After helping to raise three stepchildren (plus my own son) I feel qualified to offer a bit of advice to other step-parents, or those who are considering assuming that responsibility. I’d like you to know that I didn’t follow much of this advice myself at the time; it’s from the benefit of 20/20 hindsight that this article is created! But we did manage to raise four children together who love and respect us, and turned out to be basically good people in spite of our sometimes lax parenting skills.
For simplicity, I am writing this article from the point of view of the stepmother, but the same advice will apply to step-fathers, too.
The first thing you need to realize about step-parenting is that it is a thankless job. Nobody is going to give you an award you can display in your trophy case. While you are taking on the care of your stepchildren, they may (probably will) remind you that you are not their parent. “You’re not my mother!” is a cry heard by every step-parent at least once, usually when you’re trying to convince the children to do something they don’t want to.
This situation can easily get out of control. The child balks and we may become frustrated enough to explode, “Well, your mother’s not here right now, I am, and you’d better do as you’re told!” This is not an effective way to gain the affection and obedience of children who probably resent your interference in their lives and see you as an obstacle to their parents ever reuniting.
In the early stages of step-parenthood, you are wiser to treat the child as someone you want to befriend, not someone you need to control. As adults, we’re happier doing favors for friends than we are following the orders of our bosses. Children are no different; they’d rather obey out of love and respect than out of fear of punishment. Leave discipline issues to their father, who should back up any reasonable requests you make of his children. As your blended family grows into a cohesive unit, you may be able to take on part of the responsibility for handing out punishment, but just as in a traditional family the parents must always present a united front to the children.
Your stepchildren may let you know that you just don’t measure up to Mom in their eyes. All children, especially the youngest ones, hold an idealized vision of their mother in their hearts. This is as it should be, even if Mom doesn’t deserve such esteem. As stepmothers, our role is to not replace their mother, but to be another soul to whom they can turn for love and assurance. We should always treat our stepchildren’s natural mother with civility, if not respect. It sets a good example of mature, reasonable behavior and raises your esteem in the children’s (and your husband’s) eyes.
All children quickly learn whom they can manipulate. Your stepchildren may play both ends against the middle, spreading gossip and misinformation between their two families in an effort to stir up trouble, gain sympathy from one parent or the other, and maybe even erase you from the picture. This is when having a civil relationship with the natural mother can be a definite benefit. Issues that arise should be settled between the parents in a non-confrontational manner.
For a mild example from our own experience, we live in a 100-plus year old house that does not have heating ducts upstairs. Instead, we have the old grate-in-the-floor that allows heat to rise into the upstairs bedrooms. When we moved into our home, we told all the children that they must leave those grates uncovered or they were going to get mighty cold at night. So naturally they throw their dirty laundry, blankets, whatever over the grate and tell Mom’s family that they have no heat upstairs! Grandma comes over all upset, and we take her upstairs and show her what the real problem is, and she scolds her grandchildren for not paying attention to our instructions and getting her all worked up over nothing.
(Stepmom 1, kids 0, but who’s keeping score?)
You can expect these kinds of head games, but you don’t have to play them. Don’t use the kids as messengers. Keep direct lines of communication open between the adults so that you can work out the small issues before they become big problems!
Unfortunately, some people just won’t behave reasonably. For whatever reason (spite, anger, resentment, jealousy) they keep the pot stirred up, gaining satisfaction from the melodrama they create. They nurse the wrongs that have been done to them (real or imagined) and can only dwell in the past instead of looking forward to the future. Don’t let the natural mother or her family (or friends or your own family, for that matter) thwart your efforts to create a healthy relationship with your stepchildren, and a home where all who enter in are welcomed with love.
I’ve read that it takes seven years for a blended family to become a close-knit unit. It never happens in some families, sadly. As the “interlopers,” stepmothers must rise above childish, hateful, and demeaning behavior to set an example of what a mother truly is. Not just the woman who gave birth to you, but the woman who nurtures you and cares for you to the best of her abilities. True motherhood is a gift, some of us have it and some don’t, and all parents make mistakes. In the end, the best we can hope for is that our children love us and know we did our best, and perhaps avoid repeating the same mistakes.
I say that motherhood is a thankless job, but that doesn’t mean that it is without rewards. It has been twenty-five years this month since I met my husband, and almost twenty-one that we have been married. Our four children are all grown now with families of their own. Between them they have blessed us with many wonderful grandchildren. The mother of my stepchildren, her family and friends, join us for family birthday parties and holiday celebrations. The father of my daughter’s children remains a good family friend who would do anything for us. When families split up, it doesn’t have to mean disaster if the adults involved consider what is best for the children, and work together for the good of all.
I realize how unrealistic this sounds. I know I am setting a high standard for stepmothers, one which I didn’t always live up to myself. My message to you is that no matter how frustrated you become dealing with your stepchildren, you are doing the right thing by offering your friendship and support whenever they turn to you, although it may take years! My four grown children are now my true friends, and who can’t use more of those? Hang in for the long haul; it’s worth it.