In the 5 years that I’ve been a stepmom and have been working with stepmoms, one thing is abundantly clear; many divorced moms have incorrect preconceived notions about their child’s stepmom and her motivations. These false assumptions can wreak havoc on the dynamic between the mom and stepmom and ruin the potential for a positive relationship down the line. I hope these 8 truths will clear up some of the most common misunderstandings about stepmoms.
1. She isn’t playing house with your child and your ex-husband.
Stepmoms are trying to build their own family, a very real family that includes their husband, and children who aren’t theirs.
Some of them will grow to love their stepchildren and some won’t, but they’re doing their best to ensure the child still grows up feeling happy and loved.
They’re nurturing a marriage and trying to figure out their role in the stepchild’s life. And while you knew your place in your child’s life from day one, stepmoms can spend years trying to find theirs.
2. It’s not about YOU.
A stepmom’s priority is her marriage. When she does something for her stepchild, often the motivation has nothing to do with you. It’s not about trying to make you look bad or make you feel “less than.”
The motivation is the safety and happiness of her stepchild. The motivation is the love she has for her husband.
She’s trying to do the right thing – just like you would.
Similarly, when she supports her husband, the intention is not to go “against” you. In fact, there are times when stepmoms actually side with mom, although — unless you have a decent relationship with the stepmom in your situation — you’d never know it.
3. Stepmoms often feel powerless and alone.
Stepmoms have no legal rights with their stepchild. They understand this; their stepchild already has a mom and a dad. But it gets difficult when they’re turned away for trying to obtain something as simple as a library card for their stepson or stepdaughter. Or when the doctor’s office won’t give them any information, even though they will be the one driving the child to the appointment and giving them their medication.
It’s a hard pill to swallow, especially for stepmoms who have taken care of their stepchildren since they were very small.
It can make a woman feel unimportant and insignificant. It’s a feeling only a fellow stepmom could understand.
In addition, stepmoms are often powerless when it comes to their stepchild’s behavior. This is a struggle because they are greatly affected by the unwanted behavior, but they don’t have the authority to do anything about it. If they’re lucky, their husband will be supportive and listen to their concerns, but this isn’t always the case.
4. When you contact their household, it often feels weird and disruptive.
Stepmoms know you have the right to call your children as often as you’d like. And they understand you need to talk to your ex occasionally about parenting issues. But it can still feel like an intrusion.
Stepmoms are constantly struggling to find ways to bond with their stepchildren, and when you call, it interrupts the activity in the house and their stepchildren are immediately distracted. Any bonding that was going on is gone.
Stepmoms may feel as though you’ve crept into every aspect of their lives. And your calling their house is another painful reminder of that.
5. Stepmoms don’t cross your boundaries on purpose, they just can’t see them.
Many moms complain that the stepmom is trying to “parent” their child. But a fundamental problem seems to be, what moms consider “parenting,” stepmoms consider “being responsible” or “supporting their husbands.”
Remember, many stepmoms aren’t sure of their role.
They’re stumbling along, figuring it out as they go. And it’s difficult to try and do the ‘right thing’ only to realize you’ve just caused mom a coronary. It’s not intentional.
Stepmoms wish there was a rule book. They wish the situations were black and white. They wish they could be on the same page as mom and dad, and know how to handle every situation.
But they don’t.
This is where neutral, open communication would be to everyone’s advantage.
Unfortunately, for many stepmoms, their first experience of mom is an emotionally-charged phone call, email or text telling her she has “no right” to do whatever it is she did. To a stepmom, this feels like you’re kicking her when she’s already down. It comes as a shock — because again — her primary intention was to help her husband and care for her stepchild.
6. A stepmom’s marriage has a 60-70 percent chance of failing.
And one Boston study reported that 75% of the women who were surveyed said if they had it to do all over; they would NOT marry a man with children. That says a lot about the difficulties stepmoms face.
This may not mean much to you personally, but it means your children will have to experience the prolonged process of a second divorce and deal with the aftermath.
7. Stepmoms are often disrespected or ignored by their stepchildren.
There are various reasons for this, chief among them understandable and agonizing loyalty conflicts for the child, but regardless — it still hurts. Stepmoms are only human.
Life isn’t always flowers and butterflies in the other household. Many children feel weird about having a stepmom. They don’t know what it means or what to do with it, so they act out or just ignore the stepmom, which is awkward for everyone.
And most stepmoms don’t have “unconditional love” to fall back on. When a child misbehaves, wreaks havoc, or throws a tantrum, parents may get angry and frustrated, but their unconditional love makes it bearable.
Stepmoms aren’t so lucky. There’s no unconditional love coming to rescue them from wanting to scream at their stepchild or run the other way, sob somewhere private, and never look back. All they have are difficult feelings and nowhere to put them.
But they do come back, day after day, because they believe their marriage and their stepfamily are worth it.
8. A simple “thank you” can go a long way.
Stepmoms wish you’d give them even the smallest acknowledgement. For a lot of women, being a stepmom is one of the hardest things they’ve ever done. Often, their needs and wants come last, their schedules aren’t their own, and they’re affected by a situation they didn’t create.
Many stepmoms take excellent care of their stepchild, with little or no reward. They get no thank you, no love from the child, and no appreciation from anyone but their husband — if they’re lucky.
They make many sacrifices in order to be with the man they love. So, to only be referenced as “she” (or even worse), or to be completely ignored by you, can hurt them deeply. What they wouldn’t give for a simple “thank you” or a nod in their direction.
I believe that kind of recognition can heal wounds.
Do stepmoms ever act from ego or a sense of competition with the ex-wife?
Sure, just as some moms do.
But it’s important to grasp the implications of a bigger context here: being a stepmom is uniquely difficult and confusing. If you’re a mom, could you see yourself struggling in her shoes?
Perhaps, one day, with a better understanding of each other, the mom/stepmom relationship will be one of championing the other, instead of automatic conflict.
Jenna Korf is a Certified Stepfamily Foundation coach, an RCI Certified Relationship coach and co-author of the book, “Skirts At War: Beyond Divorced Mom/Stepmom Conflict.” She is also a blogger for The Huffington Post and has been featured as a stepfamily expert on CNN.com, parenting.com and care.com. Jenna is also a Registered Nurse, a stepmom and a stepchild. To read more from Jenna or for one-on-one coaching visit her at StepmomHelp.com.