You can tell from a quick glance at my blog bio that I'm a stepmother -- but I almost never write about it.
I've had several big reasons to steer clear of the topic. One, I'm not my stepdaughters' mom, and if I were, I don't think I'd be too happy if they had a stepmother writing about their lives on her blog. Two, throughout most of the time I've been blogging, my stepdaughters were teenagers and they certainly didn't need or want me to be writing about them at that sensitive time in their lives. Three, writing about step parenting while you're in the trenches of it is a lot like writing about divorce as you're going through it -- emotions are running rampant and very few writers can steer through the subject with grace and objectivity. Four, and this was a biggie, I often felt like the world's worst stepmother. I mean it. The world's worst.
And who wants to write about that?
To be fair, things started out great. My stepdaughters and I got along right away from the moment we met, and the first two years of blended family-dom were pretty awesome. But then puberty happened. And the girls came to live with us seven days a week. And I had two small children of my own. Suddenly, I felt like my relationship with my stepdaughters was disintegrating -- and nothing I did or didn't do seemed to help matters. I thought it was all my fault, and I was so ashamed at my failure that for years, I didn't tell anyone what was going on. In retrospect, that was a HUGE mistake. It wasn't until a few years ago that I confided my feelings of failure to a counselor, who promptly informed me that what my family and I were experiencing was actually very, very common. There's almost always a honeymoon period, he said. And then all hell breaks loose.
Seriously? How did I not know this?
Somehow, we all muddled through adolescence and made it through to the other side. Today, time and counseling have given me some much-needed perspective, and now that my older girls very nearly on their own, I feel ready to write more about the subject on my blog -- which is good, I guess, because I get a lot of e-mails from stepmoms asking for advice. But know up front that I am going to limit this subject and its details to MY story, not the story of my stepdaughters or their mother. That's theirs to tell, if they choose.
So let's start with ten brutal truths I've learned in my eleven years (and counting) as a stepmom, truths that every new stepmom, or woman even thinking of becoming a stepmom should consider. You may agree -- you may disagree. That's fine. This is simply what I have learned from my experience.
1. You are not their mother. Or their 'Bonus Mom,' for that matter. Even if your husband has primary custody of the kids. Even if their biological mother rarely sees them. Even if they CALL you mom. Do not make the mistake of believing in your heart that you have all the same rights and privileges as the woman who gave birth to them, because you don't. You can have a meaningful, loving, influential relationship with your stepchildren, but it will be different from that between a mother and child. That's okay. Embrace it, and make the most of it.
2. Silence is the best policy. We live in a world where everyone loves to vent, whether it's on Facebook, over the phone, or during a girls night out, but take it from me -- no one likes to hear a stepmother vent about her husband's ex or her stepkids. Divorce is one of the most devastating things a person will ever go through, and no one needs to hear from you how the ex-wife is handling it, or how her kids are acting out in the aftermath. One of the hardest parts about being a stepmom is the need to keep quiet about the tough stuff and how it's affecting you. If you've got to let it out, limit your thoughts to a very close, trusted friend, or even better, tell it to your counselor or therapist. Which brings us to number three.
3. Find a counselor or therapist, even if you don't think you need one. My husband and I didn't visit a counselor until we'd been married eight years, which was a huge mistake. I went into the first session thinking I was a horrible stepmom and that our problems raising the girls were unique to us and insurmountable, and do you know what the counselor told us? "You guys are doing great! Do you know that I hear your exact same problems from nearly every blended family that comes in this room? Do you realize that 70% of blended family marriages fail? You've almost made it through! YOU'RE DOING GREAT!" I really, really, really needed to hear that. Going to see a counselor helped me stop beating myself up and allowed me to realize that what we were experiencing was actually NORMAL. For me, that changed everything. Also? You might need to visit a few counselors/therapists before you find the one that's right for you. Be prepared to shop around until you find someone you and your husband are both comfortable with.
4. It's okay to take a step back. This was initially a tough one for me, because I thought my girls needed me to act just like I was their mom. WRONG. Remember number one? I'm not their mom, and acting like I was probably caused some resentment and confusion on both ends. I now believe that a good stepmom is physically/emotionally available when her stepkids need and want her to be, and she backs off and becomes a behind-the-scenes supporter to her husband's parenting when they don't.
5. Protect your marriage at all costs. You and your husband need to be each other's refuge, particularly when you're having issues with your children or stepchildren. If childrearing issues are pulling you apart, pinpoint exactly what's hurting your marriage and protect your relationship in this area immediately and relentlessly. A counselor can be wonderful at helping you do this. Ultimately, zealously protecting your marriage benefits everyone -- your stepchildren need to see you and your husband stay together and fight for your relationship, even when times are tough. It will teach them to do the same some day.
6. Don't compare yourself to other stepparents. You will come across other stepmoms who can't stop raving about how wonderful their relationships are with their stepchildren. "They tell me ALL their secrets!" they'll gush. "They told me they think of me as their REAL MOM!" "They convinced the city to hold a parade in my honor!" Etc. Don't let it get you down. Remember what I said earlier? More than 70% of blended family marriages fail. Girl, you don't need a parade. You're keeping it together. You're doing great.
7. Don't play the blame game. Maybe you, like me, have spent too much time beating yourself up about your shortcomings as a stepmother. Or maybe you think your marital problems are all your stepkids' fault. Maybe you even think your husband is to blame, because he always seems to take their side. Realistically, you're probably ALL partially to blame for the problems in your relationships. You can't change everyone else, but you can change yourself. Work on that, and hope that your efforts inspire others in your family to try harder, too.
8. Forgive yourself. Stepmom, let's just get something straight right now. You are going to make a lot of mistakes. Like, a LOT lot. Please don't do what I did and spend years convincing yourself that something is very wrong with you because you seem to screw everything up. Forgive yourself. Over and over and over again. Forgive yourself. And move on.
9. You can't fix what you didn't break. My own stepfather said this to me a few years ago. I wish I had heard it a lot sooner, because I spent years trying to do a whole lot of fixing. I really thought I could solve everything and everyone if I just tried hard enough. What a waste of energy. So many issues a blended family faces come from the divorce, which the stepmother (hopefully) had nothing to do with. As wonderful as I'm sure you are, you can't fix that.
10. Stick with it and know that you will emerge from this a better person. Now that I have raised my stepdaughters and had time to look back on the experience, I feel like I ran a gauntlet of tremendous emotional challenges and came across the finish line truly changed. I am wiser. I am gentler with myself. I am more reluctant to judge others. I am a far better wife and mother than I would have been without my stepdaughters. Our family is still a work in progress, but the worst is behind us. We made it through. And the experience actually ended up being a huge bonding point for my husband and me.
I certainly don't want to make being a stepmother seem all gloom and doom, because it isn't. We've had many, many wonderful times together. I would change a lot of things I did as a stepmother if I could go back in time, but I wouldn't give up my blended family. I still believe I'm here for a reason. We are all imperfect. We all have the potential to be amazing. We are all working toward that potential, in our own time and in our own way. We are learning more about each other as we go. We are all messed up, but you know what? We are family.
We are family.
And in the end, that's what matters.
Follow Lindsay on her Facebook page.
Image via Zaman Babu/Flickr Creative Commons
Also on The Huffington Post: