Tag Archives: Stepmotherhood
As time passes for me in my stepmother role, I am more and more coming to appreciate the importance of my network. Only a stepmother knows the feeling (or a former stepmother, for that matter) isn’t just a useful mantra, but a self-protective one.
Stepmothers flock together; they find each other, sniff each other out. [No doubt some mothers would say that's because we all stink! So be it; I'm sticking with my metaphor...]
Across two cities, a country and the world, I’ve built my network over the last three and half years, and now there’s always, always another stepmum I can connect with. And almost always, they just get it.
They know it’s like to be partnered with a man who is burdened by separation guilt. (Because no matter who initiated the split, and for what good reasons, they ALWAYS seem to feel guilty, and usually seem to act guilty with their kids and the ex.)
They get how painful it is to feel like an unwanted, unappreciated outsider in your own home. And veteran stepmothers will understand and remind you to feel how that feels, but try not to take it too personally – even if sometimes you’re more successful than others.
Other stepmothers know from experience what a loyalty bound child looks and acts like. This one takes a while to learn, and it’s so confusing at first.
But we were having fun – why is she suddenly hitting me?
He said blue was his favourite colour, so I bought him blue sheets and now he says he hates blue!
Stepmothers know from experience that stepkids’ mothers aren’t necessarily pleased when you demonstrate a caring interest in the kids. No, they don’t want you to be mean – “wicked” – but…. they don’t necessarily want you to be (too) nice or loving or fun, either. They might expect you to uncomplainingly share the work of looking after their kids because that’s what you signed up for but still refuse to acknowledge or include you as a figure of importance in their child’s life or in the parental decision-making process.
Most stepmums recognise that because this role makes us feel insecure, sometimes we project our shit onto the kids’ mother.
Most of all, other stepmothers realise that talking to most non-stepfamily people about all of the above is generally:
a) pointless – they say unhelpful things like why don’t you just slap the little bugger if she’s acting up? or oh well, only thirteen more years!
If it’s not a), though, it’s b), and b) is the poisonous cup stepmothers quickly learn not to sip from.
b) includes ouchies like don’t ever forget you’re not the Mother! and Oh, you can’t have kids? At least you have your two beautiful stepchildren. And, of course, that spiky old chestnut you knew he had kids when you married him.
So, that’s the best reason why a network of stepmothers, in person, over the phone and via the www is the biggest gun in your stepmother arsenal. Not to bitch and moan and get drowned in negativity, ideally, but to be able to use shorthand like handover day and disengage to someone who understands everything wrapped up in those words, and knows better than to judge.
Those of us who have a good network know how far it goes toward keeping us sane. Probably if you’re reading this, you have at least begun to tap into some kind of internet community of stepmothers.
But if there was one bit of advice I would offer, it’s that it is so, so helpful to have someone you can meet for a coffee, or a real live voice on the phone. So, adopt a fellow stepmother today!
Where have you found your stepparenting network? Where would you suggest others look to build a network for themselves?
Recently a friend of mine (You know who you are, Miss A!) became involved with a great guy…. who has two young kids living with their mum in another country.
Now, I’m pretty open with my friends and family about the reality of stepparenting as I experience it. The last thing anyone needs when they are just getting into an exciting new romance, though, is a lot of warnings about this problem and that difficulty they may – or may not – encounter.
Remembering how starry-eyed (admittedly in a slightly anxious way) I was about the idea of the Lovely Man’s kids prior to meeting them (I love kids! Kids love me! They’re so cute! It’ll be fine!), and how unseemly I found the occasionally cynical comments of other more experienced stepparents, there might be a place for offering resources that will give a new stepmum something to draw on during the confusing early phases, but without overwhelming her with horror stories.
(It’s interesting that the process of becoming a new stepmum can perhaps be equated, in this respect if no other, to that of a first-time pregnancy. Ideally, you get support; more often, I gather, everyone wants to tell you their grisliest war stories!)
So, mindful of Stef’s great post 10 things to know about step-parenting, Jacquelyn Fletcher’s post on How To Be A Stepmom’s Friend and my own “What I Wish I Had Known” series, here are five practical, useful ways I think women who’ve “been there” could consider offering help to new stepmothers.
