One of the most common experiences reported by stepmoms is that of feeling like an outsider. I have talked about this before [Class Is In!, Tips of the Trade, Me, Myself, and I], and it is certainly a humbling experience. You are joining an already formed family with a shared history, established traditions, and a biological bond that is stronger than anything. Particularly, when you are a childless stepmom, this can be tough to navigate. I was in my thirties when I met my husband, and while I only had a one-bedroom apartment, it was my own little haven. Six months after meeting, M and I moved into a beautiful, bright, spacious two-bedroom apartment. We shared this space part-time with his kids, and the adjustment period began. For all of us.
I remember movie nights – the three of them squeezed together on half of the couch, me with plenty of room to myself – and many comments that started with, “we always do…” or “remember when…”
This is, of course, completely understandable. It defies a strong parent-child relationship to have that same bond with someone who is basically a stranger. It is still not an easy situation, however, and stepmoms then have the challenge of trying to develop a bond with stepkids, without pushing it too hard and causing resentment. Easy peasy! Ha!
Having said that, the relationship between me and my stepkids, O and W, has grown and blossomed beautifully over the past couple of years. Of course, Daddy is still Daddy, but they cuddle with me, ask about me, and ask me to do things for them – the true sign of acceptance from a kid, right?
“Erin! Can you get me a drink?” “Erin! Can you make this craft with me?” “Erin! Can I have a grilled cheese sandwich?” …and my personal favourite so far… W called out for me at 2:30am. When I got to her bedside she said sleepily, “Can you pass me a stuffy?”
I then tucked her in with one of her 82 stuffed animals covering her bed like a blanket.
That acceptance and closeness is a beautiful thing. No road is smooth, but those moments make the journey worthwhile.
I think M really wanted us to feel like a little family, of course, because we are the people he loves the most. All of those little steps closer for me and the kids made him so happy. It was wonderful, when our wedding came around, that M and I could take our vows with the kids – the four of us promising to respect and care for each other, to be the best we can be for our little family.
A childless stepmom does not automatically have the devotion to the kids that the biological parents do.
I moved from outsider to insider.
And then once in a blue moon, I get a feeling like I’m a teenager again and am rebelling against the responsibility I’ve tried hard to earn.
That is very hard to admit and to write, and I’m literally cringing as I do so. But I think this may be an experience that is not exclusively mine, so I’m going to persevere.
When my amazing husband assumes that I will take care of his children while he is at work – which is hardly an unreasonable request – sometimes I turn inward, almost resentful at this expectation. It’s not the kids, I adore them. So what is it?
In part I think it may be the fact that I lived a very independent life before meeting M. Even in relationships, there were never children. At most I was responsible for cats, and geez, if you can’t handle that… I was used to doing what I wanted and frankly, putting myself first. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, and many people live that way until having children. I know if I had a baby, I’d get a sharp wake-up call for sure!
So when you become a stepmom, and an insider in your new family, there’s a complicated mix of emotions ranging from “oh my gosh I love these kiddos and I can’t wait to take them to that movie/make them their favourite dinner/go swimming with them”… to “woah woah woah. Do I have to do this on my own today? What if I have plans? Did I sign up for this?…”
A childless stepmom does not automatically have the devotion to the kids that the biological parents do. I can only speak from my own experience, but that is what I have seen and felt and lived.
It sounds bad, it feels bad, it’s hard to talk about.
It’s a push and pull of wanting to be accepted, and being afraid of letting others down.
So, what do we do when our insider and outsider battle is alive and well?
This is my prescription:
- Give yourself a break and acknowledge that this is normal. Life is complicated and emotions are complicated, and nothing is black and white. The more you balk at these feelings and deny them, the stronger they will feel.
- Talk to your partner. Explain to him how you are feeling and hopefully, he will make you feel heard. Talk about how you can find a balance between being a directly involved caregiver, and a stepmom who supports her husband in his parenting the children. Don’t agree to what you can’t handle – that will backfire on everyone involved.
- Know that kids are kids. They want to be loved, accepted, listened to, played with, snuggled, and comforted. Stepping back and gaining a little perspective might help you to see that you are lucky to be included in a child’s “circle” of people.
- Reminder: you’re a stepmom, you’re not perfect. No one is. Deep breaths, you’ve got this.
I think it’s healthy to acknowledge that it takes time to adjust to your new life. It’s easy to use rose-coloured glasses when thinking about the past, but take time to acknowledge and be grateful for the extra love in your life now. The love that is pure, innocent, messy, loud, tearful, joyful, sticky, sweet, and beautiful.
Breathe deep, love deeper.
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.