getaway trips, have emotional check-in days where the two of you get real, raw, and honest about what you’re feeling and what you need, do date nights, have marriage mentors, employ a counselor if needed, go to a comedy show, and text each other jokes throughout the day.
3. Be as Flexible as a Yogi
Regardless of how you feel about yoga and yogis, we can all agree on one thing, they are all about flexibility, and you need to be too. I can’t tell you how many times our plans have changed at the last minute because of schedule conflicts, unanticipated demands, miscommunication, and, sometimes, plain ole inconsideration. Yes, it is frustrating. Yes, I get upset. Yes, I want to stomp my feet on the ground and demand that our time be respected, but I’m an adult, and there are children involved. That’s not to say that we don’t have boundaries, but even in our boundaries, God expects grace, compassion, and consideration for others. So am I learning—slowly, I’ll admit, to be flexible. I recommend you do too.
Ways to live it out: when the last-minute change pops up, communicate with your spouse, pray on it, and follow the leading of that still, small voice. At the same time, know that you don’t always have to say yes. Sometimes no is needed and sometimes yes is needed. That’s where the flexibility comes in.
4. Play Peacemaker
As precious as kids are, they can be slick too. They know a lot more than they let on and sometimes, they intentionally and unintentionally play households against one another. So, before you feed the drama (and sometimes lies) that come out of their sweet little mouths, determine to be a peacemaker. Listen. Discern. Ask questions and always, always advocate for them to have healthy relationships with everyone involved as much as they can. Affirm their feelings, yes, but do not promote division. They are children navigating a difficult and exhausting situation. Sometimes your house is amazing. Sometimes the other house is amazing. Sometimes the weekend you planned was the best. Sometimes the weekend their mom planned was the best. It happens. Kids are sweet but fickle. So don’t take it personally. Encourage them to communicate, be honest about what they feel, and seek and work toward peace even while they’re young. You will all be better people for it.
Ways to live it out: play communication games, check out this informative and educational post.
5. Validate, Validate, Validate
Take a second and imagine how you’d feel if everything you’ve known fell apart in what seemed like an instant. Maybe you’ve experienced that feeling before, and maybe you haven’t. Now imagine yourself once again with those same feelings, but as a child.
That’s how children in divorced situations and blended families often feel. It’s earth-shattering, scary, and a little chaotic, to say the least. What you can do, dear bonus mom who’s struggling to find her place in a previously established family, is affirm them. Tell them every single chance you get that they are loved, cared for, special, valued, and important. Tell them that they matter and that they are surrounded by people who love them. Tell it to them when they don’t want to hear it, when they seem to reject it, when they roll their eyes at it, and when they pretend to ignore it because that’s when they need it most. And on top of telling them how much they are loved—show them. Get to know their world. Listen to them talk about their friends, their hobbies, the movies and music they like. Fill their lives with special moments that let them know you’re there and you care even when it isn’t reciprocated. Their hearts will soften, tears will lessen, souls will grow, and identity will be reaffirmed because of it. (Be sure to see what Dr. Zoe has to say on this topic in her article, Ask Dr. Zoe – How Can I Connect More With My Teen Stepdaughter?)
Ways to live it out: tell them they are safe, wanted, and loved, show them identity-building movies, remind them they were created with value and purpose, play self-esteem and identity-building games with them, let them know the divorce was not and is not their fault.
6. Do Not Intrude
This one can be a hard one to swallow but as much as you want to be involved, do not over intrude. Let the children set the pace for their relationship with you and do not, I repeat, do not take up all their time with their dad. Let them have time alone with him. They need it, and, if we’re honest, you probably see him more than they do. When this happens, don’t feel left out. Spend time with your girlfriends, your mom, or just take some time for you. Go to the spa, grab a book and read, watch one or two of your favorite movies, or maybe even bake them a nice surprise. But do something you love. Replenish yourself so that when your family returns, you’ll be full of loving energy to welcome them back with open arms.
