Let’s talk about the American stepmother.
There is no title in the world that brings with it such a bad taste in our mouths as the title of stepmother. Centuries of fairy tales, mythologies about gods who couldn’t keep it in their pants, and the dark legacies left behind by so many historical assassination attempts in royals and other noble families, have bred into us a palatable distrust in any woman who can be called our stepmother.
As a young woman, I married two different men, both of them with children from their first relationships/marriages. All told, seven children not biologically mine, were part of the set of children my husband and I called our family, and were part of my life for over 20 years. My three children resided with us full-time, their fathers not involved at all in their raising (even when we were still married). While some of these kids lived with us full time at different points of their childhoods, they mostly resided in the custody of their mothers. In contrast to the common out-of-sight, out-of-mind fathering divorces seem to foster in a lot of men these days, a parade of biological mothers came with my new title of stepmother, each one of them devoted to making sure their precious offspring didn’t end up choking on poison apples, cleaning out my cinders as my own personal slaves, or being baked in a huge oven in my candy covered cottage in the forest. Despite being a part of a relationship with my husbands that had not worked out, I found them each to be just like any other mother — good in some areas, flawed in others, but overall, they loved their kids.
Knowing how to navigate waters with a mother who is every bit as maternal about her babies as you are about yours was tricky. Add into the equations the biological fathers who were happy to leave all the hard stuff about parenting their children firmly on the new wife’s shoulders, and the stage is set for a nuclear meltdown at some point, usually exclusively between the females of the family. What always blows me away when I hear about the eventual explosion in situations like this is never what two crazy, angry women said or did to each other; it is the husbands’ reactions. Most of them don’t want the hassle of choosing a side between the dueling factions, so they often play both sides behind the other’s back. They will agree with the ex about the problem the new wife is not handling correctly, and turn around and show complete support for the new wife’s decisions. It would seem the important thing here is to not have to deal with an angry woman, ex or otherwise. Of course, this blows up spectacularly in their faces at some point, and the fall-out is so much harsher than if they had just nutted-up and treated the problem less like a self-involved dumbass and more like the boundary establishing event it really was.
At some point, I had to step back and evaluate why every other week in my life seemed embroiled in chaos, and from there, I was able to clearly outline some truths about being a stepmother. By doing this, I was able to draw boundaries, reduce my stress levels, and place some of the responsibility back on the shoulders that it belonged — the mothers and the fathers.
1. Being a stepmother is not the same as being the real mother. Science has clearly proven that the bonds mothers form with their own children are hormonal. Don’t feel guilty when you can’t force yourself to feel the same way about other kids as you do about your own. We weren’t designed that way.
2. The Golden Rule is always the best route to go when you are dealing with anyone, especially your stepkids, real parents, extended family, etc. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you wouldn’t want someone overstepping their place with your kids, telling you how badly you are doing raising them, and being a general nag, then don’t be that person in their lives.
3. Discipline should never fall on your shoulders, especially at the beginning. As long as they have a real parent around, that should be their job. Too often we stepmoms are shoved into an enforcer role because of a father’s guilt, laziness, or for the simple reason he doesn’t want his kids to be mad at him. It takes a while for trust to be earned and given in any relationship, especially in a stepmother / stepchild one.
4. Clear, honest communication is the key to being a stepmother who has stepped into an advisory role. Don’t lecture. Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen.
5. Take time to step back and examine your own behaviors with your stepkids. It is all too easy to let deep resentments toward your husband, his family, or his exes to seep into how you interact with these children. That’s spectacularly unjust, and only vigilance on your part will keep that from happening.
6. Two people will stand before God and answer for their children – Mom and Dad. Because of the level of responsibility involved, when possible, you must defer to their parents’ decisions. If you disagree with a parent, it is okay to carefully advise otherwise, without getting personal or spiteful. If you are overruled, then you should step back. You are not the ruling faction.
There are more, but I felt the weight of the world lifted from my shoulders when I embraced these guidelines. Hopefully, they will help other stepmothers out there. I’m dedicating this post to the stepmothers I work with who daily try to be there for their blended families — Brandi and Holly. Hang in there, ladies. They don’t stay children forever. 🙂
6 responses to “From One Wicked Stepmother to Another”
I think the other misunderstood and abused word is mother-in-law. We are considered intrusive, demanding, scheming and meddlesome. One rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel. And it really not fair. For almost all of us have hearts bigger than love can hold. Thanks for the feelings.
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True, the mother-in-law title isn’t much better. I had the best mother-in-law in the world for over 20 years… She certainly dispelled any lingering negative opinions I had about them.
Am so glad to hear positives. Being a step mother is hard, too…I know of some who make the effort and some who don’t. Just like moms in laws. Hell…just like parents in general!
Awesome post!! Our society is one of extremes…we only hear about the worst case scenarios and tend to base our judgments on those few. Writing about the plight of step-parenting is tricky as we have to be careful not to shed a bad light on anyone (no matter how truthful) or the light gets twisted right back to us! **Sigh** Thanks for sharing Catherine! You are awesome!
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Proverbs 18:17 “The first to plead his case seems right,…Until another comes and examines him.”
I find myself a little amazed at how easily on-looker’s opinions can be swayed. I remember going to my husband, my side of the current mayem neatly spelled out in simple, easy to understand bullet points, explaining why I am right, and whoever else is wrong. Without exception, I could lock my husbands opinion in my favor up right at the beginning, but when the opposing side presented their arguments, normally his opinion would begin to waver.
We are all coming to situations with a whole set of pre-existing assumptions, motivations, fears…. Empathy is a dying art these days, especially in our youngest generations. The only way to keep a dynamic like stepparenting from hurting someone involved, be it on purpose or otherwise, is for one person to stop the cycle, take control of their own actions and reactions, empathize with others involved, and learn how to pick his/her battles.
I don’t know about other women, but I have the kind of temper that once I reach a certain point, I forget everything important, and lash out. Once I started paying attention more to my own reactions, and less on what everyone else is saying or doing, I found myself less and less involved in step-drama and more at peace with my stepkids.
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As a step mom myself, your last statement “once i started paying attention to my own reactions….” Is really the point that matters the most.
I have spent many years attempting to be someone I’m not – not their mom, but not “me” either. I finally gave up trying to be the person society thought i should be as a stepmom and started being myself, with all of my flaws and positives.
I make no apologies for being me – even if the other parents think I’ve overstepped some boundary. I tell my husband ” you married me for me, not to be a replacement mom. If what im doing is good enough for my own child and you approve, then it shouldnt be off-limits for your children.” Biomom refuses to listen to any reason and blames me for everything wrong in her life, so i dont let her get under my skin.
One thing’s for certain – stepparenting is not for the faint of heart!! 😉
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