As Mother’s Day approaches I have been reflecting on motherhood. As it tends to do, it has also shone a light on step-motherhood. I am a stepmom of 3 adult stepchildren and the biological mother of 2 girls.
We are clear about what moms SHOULD be. The ideal? Mothers are softness and strength, courage and compassion, devotion (commitment) and determination. All the flowery stuff we find on Hallmark cards.
Above all that is unconditional love. But, we are far less clear about what a stepmother should be – what her role is. There are popular opinions: love them like your own and treat them all the same. But, sometimes we can’t and most times we may not be allowed to.
For stepmoms, the family dynamics create a lot of anxiety around most holidays and Mother’s Day seems to shine a light on it, too. The biggest anxiety provoker – where do we fit in? And for some, deep pain can be experienced. Particularly, for those stepmoms without their own bio kids.
I have heard the heartbreaking questions being posted time and again: Will I receive the recognition I deserve for Mother’s Day this year? Will all the sacrifices I’ve made be honoured? Why am I not validated as a real mom?
As stepmoms, it often seems and feels (and is likely true) that we are compared to the bio mom. Even if not all bio moms are sunshine and roses the way we expect them to be, when a bio mom disappears or fails to meet that fantasy in any significant way, it leaves a mom sized hole of disappointment and rejection in the hearts of our stepkids. And even if we come well above in the devotion and commitment department, we still seem to come up short. It‘s not for a lack of trying. It’s called loyalty binds. And that can mean it’s highly likely that we won’t mean all of the flowery things to our stepkids, no matter how hard we try. We just aren’t allowed to.
So many factors play a role in this. Is their mom still involved and how well is she involved? How old were the children when you first came into their life? How much involvement does their father have in the lives of his children (i.e. every other week versus 50/50 or full-time care)? And then, how much their mom allows dads involvement. And probably of most significance is – how close are they to their birth mom (insert loyalty binds here.)
The answers are not simple because of the complexity of the questions above. But most of it, if not all, comes down to creating moments of bonding to build trust and attachment and owning a small piece of a child’s heart. But, we just do the best we can. Can we attach to them and can they attach to us? Yes, but that is a process, sometimes a lengthy a painful one but always at a pace that is set by the child.
Where do you start building that relationship? How do stepmoms feel like they can fit in and find their place?
First, don’t take loyalty binds personally. It’s not about you but the bio moms’ challenge with feeling some sort of lack in herself and/ or life. As a bio mom, I think about how I would process another woman caring for or raising my child. I would wonder: how could she possibly accept and love my child with the same amount of unconditionality and passion and depth that I do? The simple answer is they (I am a ‘they’ too) likely won’t but that doesn’t mean I have the right to stand in the way of withholding any kind of love, caring and nurturing for my child. Loving another does not mean less for either parent- bio or step. Some bio moms have a hard time with opening up to that possibility for their child.
Second, know when to step back and let the other adults (i.e. their birth parents) step up. Obviously, there’s more to it than just that. And that can be hard when you disagree with the discipline in the home. But stepping in when you haven’t established the connection backfires. It’s enough to back up their dad in his role. The bass guitar is often forgotten about being in the background, but it holds the melody, supports the harmony for the music being played and is a very integral instrument in the band.
Third, in building a relationship with your stepkids take the relationship slowly. Find activities that build (read bonding) friendship and create opportunities for fun and laughter. Now that doesn’t mean being their friend, rather being friendly. This is a non-threatening way to create the space for acceptance and sets the groundwork for the more important work of building trust which leads to the important piece of attachment.
And fourth, it helps to look at raising children with long-term goals in mind. We want them to be decent, honest, caring adults; we want them to be good parents. So that means, be that positive role model and set a tone of respect and warmth. Down the road when they become parents on their own and see how you have maintained that commitment to family, to their father, and ultimately to them, then you are also creating a legacy of strength, courage, compassion. Be consistent. Be confident. Be firm but be loving.
I get it, I was there myself. It’s still work in progress – isn’t it always? I know you may feel you love them more than they love you, but with time, that can change. You may also sacrifice for them more than they will ever know; it’s a secret most parents keep. You may have hopes, desires and wishes for their future happiness that are kept close to your heart but share them anyway. Keep nurturing that safe haven for your stepkids. It’s about those long-term goals I mentioned above; I have grandkids through my stepkids and they are the outcome of long-term goals. They play a huge role in how those relationships shift the dynamics in small yet profound ways. My stepkids see me in a different light. That is family commitment. Be patient, but stay the course while staying true to yourself.
Ali Wilks has a BA in Psychology and an MSc in Human Ecology specializing in Family Studies. She is also a certified stepfamily coach and the owner and founder of Step by Step Mom – a stepfamily/stepmom coaching business. Her other job is with Children’s Services, since 1998, in Edmonton, Alberta. She is currently a trainer on Edmonton’s Caregiver Training Unit teaching classes on building skills, providing advocacy and support for foster, kinship and adoptive parents. These classes include building the essential skills in raising nonbiological children from the foster care system who present with special needs. Ali is a stepmother of 3 adult children (with a couple of grandkids too) and the birth mother of 2 beautiful girls.