1. First up, be gentle!
Dr Patricia Papernow described the various stages of stepfamily development. Specifically relevant to new stepmothers is the first “fantasy” stage, driven by the expectation that everything will work out beautifully and the new family will be “just like” a nuclear family, full of love and rainbows and unicorns.
While this stage may be terribly unrealistic, it’s also the last chance some women will have for a while to feel really positive and hopeful about their stepfamilies, so personally I’m not going to go around bursting any bubbles. Chances are it will wear off soon enough!
Offer to be there to talk. Preferably without implying that you’re expecting any 3am panic calls.
2. If it hasn’t happened yet, encourage her not to put too much pressure on herself about the “big” first meeting with the kids.
Personally, I nearly drove myself over a precipice of stress and anticipation leading up to the first time I met the Boys and the Lovely Man was also extremely concerned about how it would all play out, so I internalised waaaay too much of an “end of the world” perfectionistic standard for the encounter.
More recent experience and confirmatory accounts from other stepmums have since shown me that the much-hyped first meeting isn’t usually that crucial. There’s often a bit of a honeymoon period in terms of the stepkids’ reactions to Dad’s new partner anyway, and for many kids it also seems to take a while to sink in that you’re there for the long haul.
So I would reassure women in this position not to beat themselves up too much about the first meeting. Barring accidents, it’s the meeting after that and after that and after that, i.e. once a comfort zone has been established, when any problems are most likely to show up.
3. A copy of Wednesday Martin’s Stepmonster, or your own favourite stepparenting book.
It’s probably best to avoid giving anything too gritty. I remember reading Cherie Burns’ Stepmotherhood early on and finding it painted stepmother reality in tones of panic-inducing darkness before I was ready to give up those charming fantasies of instant mutual love and appreciation. Or even to recognise that I had them.
Apparently, research shows women read twice as many books about stepfamily dynamics as men. There’s a good chance that a new stepmum will be really, really wanting to “get it right”; good books will at least give her a heads-up on what she might expect and how normal it is to feel [insert disconcerting emotion here].
4. A chatty email with links to a few online resources “just in case you’re interested”.
Maybe NOT to the sites that describe horrible knock-down, drag-out battles with an evil ex, though – more the supportive, resource-focused ones. Down the track sometime, Jacque Fletcher’s Stepmom Circles podcasts on a CD to listen to in the car or on her iPod might be a thoughtful gift.
You could also mention, in passing, a stepfamily course or group that you have found helpful. If the new stepmother is interested or becomes interested later, she’ll know to ask you for contact details.
5. Advice – or not?
As most of us have experienced firsthand, stepmothers tend to get overwhelmed by advice, most of which is pretty counterproductive.
“Act like an aunt.” “Don’t try to be their mother!” “Be a mother-figure.” “You’d better love them like your own!” “They’ll resent you forever – learn to deal with it.”
Role ambiguity, anyone?
To avoid advice-induced overwhelm, try to limit giving advice unless asked, maybe to a single idea you’ve found really useful.
(Note: However much you might be tempted, screeching “Run! Run like the wind!” won’t work and will just induce a sense of “I told you so” if hassles do arise down the track.)
As a fly-in, fly-out stepparent myself, the only advice I gave my friend was not to assume that because her new partner’s kids lived overseas they wouldn’t be a massive part of his and her day-to-day lives.
On the contrary, I’ve found that the kids are ever-present in our life as a couple. Which I guess would only come as a surprise to someone who doesn’t have kids themselves!
What would you offer a brand-new or soon-to-be-stepmother?
…. that when I’m actually full time, hands-on step-parenting for any extended length of time I have so much less time and energy for blogging about stepfamily life?
Probably all you full time stepmums and mums with kids of your own are shaking your heads pityingly at this moment, maybe even with a phrase on your lips that goes something like:
No shit, Sherlock!
But for formerly single, childless me, the durrr-obvious impact of Christmas and renovations on top of wrangling three boys on their first holiday visit to our city since I started blogging came as a bit of a surprise.
Were my fantasies of blogging every day during my holidays.
Went the idea of spending any significant one-on-one time with the Lovely Man.
