Wednesday, December 5, 2012

How to Not Look Like You're Trying to Replace Their Bio-Mom, Part II

I’ve seen the same piece of advice repeated to stepmothers over and over: don’t try and take the place of your step-child’s biological mother. But what does that mean? What constitutes trying “trying to be someone’s parent”? Furthermore, how do you parent your stepchildren without acting like you’re trying to replace their biological parent?

As I sit here thinking about all of the different facets of parenting, it occurs to me that we can think about them as falling into a kind of hierarchy. Here’s a rough sketch of what I mean, starting with the most basic qualities:

1. Caring for a child’s basic needs: providing food, water, warmth, shelter, safety.
2. Caring for a child’s health: providing care for illness and injury; providing good nutrition.
3. Enforcing basic rules (no coloring on the walls, no jumping on the sofa).
4. Extending “black and white” values (no hitting, no name-calling, say thank you).
5. Extending “grey area” values: gender roles, religion, politics.
6. Shaping their future: focusing on certain areas of education, sports vs. no sports, etc.
7. Guiding their young adulthood: college, boyfriends/girlfriends, marriage.

(I’ve left out affection—praise, validation, acknowledgement of thoughts and feelings, hugs, kisses, etc.—because to me these things should be included in every part of parenting.)

My observation is that the more basic a parenting facet is, the less territorial people feel about it. After all, most people agree on “black and white” values like saying please and thank you.

However, people start feeling territorial when parenting involves things that not everyone agrees on, like gender roles, religion, politics, ethics, education, marriage, and the like. Not only do adults have very different opinions on these kinds of matters, but children are aware of this fact. If a child knows that his mother feels very strongly about religion, for example, it’s likely that he’s going to feel like his stepmother is encroaching on his mother’s territory if she tries to influence his beliefs on that subject.

So if you’re worried that you look like you’re trying to take the place of your step-child’s mother, my advice would be to limit your parenting to black-and-white matters that affect your day-to day happiness. By this I mean basic respect for you, your partner, your home, and your family; for example, no back talk, no fighting, basic table manners at your table (i.e., if you drop food on the floor, pick it up, don’t talk and spit food at the same time), minor chores, cleaning up after themselves, and the like. Hopefully down the road, after building a relationship together, you’ll be able to share more of your opinions with your stepchild—but that’s for another post.

This might seem like an overstatement of the obvious for those of us who have been stepmothers for a while, but I wish I had thought about it like this when I first started out.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Has the Bio-Mom Ever Surprised You--In a Good Way?

Hi everyone! I had a great trip and I’m finally feeling back in the swing of things this evening. I haven’t had much time to read this week but I’m looking forward to starting Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do by Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., this weekend. I’ll let you know what I think next week.

In the meantime:

This evening as my stepdaughter was getting picked up, she asked her mom, “can I give Meesha a hug before we leave?” And she ran over and jumped in my lap and gave me a big hug and a kiss.

As she walked back around the couch, her mom turned to me and said, “speaking of which, [SD] has a book with pictures of everyone in it—me and her dad, her dad’s family, my family. If you want to give me a picture of you or of you and [DH] together, I’ll add it in there. She likes to look through it before she goes to bed.”

And I thought, wow, that is one awesome mom. I don’t know if I would have been big enough to make that offer if I were her.

How about you--Has your stepchild's biomom ever surprised you in a good way?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Starting the Revolution

My fiancé glared at me, and if looks could kill I would have been flat on the floor.

“I told you to hold her down.” He wanted me to grab his shrieking, kicking daughter and pin her to the carpet so he could force a dose of medicine into her mouth.

My heart raced. Between her screaming and his yelling, I was overwhelmed by the both of them. I put a hand on her arm and then whipped it back. “But the stepparenting books say I’m not supposed to do that kind of thing!” It felt like the thousandth time I’d said it.

He rolled his eyes. “The books,” he said gritting his teeth, “are bullshit.”

I tentatively took hold of her, and only by working as a team were we finally able to get the medicine through her pursed lips. Later that day, after several cups of tea and lengthy reflection, I decided to abandon most conventional stepparenting advice.

I came into my stepdaughter’s life just after her second birthday. I spent the next two and a half years reading everything I could about what I was supposed to do and not do as a stepmother. By the time she’d reached four and half, I was emotionally drained, exhausted, and at my wits’ end. I felt betrayed by all of the step-parenting “experts” I’d consulted. Most of their advice was either impractical, didn’t apply to us (my stepdaughter being very young), or just plain didn’t work.

