Her eyes followed me around the room, watching the way the sparkles caught the light…
Recently, I pledged my love to my new little family. My husband (I still giggle when I say that) Matthew’s son and daughter were an important part of our wedding ceremony. We promised to help, support, and take care of one another – holding hands in a circle in front of our friends and family. It was a beautiful day and a great party!
But let’s go back a little bit…
I met Matt in May 2014 and had never before dated a man with children. I thought, “Well, I like kids. Can’t be that hard…”
Oh how innocent I was.
Many stepmoms experience similar challenges as they navigate through what I like to call, “steplife”. And I don’t believe you can really know what you’re getting yourself into, until you’re already in it, if that makes sense! Here are a few of those common stepmom experiences:
- Feeling like an outsider
- Having little influence over parenting
- Dealing with their partner’s ex-wife
- Stress over custody and finances
- The “wicked stepmom” bias – have you read a fairy tale lately???
As we shifted and grew into our new family unit, I often felt a sense of shame. “What’s wrong with me? They’re just kids!” I buried my head in books and websites, searching for information on stepfamilies and contact with other stepmoms.
I learned that I am not alone in my feelings. I learned to appreciate the small gains, and let go of the losses. I learned that it is important to support each other in this steplife journey. It’s a constant learning experience… a dance of two steps forward, one step back.
Through my reading, research and discussions with others, I’ve identified three strategies that you can use to take care of yourself as a stepmom.
Always Practice Self-care
For you to be of any good to others, you have to make sure you are healthy – mentally and physically. I know it’s easy to say that, but it’s another story when the kids are tugging on your pant leg, the dog is pacing by the back door, you’re trying to make supper, and, and, and… But you may be surprised at what happens when you make yourself a priority. You come home from yoga or a coffee date with girlfriends, to find that everything and everyone is still in one piece. Or, if not, at least you have the renewed mental energy to deal with it.
Self-care doesn’t remedy every problem, but it can be a rejuvenating space to unwind, take a break, and recharge your batteries. Prioritizing your health also sets a great example for the kids in your life. Here are a few self-care suggestions to get you started:
- Grab a good book and head to a coffee shop
- Meet a friend
- Take a class
- Lock the bedroom door and watch anything starring Ryan Gosling
Boundaries can save your marriage and your stepfamily. Some have the notion that boundaries are a bad thing, akin to putting up a wall around you. However, boundaries give you protection from unwanted behaviour. For example, if your husband’s ex-wife is frequently texting you with critical comments about how you care for the children, calmly tell her that you will be blocking her number and all communication will go through your husband from now on.
Perhaps your husband does not believe in a scheduled bed time for his young children. This flies in the face of the ‘8pm pj’s/story time/lights out’ routine you had imagined. Dealing with the kids in the mornings is exhausting and frustrating. After having socks thrown at you for weeks, you calmly tell hubby that a reasonable bedtime would make your mornings much easier. Weeks later, nothing has changed, so you let hubby know that the morning routine will be his from now on and you’ll start your day with some calming yoga. Your husband may see your point of view after a few unruly mornings or he may not. Either way, you are protecting yourself from the negative behavior that he is inadvertently causing.
Ideally, you are a team, but sometimes it doesn’t work that way and you’ve got to look out for yourself. Most important boundary advice? Stick to it!
No relationship suffers from too much communication.
With the challenges of steplife, it is crucial that you and your partner can share your thoughts and feelings. Within reason.
Biological parents have a different tolerance level for their own children’s behavior, so there is no need to burst his bubble by telling him how his kid drove you nuts today. But if there is something that could be changed to make life easier, speak up! Let him know if you’re feeling overwhelmed, need a date night, would like the kids to help out more… Remember, he’s not a mind-reader.
Communication is also essential for co-parents, and hopefully your husband and his ex are on civil terms for the kids’ sake. But if they cannot communicate in a healthy or productive way, parallel parenting may be the key. In this situation, each house has its own rules and expectations, and parents do not communicate unless necessary. No communication is better than hostile communication. Bottom line – kids should always be confident that mom and dad love them very much.
Now, where was I?
Oh right, our wedding!
A week before the big day, Matt’s daughter Waverleigh (7) came with me for the final dress fitting. When I came out of the fitting room, all lace and train, it hit me…
I wasn’t just marrying my lovely fiancé. I wasn’t committing to him alone. I was committing to a family. To love, protect, support, and care for his children. It’s not always easy, but it’s the life we have chosen.
That is a big deal. Bigger than any cake, veil, or bouquet.
When I came out of the fitting room, a smile spread across Waverleigh’s face. She practiced fluffing out my train, making sure it fell just right.
Her eyes followed me around the room, watching the way the sparkles caught the light.
Erin Careless is the founder and owner of Steplife – Stepmom Coaching and Support where she works one-on-one and in group settings to support blended families. She is a contributing author to Stepparent Magazine, and has been published in The Divorce Magazine and Huffington Post. She is a wife, stepmom of two, and mother of one baby girl. See her blog at http://blog.steplife.ca.