Exploded, repeatedly, the soundtrack of the PS3 now apparently permanently ensconced in my loungeroom.
Peace be with me at Christmas?
It’s great to be back. Happy New Year, everyone.
Thanks so much to everyone who commented on/linked to my last post listing the things I wish I’d known about the early days of stepfamily life when I was in the early days…
(What’s that? It still is the early days? Why do I feel 103, then?)
Here are a few more, this time specifically about settling into a relationship with a ready-made Dad.
The mantra the children come first is not a self-evident truth, however tempting it may be to chorus at every opportunity; it’s a destructive and dangerous idea if you actually want your second-family relationship to survive.
One of the common ways this seems to come out is when Dads make a point of showing how important the kids are by always popping the stepmum at the back of the queue.
Joel Schwartzber’s article on What Remarried Dads Owe Their Stepmom Wives talks about this stuff from the much rarer man’s perspective; like most stepfamily resources it assumes the couple are married, but I think applies just as well to any committed partnership with stepkids.
The Lovely Man and I still don’t always find a mutually agreeable balance of my/his/our/the kids’ needs, but things are getting better all the time.
Our biggest progress was when I stopped letting the Evil Mantra (“kids must come first! kids must come first!”) make me feel so guilty that I was silenced from asking for what I needed. He’s truly a Lovely Man, and he wants to help if only I let him know how!
You might not be the kids’ mum, but it’s often a good check-in of whether your partner is being fair to ask whether he’s treating you as if you were.
I don’t mean with respect to decision-making about the kids’ schools or braces or religion, but to general things, like when deciding where to go to dinner or whether to intervene if the children are misbehaving towards you.
These days, my (private) rule of thumb is that if he wouldn’t have behaved this way/allowed this behaviour to his ex-wife during their marriage, then it’s not right toward me either.
So, for example, if one of the boys made disrespectful comments about my family, I think:
Would he have let that go unchallenged if made in front of their Mum about their Mum’s family before the breakup?
If the answer’s no, then I expect him to sit on it, pronto.
Or if he decided what to do for a day out by asking the children’s opinions, agreeing to whatever they said, then saying to me in front of them: Is that ok with you?
Would he have followed this decision-making process with the boys’ Mum when they were married?
Of course not; in healthy first families, children might be consulted but ultimately adults make the decisions.
I’m pretty certain his ex-wife’s views were always genuinely canvassed and taken into account, not just given lip service in front of the kids so that she felt pressure to go along to avoid being the bad guy.
Doing this exercise really helps me sort out my boundaries and also identify when I’m the one being unreasonable. Oh yes, it happens!
You and your partner don’t have to endlessly turn the other cheek to serious untruths or distortions in the name of not dragging the kids into adult conflict.
After all, a lie is often accepted as truth when you don’t correct it, and lies of that kind are designed to often cause harm to the parent-child relationship.
It needs to be very skilfully and carefully done, though, and only when truly warranted. If the cross-talk is getting bad, Divorce Poison shows techniques for assessing whether it’s necessary to take action and, if so, how to address the stories.
(Of course, this is mostly up to Dads. But it’s still good to know.)
Your partner may know how to be a first family Dad, but he might need help to learn how to be a stepfamily Dad.
For Australian families, I can’t recommend the stepfamily course run by Relationships Australia highly enough.
Finally, like Nine Kinds of Crazy said on the same topic, try to make sure you get time with your partner without the kids.
You’ll be a much saner happier bunny for it, and more able to enjoy the kids and your own Lovely Man!
I’ve been thinking today about what I wish I’d known before getting into this step business.
It’s a bit like when someone’s pregnant, you know? Do you tell them birth horror stories so they’re prepared for what could go wrong, or gloss it all over with sticky icing to avoid inducing a panic attack before it’s necessary?
Are all, when you’re dating/bonking/besotted with/engaged to a guy with kids, reality does tend to catch up quickly enough!
So I thought and thought, and wished that, instead of just looking at me with the kind of appalled expressions that made me want to reflexively check my person for dog faeces, there had been some nice experienced step-type person who might have been able to tell me a few things.