Ways to live it out: plan ahead with your spouse to determine when he would like to have “dad time” with the children and do something nice for you.
7. Stop Comparing Households
Stop comparing households. You cannot control what anyone else does. Influence yes, but control no. The households do not need to be the same for the children to grow up happy and healthy. One family might have a later bedtime, eat more candy, and be more free-spirited or strict than you prefer. So what. Life is about balance and moderation. Navigating two different households can, in fact, help teach the children balance. Plus, it allows them to see and learn that difference can be a beautiful thing. It also shows them the advantages and disadvantages of various choices early in life. The point is, comparing doesn’t do anything for your soul except wear you down, stress you out, and make you feel inferior. And ain’t nobody got time for that. Use that energy to enhance your marriage and be a better bonus mom instead.
Ways to live it out: note the differences and move on. We were all created uniquely, and our households reflect that.
8. Enjoy the Present
As crazy and exhausting as being a bonus mom can be, it is also straight-up amazing, especially if you have a good relationship with your bonus kids. I mean, it’s the embodiment of love and commitment birthed out of choice. You are choosing to love them, and they are choosing to love you back. How wonderful, beautiful, heavenly, and amazing is that? Choosing to love when you don’t have to. So enjoy the good times. I mean relish them, sit in them, and soak them up to the fullest. Every time they smile at you, hug you, say they love you, call, text, write you a note, or draw you a wonderfully disproportionate portrait of you, cherish it. Make those moments last as long as you can and jot them down so that when times get hard, you can look back and remember that love thrives even in complicated situations and moments.
Ways to live it out: Take selfies, videos, and pictures. Save every single picture, note, and drawing. Laugh for as long as you can and hug for as long as you can. Stretch these moments. Make them last.
One of the easiest ways to help grow any relationship is to listen. So I decided to do something fun and ask my bonus kids what makes a good bonus mom good. Here’s what they said. The youngest, a 7-year-old said, “Cook good food, play with me, and plan fun stuff.” The oldest, a 10-year-old said, “Be a part of my world, listen to me, have quality time like girl dates and play lots of board games.” Granted, they’re young, but there you have it in their own words. As I laughed at their responses, I summed up their thoughts in four simple words: spend time with them. It’s as easy and as complicated as that.
Ways to live it out: in our house, we play a game called “This or That.” I made it up, but basically, we take turns providing each other with two options (i.e., ice cream or cake) and we each answer with our preference and explain why we chose what we did. It’s a fun way to get to know each other and listen to each other while pointing out and celebrating our similarities and our differences. Plus, you can play it anywhere.
10. Don’t Give Up
Being a stepmom aka bonus mom is hard work. I once read that it was like being a “legal stranger,” and I’ve felt like that at times, but I feel like family a thousand times more than I’ve felt like a legal stranger. No, you’re not their mother, but you don’t have to be to influence them and build a healthy relationship with them. So be honest. Be vulnerable. Be excited. Be scared. Be transparent. Be supportive. Be discouraged. Be tired. Be fun and be loving. But don’t you ever give up. On the good days, thank God for the grace He’s given you to thrive in this tough position and on the bad days, pray for the grit you need to make it through. I’m right here with you in the bonus mom trenches and girl, we’re going to make it.
We’re going to be there for our husbands, and we’re going to love his children as if they were our own. We’re going to do our best to promote peace where we can, and we’re going to give thanks for the opportunity to be a bonus person in the lives of the children we’ve grown to love.
Looking for more encouragement as a stepmother? Check out:
Ask Dr. Zoe – Dealing with Blended Families and Different Household Rules
You, Your Man, and His Baby Mama All Need Grit and Grace
Stepmother: The Most Difficult Job in a Family
5 Ways Blended Families Can Be Happy and Healthy
A Psychologist Explains How to Compromise and Why You Need to
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You’ll love this podcast episode from This Grit and Grace Life: A Therapist’s Practical Advice for Blended Families with Dr. Zoe Shaw – 050!