I fell in love with and married a man who has six children. That’s right – his six plus my two make a family of ten, one loud dog and a few neglected fish. The kids range in age from nine to twenty-two. When we add in a few boyfriends, the house can get pretty full.
When I tell people this they are usually shocked. Jaw on the floor WTF kind of shocked. “Doesn’t he know how babies are made?” Yes, yes he does. “Didn’t he use protection?” I guess THEY didn’t. “Is he Catholic?” No. “Does he live on a farm?” No. “Wow! How do you feed them all?” The list goes on.
One reaction I will never forget was from a wonderful older woman. Her response: “Wow, you must love him very much.” That I do. He is perfect for me and I knew on our third date that he would be my husband. And besides, I had always wanted a big family.
If you follow my Facebook page you will see a wonderful life. A lot of people in various combinations playing games, having campfires, preparing big meals, playing music, dancing, going to the theatre and the symphony and laughing… a lot. I post all the best stuff there. Like all of you, my Facebook feed doesn’t always tell the whole story. Being a working mother of such a large complicated family isn’t always a fairy tale full of rainbows, unicorns and sunshine! Let’s take a moment to get a real. This is tough work! Especially when you factor in teenage female trolls.
When I met and fell in love with my husband, his access schedule was every other weekend. He had a lot of time for me. Every other weekend he played “Disney Dad” and I got to tag along. Things have changed a lot since then.
We now have most of his kids every other week. And, like clockwork, as soon as the girls end up turning 16 they get kicked out of their mother’s house and end up with us full time. So, we always have someone who is really angry and hurt living in our house.
As the stepmother, I get dumped on a lot. On any given day at least two of the kids are horrible to me. Which means that I live a life where at least 20% of the people I cook, clean, shop and drive around treat me with extreme contempt. Contrary to what my awesome Facebook feed would have you believe, being a stepmother to such a large family with such diverse needs is a hard job. It can be really lonely and overwhelming.
Being a stepmother to even just one angry teenage girl can be extremely distressing. I want other women in similar situations to know that it is okay not to enjoy your stepchildren all of the time. It’s okay to feel resentment and anger and frustration. It’s useless when people say: “Don’t take it personally. It’s not about you.” I’m sorry this is my house, my stuff; I do the lion share of the work around here. I’m your primary caregiver. It is my job to make sure you stay alive…so I do bloody well take this personally. Our number one rule in the house is: Don’t be an a**hole and yet someone is always an a**hole!
Most of the time I am shocked at the attitude and anger that is thrown around the house like manure on a field in the spring. It stinks. And it stinks for all the other people who live here. So while they very likely don’t intend for it to be personal it hurts a lot, and if we aren’t careful it can suck all the joy and love out of the house for everyone else.
I’m not perfect. I’ve had a wine-soaked temper tantrum on more than one occasion. Yet, every day I wake up hoping to be a positive influence and trying not to let the teenage trolls impact the lives of all the other people in the house.
To help with that I’ve developed a few coping strategies and if you can relate to any of the above I hope that some of these ideas might help you:
1. Start a journal. Write about your feelings with brutal honesty. Rant, say the things in your journal that you want to say but don’t. Too often I have gone off on my husband about the behaviour of his children. This puts us both in a horrible situation. When I am feeling really negative and emotional I have started to write. Once it is all out on the screen and I’ve expressed my feelings without a filter, I can have a rational problem-solving conversation with my husband. We can then formulate a plan together. When the kids are being awful the birth parent is already feeling conflicted and it definitely won’t help to hear about how horrible his kids are from an emotional crying lunatic. The benefit of this is that you can then address the situation with a united front – this is especially important in a blended family when kids can so easily drive a wedge between you.
2. Find some space. When my babies were little I was into attachment parenting. I wore them in slings, breastfed them forever (like seriously!), slept in bed with them until they were ready to move out and we NEVER got a babysitter. It took me a while to figure out that I don’t have to invest everything I have into my stepchildren. I don’t have to do everything all the time. So sometimes I tag out and go to a movie. Order pizza. Let the kids feed themselves. Grab a bottle of wine and go have a bubble bath before their bedtime. As long as there is food in the fridge and you don’t have to drive anyone anywhere everyone will still be alive after your bath. In fact, they may not even notice you were gone. As a stepparent, of course, you will have an influence on the kids, but if both of their parents are alive, the overall well-being of the children is on them, not you. Dial it in sometimes for your own survival.
3. Keep your mouth shut. Every day I drive two of the girls to school. It is like torture. They don’t talk, don’t warm up the car, don’t say hello or thank you and don’t take the recycling out on the way. It is the stone cold silent treatment and they are REALLY good at it. I used to try and break the tension with conversation. Usually, this one-sided conversation ended with me screaming. Now I give myself a pep talk and try I think to myself…if I can just get through this ride without yelling at someone I will consider this a success. Most days the drive is successful…but not always.
4. Be picky. You don’t have to fight all battles all the time. Choose which hill you want to die on. Learn to let some things go. So she didn’t say hello when she walked into the house. She didn’t clear her plate or stay to clean the kitchen. She gave you a death wish look. She threw her cigarette butts in the garden again – with a giant f*ck you gesture! If you are feeling the irritation build up it’s better to wait and come up with a reasonable response to addressing it. Shouting, reprimanding or being sarcastic ruins the tone for everyone else. And in our house we usually have a whole bunch of pretty awesome joyful people around. So it is probably best that the trolls stay in their room and conflicts are dealt with rationally.
5. Have Sex! Go to bed early with your husband. Light some candles, put on music, lock the door and change the mood. Second marriages can be awesome because you have a chance at a redo. Making each other a priority and reminding each other why you fell in love in the first place is extremely important.
6. Advocate for yourself. If you find a teenage troll is really abusing you don’t be a victim. There have been times when I felt bullied in my own house. That is not okay. So calmly call it out. Try something like: “Sarah, I do a lot for you around here and when you constantly talk back to me I feel angry. It is not okay to talk to me that way and I won’t tolerate it anymore.” The truth is it will likely have no impact – but you will have modeled for the other kids that it is important to stand up for yourself.
In our house one thing is constant – CHANGE. The 20% of people who are angry at me are always a different cohort. Play the long game. Kids grow up and move on. They get boyfriends and are happy for a blissful few months, or they move out and come back only for holidays. Anyone with adult children will tell you that life flies by in an instant. So there is a benefit to working on maintaining rapport as best you can. Riding the wave, knowing that soon things will change.
Being a stepmother is a tough gig. For every happy Facebook picture, there are twice as many challenges to deal with. As hard as it is, try to muster up some empathy. For there is one thing I know without a doubt. The only thing more lonely and difficult than being a stepmother of a teenage girl – is BEING a teenage girl.
Lady Tremaine is a mother to two adult children and a stepmother to six. She works full time running her own business as well as being a primary caregiver to a blended family of ten. She lives in a nice house in a nice town and does not have a nanny or housecleaner… the kids do know how to clean toilets and she is never quite sure how many places to set for dinner. You can follower her on twitter at @ladytremaine9_t or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.