Things I wish I’d known in the early days…
You’re not alone – lots of women routinely don’t describe themselves as stepmums because they too are afraid of being judged. Dig a little and you’ll be surprised.
On the other hand, first family parents, particularly mums, may find your very existence terrifying in a this-could-happen-to-me kind of way. Not your fault!
Unfortunately, I’m good with kids and children always love me doesn’t mean you’ll have an easy ride. Your stepkids are not ‘normal’ in the way they relate to you; being able to charm the most petulant primary schooler or colicky infant around in milliseconds does not mean these children will accept you easily.
Just because a child acts sweet or even courts you and says that you should marry their Daddy doesn’t mean things are going to go smoothly. Many stepkids have a delightful honeymoon period until the reality that you are going to be around permanently sinks in; then the acting out can start.
Boy A was like this with me to begin with – during those first few visits he would help me with the chores, assemble ingredients for me to cook, tell me all about his friends and toys.
I honestly thought: Wow, this stepmum thing’s a lark. Nothing to it! Oh, woe, was I in for a shock(er).
Once he realised that I wasn’t a passing fad or an amusing but temporary visitor, his demeanour towards me became much darker – there’s been the hitting phase, the complaints to the Lovely Man about how annoying I am, the endless shrugging, the refusal to answer or acknowledge me, the requests that I not visit anymore, the story that Boys B and C are scared of me.
Not fun, but now that I’ve got a more realistic idea of how he feels at least the Lovely Man and I can work on it.
Boy B, on the other hand, started off very shy and withdrawn but now seems (mostly) to really enjoy my company.
And Boy C is, as ever, my saving grace, with his funny stories and giggling fits and the occasional spontaneous cuddles that warm my [wicked] heart.
Don’t overcompensate to prove to the world at large that you’re not wicked. Foolish people will assume you are wicked however nice you are, while smart people will see how hard your job is and forgive your mistakes.
Same deal: don’t overcompensate to prove to the kids that you’re not wicked. The kids’ attitudes to you may end up having very little to do with you and how you actually behave.
Stepfamilies are so different to first families and some of what happens is completely counter-intuitive. The more a stepkid likes you the more they may reject you? Whaaaattha?!
For non-US stepmums like me, Amazon is your friend. Most of the books I’ve found helpful aren’t readily available outside the US and UK.
However much or little you and your partner see the kids, things are never going to be the same. This will probably take over your life, more or less…
…and your non-step friends will struggle to understand why you seem so obsessed.
And finally, it’s hard, but it’s also sometimes really, really good fun.
This list actually ended up ENORMOUS, so I’ll post another installment tomorrow.
In the meantime, I’d love to know what other stepmums include on their If Only I Had Known list…
Does anyone else follow shitmydadsays ?
(By the way – since the stepboys came along I have making big big big HUGE efforts to tone down the odd curse. But insist on linking to profane – funny, but profane – websites. Sorry, people. Doing my best, here.)
Hilarious. Especially to my family. Especially at Christmas.
Sometimes I think we should set up some kind of (Stuff) My Dad Says collective.
My own Dad’s mantra at this time of year is Bah… HUMBUG. He doesn’t hesitate to trot out that puppy around toddlers, four-year-olds, Sisters of Mercy. Anytime is a good time to spread misery and despond, as long as it’s Christmas.
But tonight’s contribution was pretty cute.
To set the scene:
Fireworks popping like crazy in the background, much to the discomfort of the Fluffy White Dog, who admittedly is somewhat neurotic. During a particularly big thunderstorm last year, she tried to take cover under a broom.
But I digress.
So, anyway, the fireworks were exploding merrily. The dog was trembling, just lightly.
The Dad chose this moment to say:
Hear that, Fluffy White Dog? That noise out there? They’re shooting dogs, that’s what that noise is.
Fluffy white dogs, as it happens.
I’m just glad he manages to contain the sardonics when the stepboys are around. Kids, as all you Actual Mums know, can be pretty literal. And this is a family where our grandfather used to kiss us goodnight as children with the blessing:
Close your eyes or I’ll have to hit you with my stick with nails in it!
Nice one, Gramps.
