Becoming a stepparent is one of the hardest things I have ever done. It was never in my plan. In fact, it was quite literally a check in a “no” column when it came to my dating preferences.
I had been through hell and back with my own broken family, and I didn’t want to repeat it. I craved the simplicity of a traditional family structure.
And yet, when I fell in love with my husband, I had a choice to make. I could see making a life with this man, a whole life. There was this one small problem: he already had a child.
I took the decision very seriously. I was extremely worried that I would not be strong enough to get past my own insecurities and even more concerned about the ways that my own experiences would affect his daughter.
I am 6 years into this stepparenting gig now and I caution anyone considering it that it is not easy and it is not magical. But it is doable. I never dreamed that it would be as good as it is and I’m still caught off guard when my stepdaughter’s mother tells me she is glad that it is me who stepmothers her daughter.
Preparation is key for so many of life’s hardest challenges. Becoming a stepparent easily qualifies for that title. Here are the things I did that really helped me to prepare for my new role:
Become Aware – Go into the job with your eyes open. Consider all the possibilities by walking through a series of “what-if” questions? Talk to other stepparents about their experiences. What was hard? What was easy? What was unexpected? Take that feedback and imagine yourself going through it, considering your own potential reaction to each situation.
Establish Your Role – Speak with your partner and determine the exact role they want you to play in their child’s life. This will likely depend on the child, whether both parents are still involved, and both your skills/needs. I’d like to highlight this: understanding who you are will help determine how to best fit into this complex family dynamic.
Seek Help – Seek help from a professional: this could be a therapist, marriage counselor, or simply someone you know who’s been through it. Even before we were engaged, I consulted a therapist about my issues with becoming a stepparent, especially my own painful experiences in my relationship with my stepmother. It was helpful to work through my fears and insecurities with a neutral party (not everything can or should be shared with your partner).
Find a Safe Outlet – Therapists, certain friends, and healthy online communities can be a good outlet. I’ve found that it is really hard for me to feel resolved without venting, so it was important for me to find a safe person to share with. And not all thoughts and feelings can be successfully shared with your partner. Therapy has fulfilled that role for me, although sometimes a really good friend can give me advice without judging me for my less than gracious thoughts/feelings. Stuffing these kinds of things down can establish unhealthy patterns and create resentments.
Communicate Regularly – In addition to finding an outlet, it is really important to communicate with your partner, being aware of and respectful of their parental-child bond. Continual clarification of roles and expectations are good topics because they shift as needs change.
Remain Flexible – Be prepared for situations to change, because they will. Even with the most thorough preparation and research, you will likely encounter many scenarios that you never considered.
Apply Empathy – There are so many sides to this story. The thoughts and feelings of each person in your family need to be considered, as well as the child’s other parent and their relations. When I considered my husband’s ex’s viewpoint, I found it so much easier to be forgiving of her actions. Empathy provides the basis for social lubrication by helping smooth out potential misunderstandings that might otherwise be hurtful for the child(ren).
Take Breaks – It’s hard, it really is. And that’s okay. You are an important person on the list of people who need empathy. Have empathy towards yourself, allowing time to process new thoughts and feelings that will arise. Your reactions are real and they are valid, even if they are not “pretty.” Taking time away from the situation can provide a much-needed break and a fresh perspective.
Avoid “Shoulds,” Assumptions, & Expectations – There are too many “shoulds” in relationships, but they can be especially harmful in the precarious bonds between stepchildren and their stepparents. You cannot expect them to be or act like your other children. You cannot assume that your partner will treat all of their children the same way. Expectations will inevitably lead to disappointment. Try instead to allow life unfold naturally, making tweaks and adjustments as needed to steer the family in a healthy direction.
Accept You Will Make Mistakes – Trial and error is natural in relationships and it is especially true in the relationship with your stepchild. Find out what works. Test it out, taking mental notes of what works and doesn’t work. The important part of making mistakes is learning from them, apologizing where necessary, and using it as a learning experience.
I hope you’ll find this list helpful. Remember this: becoming a stepparent is your choice. It involves a great deal of soul-searching, acceptance, and personal growth. Being prepared will help you become the best stepparent you can be.
Sara Mann is both a stepdaughter and a stepmom, desperately trying to keep the peace in a household of five on overdrive. She writes about her strategies for keeping sane (mostly) at The Sanity Plan and on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.