More than that, much of the advice I read seemed to emphasize, either blatantly or subtly, the need for stepmothers to accept an unreasonable amount of disrespect, inflexibility, and poor behavior by their stepchildren and partner because these things “just come with the territory.” One book I read seemed to suggest that it’s a stepmother’s duty to accept this kind of treatment because she is the one disrupting her stepchildren’s lives.

According that author, once a woman becomes a stepmother she should accommodate her life to her stepchildren’s because “the children have been raised with a family pattern, and it’s not fair to them if they suddenly have to change [their lives] . . . it would be complicated for the stepchildren and this would present them with an opportunity to resent you—the reason for the change.”* Later in this same book the author remphasizes that, "The other members of your family have a previous history and their routines need to be modified to include another person. Sometimes you may feel awkward because you are the reason for all the adjustment and change.”**

When, in reality, the real reason that children’s lives change is because their parents get divorced--stepmothers just come later. But I digress.

Desperate for more information, I started lurking on Internet posting boards like and Step I was surprised—at first—to see that so many other people were experiencing the same problems that I was. I kept seeing people write “the books say . . . but.”


With so many hundred of thousands of people entering into stepfamilies every year, I thought, why isn’t there better advice available to stepmothers? Why are there so many unhappy, frustrated stepmothers?

I decided to start researching stepparenting and stepfamily advice more seriously. I've set up this blog to discuss my research, talk about my experiences, and share strategies that hopefully other women like myself can use in their everyday lives. My goal is to focus not necessarily on how to be a "good stepmother" but how to be a happier, more contented, or at least less frustrated one by rethinking and reshaping the role.

* From 7 Steps to Bonding with Your Stepchild by Suzen J. Ziegahan, page 54.
** " page 96.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

I've Come to a Realization about Detachment

I’ve been putting lots of effort into my relationship with my stepdaughter lately. Last week I spent extra time with her reading books, playing dolls, and baking cupcakes. (This was of on top of my normal stepmama workload: cutting up her food, cleaning her juice spills, trying to get her to eat one more bite of broccoli, helping her in the bathroom, getting her dressed, and, well, you get the idea.)

In the end, every game, every project turned into a devotion to her mother. “These pictures are going to be for my Mama!” “I’m going to tell my Mama about how we went to the park!” “These cupcakes are going to be for my Mama!”

Then one evening she proceeded to tell me over and over again, “I love you, but I love my Mama more than you. I love her more than you.”

Is this surprising? No. Is it normal? Completely. Does it still sting and annoy the heck out of me?


I've decided it’s time to take a step back and reevaluate my level of detachment. According to The Ups and Downs of Becoming an Insta-Parent, “Detachment is often the best decision when a woman realises her input is neither recognised nor welcome . . . Detachment can range from detaching from issues dealing with the ex-wife to not enforcing rules with stepkids to complete non-involvement."

Julie W. describes detachment as, "an art. You must say, “I disagree with what you are doing, but I respect your right to do it. I am washing my hands of this situation, and you, as a parent, must deal with the natural consequences.”

However you go about it, detachment isn't easy. With our family of origin we didn’t have to give a second thought about what we said, who we said it to, or what family conversations or situations we got involved with. But learning to navigate “detached” family relationships doesn’t come instinctively. We have to plan when to speak up and when to keep quiet. We must calculate our comfort levels of detachment and involvement, of love and distance.

This week I'll be thinking about how I want to to renegotiate my stepmom-stepkid relationship. More next post.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Stepmoms Should Feel Comfortable Asking for What We Want--But it's Easier Said than Done

I strongly believe that we stepmothers have a right to be involved in decisions that affect us and that we have the right to speak up for what we want and need in situations that we’re a part of.

For example, if a change in your stepchildren’s visitation schedule means you’ll have to adjust your commute schedule or route, then you have a right to be consulted about that change. Or, if you’re constantly forced to clean up after your stepchildren’s messes, then you have a right to be involved in setting and enforcing rules which require them to pick up after themselves.

The trouble is that it’s often easier said than done.

First of all, we hesitate to insist on being involved because we’re afraid to look like mean, bossy stepmothers. Some conventional advice reinforces these fears by telling us things like:

“The children have been raised with a family pattern, and it’s not fair to them if they suddenly have to change [their lives] . . . it would be complicated for the stepchildren and this would present them with an opportunity to resent you—the reason for the change . . . The other members of your family have a previous history and their routines need to be modified to include another person. Sometimes you may feel awkward because you are the reason for all the adjustment and change.” (From 7 Steps to Bonding with Your Stepchild by Suzen J. Ziegahan)

Additionally, we’re afraid to insist on being involved because we’re nervous about upsetting our family relationships—and as I mentioned in a previous post, research has shown that women judge themselves by the success of their relationships. When we base our self worth on how well things are going with our stepchildren and husband, it can be easy to slip into a mode where we’re focusing on making our family members happy rather than considering our own needs.

