“Stepmom.” Whoever coined that term left us with such a negative taste in our mouth. You are not a real mom—don’t you dare step on toes and call yourself that. But you also can’t just be step because you are to be respected. Ouch. Nothing hurts more to many women than the “step” part.
I am here to say that I get it. I always tell blended families that the toughest role in the family is the stepmother’s role. Who gets blamed when problems arise? Stepmom. Who is at fault when something does not get done at dad’s house? Why, the stepmom of course! Who do we give credit to when things go right? Usually dad and mom. But wait a minute! Stop right there! Hello?! Who is usually behind the scenes making sure things go right, but doesn’t get credit? Yes, stepmom! Girl, I get you. I know it is tough, you want to pull your hair out, scream at someone, and many days say, “I am out.”
So, how do we do it right? There are 5 keys to nailing this role.
1. Realistic Expectations.
Do not expect yourself to be their mother. You are not. You will never be and the children’s mother wants to make sure that you don’t expect that. I know this sounds harsh, but the truth is that women can be so territorial that you don’t want to jump into that space. Instead, learn to be the child’s friend and mentor. Do not allow your partner to put you in the role of disciplining. You are not the child’s parent and the child will make sure you know that as soon as you start disciplining. Sadly, you do not have that trust with the child. Realize this child may never open up or feel as comfortable with you as she/he does with mom and dad. That is OK. Think of yourself as a close aunt. Step back and give yourself breaks when you need to. Have a close friend or a therapist to process with.
Set realistic expectations for the child too. Realize that the child may not have wanted his/her parents divorced, may be being told all sorts of things about you, and most likely is grieving. This child is hurt too. When we can see someone’s hurt and vulnerability, we can show grace towards them. Look for that child’s pain and work to be a part of the healing, not making it worse. Do not expect to be the child’s best friend or favorite parent. When you can envision yourself in a more distant role than a parent, then, nine times out of 10, there is peace because no one feels threatened.
Keep in mind the mom in the other house is just as scared as you. She fears that her child will love you more and think of you as more of a mom than her. We are all naturally insecure as mothers and mom-guilt comes in all forms. Realize that she is struggling just as much as you, no matter how perfectly she is trying to present herself. She wonders why your spouse can love you and not her, what is said about her in your home, and how she is portrayed to her children. She needs grace too so that she can work on those fears.
Your spouse also needs grace. This is a new terrain and trying to keep peace all around is rough. Realize that your partner is not going to do it perfectly every time. There will be moments where you feel the children were put before you (and they likely were and needed to be). There will be moments where your partner agrees with the co-parent and not you. It is OK. It does not necessarily mean your marriage is doomed. It means you need to work on communicating.
2. Show Grace.
This is for yourself, their mother, and your partner. Realize that this is new territory for everyone and everyone is going to make mistakes. If you can be the leader in being patient and kind, despite what the other side is slinging, you will come out on top. I realize this is probably the toughest one. It is so hard when you feel constantly under pressure and attacked to not want to retaliate. Do not. Realize the person on the other side is hurt and scared—just like you. Give yourself grace too when you are overwhelmed by stepping into this uncharted territory or you got involved in the conflict when you knew you shouldn’t, but had a weak moment. Realize that is not how you want to behave and start again.
Do not put their mother down or speak negatively of her. When you do, you are hurting them because their mother is part of them. Find her strengths even if they seem small and point them out to your spouse. Even when the kids complain about mom, do not engage. Change the subject or encourage them to speak to their dad about it.
3. Build trust with your partner.
This means that you both need to talk regularly with one another and get to know each other on deep levels. This requires you to be vulnerable with your partner and your partner to be vulnerable with you. Talk about everything and be open about your fears, joys, and everything in between. When you are able to have this level of openness with each other, then as he is making parenting decisions with his co-parent, he will know your needs and be able to navigate with his co-parent while respecting you.
If you are struggling with the trust that requires openness then figure out why. Is it you, him, or both? Do not shy away from counseling. I have many people who come to me who have a good marriage, but want to take it to the higher level. I have so much respect for them challenging themselves and each other to create the best marriage possible. If counseling isn’t your thing, read the marriage books, do the seminars, create accountability with another couple who you can process with and grow your marriages together. Do not think you are too good for any of this. Even the best of couples need people who can hold them accountable.
4. Do not make the parenting decisions.
My last point was the perfect segue for this. If you trust your partner, you trust this person to make decisions for the children and have insight as to how it can affect you. You respect that these people, while living in your home, are not your children. You respect the rules that are set for them (or not). If you do not agree with a decision, then you can speak privately with your partner, but never in front of the children (as that creates tension and I promise you they will be on their parent’s team over you).
Before saying I do, make sure that you are OK with how your spouse parents. If not, I promise you, in marriage, it won’t get better. Do not think you can change this person because in all the blended families I have worked with, I have only seen it once (and thankfully it was for the better). If you are married and realize that you don’t like the parenting decisions, then you need to learn to let it go. You cannot change someone else, unless that person truly wants to change.
5. Use your grit to love these babies.
Yes, they are not your biological children, but every child can always use more love. Make it a point to find the children’s strengths and encourage those traits in subtle ways. The children are hurting too. Their family is not like society says: “Mom, dad, kids all in one house.” They are scared. They know the horror stories of a stepparent thanks to Disney and the like, or maybe they have already experienced one of their parents dating someone who was mean to them. Remember, love is patient and kind. Model this for them so that they, too, can love others.
Find ways to love their mother, even if you never get a thank you. Yes, I know this is really tough. However, I am challenging you, stepmother, to a higher level. Make sure you take the kids to get mom presents for her birthday, Mother’s Day, and other important holidays. Don’t be rude about it either. Thoughtfully work with the children about what their mom would like and have them pick it out. Even if she snubs it, know that response is not about you—it is about her. And you helping the children pick out gifts is about you trying to create a bridge for the children so they feel safe and accepted. Promoting their mom builds them up and reduces the tension for them. It also makes you a happier person because you are not engaging in the tension.
There are always exceptions to the rules. Once in a while you are blessed with a child who truly wants you to have that mom role and the mother is not someone who is threatened. It is rare. Sometimes you are given a child whose mother is absent from their lives. This child has more trauma and needs more patience and love than you may think. Other times, you are left with a spouse who is a passive parent (meaning very lax and does not want to rock the boat with the kids for fear of losing them or the guilt of the divorce). Work with your partner to educate and learn more effective parenting strategies rather than demanding it. Learn together, but let your partner take the lead (remember, not your kids).
The keys to being a successful stepmother are grit and grace. Grace for yourself, your spouse, the mother, and the children. And, of course, grit, which is your determination to do your part for a successful blended family. You have got this, stepmother. Deep breath, you can do it!
For more on blended families, check out:
Here Are the 10 Commandments to Be a Great Bonus Mom
This Is How to Overcome Toxic Emotions After Divorce
Ask Dr. Zoe – Dealing with Blended Families and Different Household Rules
4 Simple Ways to Care for Kids After Divorce
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You’ll love this podcast episode from This Grit and Grace Life: How to Thrive as a Blended Family With Dr. Zoe Shaw – 131!