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Stepping Into a New Role: Balancing Love as a Stepmother

By Jessica Lawson

With divorce rates in America at an all-time high, it is practically inevitable that our children will be affected by broken marriages either directly or through friends. Difficulties, both emotional and physical (due to moving back and forth between residences), can threaten a child’s sense of home and blur the roles of parents.

My husband had been divorced for five years when we married, and I joyfully added his two children to my life. I had been told that the possibility of my own pregnancy was slim at best, and would involve a variety of tests and visits to specialists-something we were not prepared to afford at the time. I was convinced that these would be the only children in my life, and I grew to love them quickly. As stepmother to two dual-home youth who lived with me and my husband every other week, I can attest to the heartaches of suppressing the instinct to mother what is not truly yours out of respect to the real mother.

Miraculously, I became pregnant eight months into the marriage and gave birth to a healthy baby girl late in 2008. My stepchildren had mixed emotions concerning the news and their half-sister’s arrival. It marked a distinction in the relationship they held with their father; to them, it cemented his decision erase his previous marriage and begin a new life. For the duration of the pregnancy and first several months of my daughter’s life, swirls of joy mixed with guilt due to their slight resentment of my greatest accomplishment to date.

Though it is unlikely that they will ever understand, the birth of my own child has only deepened my love for my stepchildren. In this surprisingly common situation, I am often torn in how to manage my role-giving sufficient love and respect to my stepchildren, my daughter, my husband, and myself. I offer three steps of advice to new stepmothers:

Step 1: Have a serious discussion with your spouse

What will your role be when you get married? Officially, you are a stepmother, but your authoritative rights as a parent will depend on several things including: the age of the children, the relationship between your husband and his ex-wife, and your own initiative. My eldest stepchild, fourteen and fully grown in her own mind, is at the age where texting and boyfriends can cut into school time. Is it my place to tell her that she can’t hang out with friends until homework is done? Unfortunately, I found out the hard way that the answer to this is no. Unless you have a discussion with your husband about policies. Even then, if her mother has a different policy at the other house, it is extremely challenging to offer children the rule stability they need. Children are smarter than you might think; they learn quickly about how to manipulate wriggle room when dual systems are in place.

It comes down to a basic fact-you must learn the rules of the household before you can enforce them. If you see a parenting gap, discuss it with your spouse in a tone that doesn’t insinuate anything negative about their own style of child-rearing. Remember though, while at your house, you are the mothering presence. The child’s mother will usually appreciate you erring on the side of doing what’s best for the child, whether that’s initiating more study time, or changing junk food habits into healthy snack alternatives…however, when in doubt, always defer to your husband and his ex-wife. Right or wrong, it is not your job to lay down the law in parenting your stepchildren. Gentle suggestions may be offered to your spouse, but you are not an enforcer in that situation; you are not in a good place to negotiate or change homework protocol and social activities that have been approved by both parents.

What about the new child we’ve brought into this family? Regarding a new addition to the family, ask yourself this-do you agree with the way he is parenting his children from his first marriage? If there are things that bother you, be careful and sensitive in your approach. However, when it comes to the child you’ve created together, you certainly have a hard say in things, and don’t be shy about communicating your beliefs.

Step 2: Don’t try too hard, but always try

I confess that I have resorted to bribery in order to win my stepchildren’s affection. For my stepson, that meant making extra efforts to do fun activities over the summer while his Dad was working-fishing, tennis, a game of catch. I put in extra effort for my stepdaughter too-a trip to KOHLS for a new hooded sweatshirt, a three hour drive to retrieve forgotten homework, a late-night drive to the store to get medicine for menstrual cramps that I’m fairly certain she read about in Seventeen magazine.

One particularly rough month about two months after the baby was born, I found myself catering to their dinner requests and mealtimes even if I had already planned the menu for 6:30 to help me work around the baby’s schedule and leave time for homework/family interaction. With a newborn child to manage, I now realize that this was ridiculous, and I should have asked for help and cooperation. I was too caught up in trying to be liked.

Honestly, I began to empathize with my own Mom and learned a hard fact that mothers everywhere are aware of: not all of your efforts will be appreciated and acknowledged. It’s sad, but true, so while going the extra mile is admirable and shows your initiative toward being a good stepmother, don’t overdo it. It’s the same as a typical mothering situation; if you’re going above and beyond for personal satisfaction, then great! If, however, you are seeking or expecting accolades, be prepared for the occasional lackluster or indifferent reaction to your efforts. If you offer to help a stepchild in some way or attempt to interact through various activities, simply ask once or twice. If they decline your offers, respect that, knowing that the asking is the important thing. If a conversation about school or friends or social life turns into the classic, “What did you learn today? Nothing,” then don’t take it as a personal affront.

Letting stepchildren know that you are interested in them and want to share your time with them, not just their father, is the key. Again, children are smart and know when your approach is with genuine interest of them, or in acquiring their good favor. Don’t try too hard, but always try.

Step 3: Accept and respect your stepchildren’s feelings, both positive and negative

“Oh, I’ve already made it clear with Dad. I’m never babysitting for her unless I get paid extremely well.” This quote from my 14-year-old stepdaughter sums up her occasional resentment toward my daughter, her half sister. At first, I was understandably upset by her behavior; she did not come to the hospital with her brother when I went into labor, she openly ignored the baby’s presence at home, and consistently reminded Grandma that she “was the pretty one.”

After taking a moment to see things through her eyes, I realized she was partially justified. I had, after all, entered their lives without permission. At the time, their parents had been divorced for five years, and their mother had just gotten engaged. When the news that I was pregnant arrived, it caused her to think that her father was starting over and having a new family.

In the same vein, my stepson once made it very clear that he practiced spelling with his Mom, not me. Did that make me feel bad? Yes. Could I respect his feelings? Yes. He was teaching me that, while I was welcome in the house, not to push my position as a mother figure. Interestingly enough, the next week he was excited to ask me to test him on spelling. Likewise, my stepdaughter has since put several “really cute” pictures of the baby in her phone to show friends at school.

My point is that flexibility and time are key. While tip-toeing around a person’s mood is not a good habit to get into for any healthy relationship, you must be patient and understanding. When I sit back and survey our family situation from a distance, I am amazed by how well the children are able to adapt and grow into such caring individuals. Your influence as a stepmother, however small it may seem, will have more effect than you can imagine as they look back on their childhood and learn how to have relationships with others. Be kind to them and yourself during the time you have together. Don’t feel bad if you don’t always get along; do you always get along with your husband? Probably not. Little arguments and disagreements are nothing more than a sign that you are getting to know each other enough to truly care. Give your relationship time, time, time.

It’s all a learning process and, believe it or not, many worries you have about parenting your stepchildren and children will take care of themselves. Love the child, love the child, love the child-that advice counts equally for all of those little people growing up in your household. Good luck, and happy mothering!

Jessica Lawson has worked in the nonprofit sector for several years, and as a teacher for children ages three to five. She lives in Palmer Lake, Colorado with her husband and three children.

Jessica Lawson
P.O. Box 763
Palmer Lake, CO 80133
Telephone: 719.210.5290

2 Responses to “Stepping Into a New Role: Balancing Love as a Stepmother”

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  • Terrific article Jessica. Great points you make about relationships needing time and that it’s okay to be kind to yourself though everything. Loved the stories you shared about spelling tests and your SD’s comments about the new baby. Ouch! Every stepmom can understand how much it hurts to experience these mini-rejections. Even though we know not to take them personally, you remind us that we really need to try to remove our ego from the immediate situation and look at the big picture. Thanks for a great read!

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