I know when I first became a stepmom I felt like I was adrift in the middle of other people’s plans. I felt pressured to give up an exercise class with my co-workers in the evenings, I gave up seeing my friends on the weekends, and I canceled plans whenever the visitation schedule changed (which was often for a time). Meanwhile, my stepdaughter would scream endlessly at the top of her lungs, break things, and call me names. My friendships drifted, my anxiety skyrocketed, and I became depressed—but I was afraid to step up and change the situation because I was afraid of upsetting my husband and terrified of coming off like an evil stepmother.

It finally took me reaching the end of my rope before I realized what I know now: That no matter what our fears are, we stepmoms deserve to have ours needs met just as much as the other members of our families. We didn’t disrupt our family, as Ziegahan suggests. Things were already disrupted before we came along, and we don’t deserve to be punished for it.

Obviously I’m not advocating that we put our needs above those of our stepchildren to their detriment—just that we deserve to have an equal say in what goes on in our lives and our homes, and that we should feel comfortable and justified in asking for it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Communication with the Bio-Mom

I’ve read a lot about how important it is for divorced parents to communicate with each other about their kids.

However, I’ve also heard a lot of frustrated stepmoms talk about how they seem to end up taking up the slack between non-communicating bio parents. I’ve read some blogs and forum posts where stepmoms talk about sending texts, emails, and phone calls to the bio moms, relaying information back and forth between their partner and his ex.

After reading and reflecting on my own experiences, I’ve been thinking about why we stepmoms decide to take this responsibility upon ourselves. Here’s why I think we do it:

1) We feel obligated to do what we see as “the right thing”
2) We think this is the way to be a good stepmom
3) We want to make ourselves look and feel like part of the family
4) We want to look good to the bio mom (i.e., involved and responsible)

All of this makes me think: how much communicating with the bio mom should a stepmom really do?

I’m sure this is going to sound a little controversial, but my opinion is that a lot of us stepmoms shouldn’t put much enegry into proactive communication with the bio mom.

Let me clarify. What I’m trying to say is that it’s not our responsibility to be reporting what our stepkids did that day, what TV shows they like, or what their new friend’s name is. It’s not our responsibility to send reminders about visitation times, appointments, or court dates.* That kind of thing is your partner’s responsibility, and if you do it because you feel obligated to, then you’re likely to end up feeling used and frustrated.

Furthermore, if you try and be a good stepmom by relaying information between your partner and his ex, you actually end up making yourself feel excluded. Rather than relaxing into your place in the family as a partner/wife and stepmom, you’re constantly holding yourself up between these two former lovers. It may only be an attitude, sure, but it can still negatively impact your happiness.

Finally, if you try and make yourself part of the family by being the reporter and coordinator, then you actually end up feeling empty despite all your best intentions. Even though coordinating information with the bio mom can take a lot of your emotional energy, it’s not actually doing much to build a bond between you and your stepchildren. At the same time, you feel frustrated to have put so much energy into the stepfamily situation without receiving the reward of affection back from your stepkids.

Instead of being the information exchanger, I think stepmoms should put that time and energy into building a relationship with their stepchildren. You don’t need to worry about what the bio mom thinks of you. (Although I know this can be difficult!) Truly, the important thing is what your stepkids think of you, not their mom.

This is my opinion, of course. And I'm sure that there are some stepmoms who have great communication with their kid's bio mom. What do you think? How much information sharing with the bio mom do you feel is appropriate? Have you had any bad experiences? Good ones? I’d love to hear what you have to say.

* I’m all for answering questions that the bio mom asks you (reactive communication), and I certainly support proactive communication in any case that would involve ensuring the safety of the child.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

terminology tidbit

I'm taking a quick moment to pop on here with my morning coffee. My fiance's family and friends arrived from England last night, and today we're knee-deep in last-minute wedding errands and projects.

In the last week several people have asked me, "how do you feel about becoming a stepmother on Friday?" One person said, "gosh, on Thursday you'll be a single girl and then on Friday you'll be a stepmom."

These comments all came from people who know about my situation--that my fiance and I have lived together for the last several years and that we have my stepdaughter about every other day. I was a little irritated with the implication that it wasn't all the love and care that I have shown my stepdaughter, all the kisses, diaper changes, band aids on boo-boos, time outs, swimming lessons, and hugs that made me a stepmom to them. No, to these people I become a "real" stepmom on Friday when the judge signs our marriage certificate.

In each instance I let it slide; I think it must be a hard thing to understand if you're not a stepmom yourself. What do you think--did you receive any comments from the peanut gallery when you became a stepmother?