I've been a stepmother for over 10 years, with immense rewards and some challenging lows. Like any kind of parenting, experience brings wisdom, often learned from mistakes, which reveals truths.
Here are my 10 truths about being a stepmother:
1. Stepmothers should be members of a family team. If the stepmom, her husband, his kids and their mother don't all work together, peace for the adults and happiness for the children won't exist. Candace Derickx, a stepmom for 15 years, explains, "When he was with us, I parented my stepson as I saw fit, but I also give credit to his mother for the wonderful young man he's become. We both saw past our differences and put my stepson first." Not easy to do, but when all parties strive to respect one another and create a co-parenting team approach, a much healthier environment exists for everyone.
2. Communication is vital. Open communication is essential for all of the kids and adults concerned. Privacy can still be respected without creating secretive atmospheres or refusals to discuss what's important. A lack of open, respectful communication only creates toxic relationships where the children feel constant tension and don't learn how to work out issues.
3. Stepmoms don't have to love their stepkids. Of course it's great if love is an element of the relationship between stepmothers and stepkids, but respect and kindness are the only mandatory components. A safe home and the necessities of life are also required, but love isn't. Sometimes removing the pressure of loving one another makes the relationship between stepmoms and their stepkids a little easier as the kids don't feel their loyalty to mom might be divided. Wednesday Martin's book "Stepmonster" makes a valid case that stepkids can and do still thrive if stepmothers simply treat them fairly and with compassion.
4. Support networks are vital. Thankfully these are readily available now through social media, but I recall feeling very alone in my early years of being a stepmom, especially after trying regularly to discuss the challenges of my role with friends who weren't stepmothers and not finding the support I needed. Psychotherapist Kelly Bos confirms, "It's so important to find a support network that gives stepmothers a healthy place to talk about their experiences with people they can trust, who will share their own experiences and who also offer alternate perspectives."
5. Stepmoms need their husbands to be supportive. Couples need to have detailed discussions about all of the aspects of having his kid(s) around to define one another's roles, especially with respect to discipline and finances. The husband then needs to uphold those roles with his family, kids and ex, not just for the stepmom's sake, but to avoid confusing the kids, who often see dispute in ways we wouldn't consider.
Maureen Turner Rasmussen, a stepmom of two, raises a good point. "Like all couples, we fight, but we try to make sure the kids know those fights are normal for all couples and we try not to stay mad for long. Kids who have been through divorce need more reassurance than kids who haven't."
6. There's no shame in getting professional help. With such complex relationships, there are bound to be conflicts. Having a non-biased, unemotional third party help talk through some solutions is the smart way to handle it, before the challenges become insurmountable and cause emotional damage to the kids.
7. Gratitude isn't always guaranteed. Not everyone will notice a stepmother's efforts. "I am the one who has tucked them in at night, listened to their stories, kissed their boo-boos. I am the one who helps them through their tough days. My stepdaughters are old enough now to recognize that beyond just loving their father, I chose to love and parent them as if they were my biological children," says Jaclyn Harris, stepmom of two teenage girls. "They do argue with me sometimes about my choices of discipline and occasionally scream 'I hate you!' or 'You're not my real mom!' but thankfully for the most part, they treat me like a respected parent."
8. Stepmoms need to manage their expectations. Being a stepmom requires sacrifice and flexibility, no matter what level of involvement a stepmother has with her stepkids. Stepfamily life can be unpredictable and plans can get derailed, but Rasmussen has a flexible approach and sees unanticipated time with her stepkids as valuable: "If we find them suddenly with us when we weren't expecting them to be, we simply modify our plans to include the kids."
9. Everyone makes mistakes, and stepmoms are no different. Apologies, forgiveness and understanding are the only things that get a stepfamily and the ex through those mistakes. "Stepmoms need to figure out the relationship they would like to have and work towards it, but hold the timeline and the results loosely. It will be a process," advises Bos.
10. Balance is everything. There is more than one way to be a great stepmom, despite the multitude of opinions on the subject. A stepmom has the difficult job of balancing her own needs with those of her husband, his kids and their mother. Not an easy task! Accepting the ups and downs with a sense of humour when possible is the best way to ride them out.
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