It’s May, the month of Mother’s Day. While mothers all over the country are looking forward to celebrating this day with their children, many stepmoms are left wondering how and where they fit in.
Being a stepmother is by far the hardest role in the stepfamily system. And this isn’t just a two-time stepmother telling you that — it’s what a study of 1,400 stepfamilies discovered. While being a stepfather is difficult as well, stepmothers can receive a level of anger from stepchildren and ex-spouses that stepfathers rarely experience.
Women who fall in love with a man with children truly think they can handle being a stepmom. Most stepmoms, myself included, come from the right place and want to help with their partner’s children and develop some sort of relationship with them. So we open up our hearts, allow for our own vulnerability to show, and attempt to befriend and care about our partner’s children.
But, often, the hurt from trying to do this eventually comes, and the reality sinks in that being a stepmom is not exactly what you expected. It may be the first time your partner aligns with his children and leaves you feeling alone. It may be the first time you hear that the children aren’t as happy with you being there as they made it seem at the beginning. Or maybe it’s those “looks” the kids give you that your partner doesn’t see, but that you see … and feel.
When these realities and feelings about your stepkids begin to emerge, you may find you’re not able to be as generous with your warmth and caring. In fact, you may feel like you want to run away and leave all these people who can hurt you behind.
Who but a stepmother knows how many times she has opened her heart and soul and been hurt, sometimes in little ways and sometimes in much bigger ways. And when those hurts come, her very identity, the way she sees herself in the world, is challenged in a way that is difficult to negotiate. I spoke to a parent educator who thinks she can help “stepmoms learn to be more empathic of what the kids are going through,” and I thought, “She doesn’t really get it.” Yes, we can try to understand what the kids are going through, what the ex is feeling, what our partners are feeling. But who is being empathic to us and understanding what we are feeling?
Unless you’re talking with another stepmother, no one else really understands how isolating and lonely it can be, particularly for a stepmom who has no children of her own. Many women have partners who say, “Well, what do you want me to do?” or “Why can’t you understand the kids more?” or “Why can’t you try harder?” Of course, all this does is exacerbate your feelings of being the outsider and leaving you feeling like your partner is not in this with you.
Everyone is great with advice and solutions, which can sometimes be helpful, but you are alone in this confusing place. When you, your husband and his kids are all together, you “appear” to be a family, and when you go on “family” trips, you’re expected to act like a family (maybe even all share one hotel room!). But you are reminded constantly that “they” are the family and you are the outsider who has to navigate so many new and uncomfortable feelings.
You’ve got a challenge here, ladies. Yes, you can definitely learn what is normal in stepfamily life so that you don’t take some of these things thrown at you by the children personally. You can learn what is developmentally normal for children at certain ages (i.e., teens are rude to everyone they live with, not just you). And you can decide you are going to make this “family” work, and then feel that your husband and his kids are a family and you’re, well, we’re just kinda sorta family, but not really.
What you need to do is educate yourself and get support. As part of a stepcouple, you cannot afford to just guess what to expect in a stepfamily and you cannot just fantasize with your partner that it will work out. Rather than fighting, it’s time to take action and learn about your new life.
Find counselors who understand stepfamily life. Read books with your partner so that both of you are educated on the same topics. When you both understand how to present a strong partnership to the children, even the dads who are fearful of losing more time with their kids will understand that children benefit by seeing the adults in charge, work as heads of the household and be a strong, loving couple.
Seek out other women in your position so that you have a support system. Share books and information with other stepmoms. Go out as couples and talk together about the truth of what works and what doesn’t.
So, here’s to all stepmoms: you deserve all the respect in the world for doing something that no one else but another stepmom knows is so very challenging. It’s challenging when the children live with you full time, it’s challenging when they visit every other weekend, it’s challenging on “family” vacations, it’s challenging on holidays. But the biggest challenge of all is feeling alone in it. So, let’s all toast to our bravery, our good hearts (whether or not our stepchildren can see them), and join together so that we are not alone and have each other where we can be seen, heard and understood!
Happy StepMother’s Day!
Susan Davis Swanson
The StepFamily Center
Beverly Hills, CA