As a child, all I wanted to do was fit in. Having parents that divorced when I was in fourth grade did not help that ambition. My dream of belonging was further crushed when my dad remarried his secretary. Now, not only did I not fit in with my friends who all seemed to have perfect, “traditional” families, I was now part of a lame cliché. I was not a happy camper.
This mindset did not set me up to have a good relationship with my stepmother. At best, she was a cool older sister figure that occasionally showed me something interesting, like how to apply eyeshadow. Otherwise, I never really warmed up to her, even though she was with my father for almost ten years. I always got the vibe that she was only looking out for herself and merely put up with my sisters and I, rather than regard us as daughters. On the surface, anyone would say she was perfectly nice to us. However, the feeling in the household, which is so much more important, was never sincere. And sadly, that lack of sincerity made me feel disconnected from my family, especially from my dad.
Coming from a childhood with a not so pleasant stepparent experience, one would think that I would avoid such a family structure in my adult life. Nope. The cycle has continued and I have somehow found myself in another blended family. But this time, I am the stepparent!
Soon after I met my husband, I learned that he came with two little pieces of luggage: his daughter Jane and his son Jack. Not surprisingly, when I got this information, my instinct was to run for the hills. Unfortunately, and fortunately, my husband was so darn smooth that he convinced me to stick around and “see where it goes”. Well where it went was straight to the altar. We were soon married and I was now officially a stepmother.
Luckily, my stepkids are amazing and were so loving towards me from the start. That is a huge reason why I can proudly report that we have a very happy and close knit blended family. However, I have to give myself a little credit and admit that I also played quite the role in getting the family to the level of closeness it is at today. Having had a negative experience with a stepparent made me approach step- parenthood with a level of empathy and strategy only someone with personal experience could have.
I was always a straight A student growing up and I approached step motherhood with the same mentality. I was going to get an A+ in stepparenting if it killed me. So, I did my research like any good student. I read a few articles and even a book or two about stepparenting properly, but I must say, my most valuable insights came from reflecting upon my personal experience with my stepparent. I realized she never really communicated with us on a deep level and she also never put us first. Looking back, I think her failure to do these things put a huge damper on our relationship, and I was not going to repeat history.
Therefore, from day one, I vowed to have open, honest communication in our household on a regular basis. No skirting around issues; no holding it in. In the beginning I would tell my stepkids some feelings I used to experience with my own stepmother, which would open the conversation for how they feel about me. Obviously, the conversations have gotten more frequent and deeper over time, they weren’t open books from day one. But the point is, I have made communication part of our family culture because I remember having so many questions and concerns as a child regarding my stepfamily, and I never had the opportunity to share.
Additionally, my stepmom always seemed to put herself first. She always picked what restaurants we would go to, what movie we would watch, where we would spend our free time and so on. These seem like trivial details, but to a kid, those sorts of choices are huge! In my family, I have learned to hold my tongue in these situations, and let the kids make a lot of these choices so they feel first. Because they are! Of course, if I feel strongly about one of these decisions I discuss it with my husband beforehand but for the most part, I have realized that these small sacrifices can make a huge difference. And I cannot stress enough that if the kids aren’t happy, you and your husband have no shot at being happy!
So I guess I’m not destined for that traditional family I always yearned for. Stepchild turned stepparent was in the cards for me. But maybe traditional, whatever that even means, only exists in fairytales. Actually, I don’t think it even exists in fairytales. If I recall correctly, Cinderella had a not so nice stepmother. Hey, I wonder if Prince Charming had some kids that Cinderella had to stepparent? Well if she did, I am sure she did a much better job than her stepmother, which is what I hope for myself. I hope that with every day I improve as a stepmother, wife and person. And there is no better way to get better than through reflecting on your own experiences and growing from them.
Jennifer Zelman is a stepmom/mom to three children and a stepchild herself. She is the creator of www.NachoMom.club, a video blog that discusses the challenges and joys of stepmotherhood in an informative and upbeat way. She is passionate about creating a supportive community of stepmoms to make our journey more manageable and fun! Please subscribe & follow me here: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, You Tube.