On the other end of the spectrum is my Mamma. She’s bought each of her six(!) stepgrandkids a Fair Trade Christmas ornament to hang on the tree, and is currently in the process of sewing little calico bags to store them in, to be embroidered with each of their names.
How these two people have sustained a devoted marriage of over thirty-five years standing is still a bit of a boggle to me sometimes.
May the Lovely Man and I do likewise!
Recently, I was described, to my face, as a tragedy.
Not a way I’ve tended to think of myself before.
Arms, legs, faculties: Check!
Free of serious injuries or ailments: Check!
Immediate family members intact: Check!
Nope, nothing tragic about this life. In fact, I tend to think that it’s (mostly) pretty damn fine.
Beloved boyfriend, dear friends, fabulous family, occasionally troublesome but affectionately regarded stepsons all in place. It’s not a cakewalk (what IS a cakewalk?) but I enjoy it thoroughly and regularly.
But no, my life, and specifically my family, is tragic.
The person who made the comment about stepfamilies being tragic should know better. She’s a stepmother herself, and a member of the Lovely Man’s extended family.
I wonder if she thinks the kids she had with her husband are a tragedy, seeing that they are part of a stepfamily? Is she a tragedy?
Now, I’m not denying that my stepboys often feel grief that their mum and dad separated, and, by extension, that I’m now in their lives as the Lovely Man’s partner.
One loves me, one likes me, and one struggles to like me and not like me at the same time. And I know that if they could push a magic button and go back to the way they thought things were before, they would.
We have fun together. We laugh. Last visit we decorated the Christmas tree together. I baked them gingerbread moose biscuits (of which more later). We went to the zoo and tried to outdo each other in the authenticity of our flamingo calls.
We’re not perfect; all five of us have our different sadnesses at the situation.
But. We. Are. Not. Tragic.
NaNoWriMo 2009, we rocked each other’s worlds!
For those who aren’t routinely in the company of self-inflicted craziness, NaNoWriMo is an online novel writing challenge held every year in November, where this year 160,000 assorted insane people attempted to write the first 50,000 words of a novel over the 30 days of the month.
For reference sake, mine was 175 pages long (and I’m quietly having panic attack symptoms just remembering that!)
What I found interesting, though, was the way that stepfamily life, originally meant to be a very minor theme in my tale, took on Zeus-like proportions and rampaged its way through the entire storyline.
My murderer and her various dastardly deeds actually became fairly unimportant by comparison to the multi-generational step dramas playing out.
Oh, and there was also a completely random, out-of-nowhere, what-does-my-character-think-he’s-doing severed hand episode, but I won’t dwell on that piece of gruesomeness too much.
One of the occupational hazards of breakneck speed extreme novelling turned out to be that the plot drives you rather than the other way around.
Another, of course, was too much coffee.
Anyway, it turned out to be very steppy indeed. Me, obsessed with stepmotherhood? Guess so.
Or could it simply be that stepfamily life takes over my head everything like a particularly aggressive weed species?
Well, here I be!
This blog has been simmering for a while; but 1 December seems a good time to take up the cauldron.
To introduce myself and my (occasionally reluctant) family:
Me, early 30s, no kids of my own, living in subtropical Australia (but I’m guessing the step m.u.m. spelling might have given a hint there!)
Partnered nearly two years with my lovely man, The Lovely Man.
And thereby playing stepmum to his personal Aryan Horde -
Boy A, 11. Very smart, very blond.
Boy B, 9. Also very smart and only slightly less blond, and
Boy C, 7. Very smart, very blond, very cheeky.
Are you getting the picture of cookie-cutter children, at all? The Lovely Man always says My ex-wife and I decided not to worry about paternity testing. They look so much like him that it’s sometimes a little disturbing.
Like lots of stepmum bloggers, I need to be paranoid careful about identifying the people in my family, so I’ll be walking a bit of a fine line/garden path to find the right balance.
I’ll see where it all goes, but my idea isn’t to drag readers into a step-by-step blow-by-blow, but to use some of the incidents and accidents of my stepfamily life, as well as the many, many step-blogs and step-manuals I read, to reflect on what this crazy, erffed-up job of helping to raise somebody else’s kids is really about.
Anyway, we’ll see!