When my husband and I married, I understood I was committing to him and his three children for the rest of my life. I had no idea what stepmothering actually entailed, but hope believes all things.
I have had my fair share of stepmom challenges. My three stepchildren still struggle with acknowledging my role in their lives: after many years, they still sometimes call me Miss Kate, a formal relic from their early childhood. There have been school performances with mumbled dates and times, in the hopes that I might not attend and expose our blended family dynamic. There have been slammed doors and raised voices and stony glances.
Still, the good has far outweighed the bad. The “Miss Kates” are often uttered while snuggled next to me on the couch. I’ve been interviewed for a fifth grade project as a VIP in Amy’s life. Sarah’s Instagram feed is filled with pictures of our home and activities I’ve planned. Jack once famously said that he wants a shirt that reads: I Have an Epic Stepmother. Some of my favorite evenings as a family have been spent with my stepchildren, and I am grateful.
I often see stepparents encouraged to love their stepchildren “as their own.” As the mom to Simon, Caden and Lottie, my children from my first marriage, I find the stipulation that I love Sarah, Amy and Jack in the same way unrealistic.
I don’t believe it is possible to love children from a first family and stepchildren in the same way.
I didn’t raise my stepchildren. I didn’t bathe their chubby baby bodies in the kitchen sink. I didn’t track their growth charts and worry about how many words they knew at their pediatrician appointments. I didn’t carefully lay out their clothes for the first day of school.
Someone was present for those milestones. Someone drove carpool and planned parties and stood on Saturday morning sidelines. Someone still does. Sarah, Amy and Jack have a mother. She is involved in their lives, and they love her deeply. I fully respect their relationship with their mom.
The decree that stepparents should love their stepchildren as their own adds to the worldwide sense of competition between mothers and stepmothers, dads and stepdads everywhere. My stepchildren are not my own, they belong to Gabe and their mother. Perhaps better said, my stepchildren also belong to Gabe and their mother. Just like my children also belong to Gabe and their father and his wife.
The challenge stepparents face is how to love stepchildren equally to children from the first family, but in demonstrably different ways. Different because, to avoid adding to the child’s sense of in-between-ness and parent/stepparent tension, the love must include and support the love of others.
In the time I have spent loving these three small people, I’ve learned ways to love them fiercely, wholeheartedly, unconditionally, and yet differently enough so that they can accept that love without strings.
First, I am a vocal, passionate ally to each of my stepchildren. I cheer them on at sporting events and off the field. I remind Sarah that she is strong and fierce and funny, even when she thinks otherwise. I talk to Amy about the sticky web of girl drama in middle school, assuring her that what she’s facing is normal and helping her navigate her way through. I am wildly and unabashedly on their team – as long as their team isn’t currently facing up against Gabe.
I advocate for them. When Sarah was moving through the thick of TYOGS (Thirteen-Year-Old Girl Syndrome), I helped Gabe understand that her body hadn’t been taken over by aliens. When it lasted longer and showed up in different, more difficult ways, I worried she was struggling with something bigger and talked to Gabe about counseling. When Jack wasn’t reading at his grade-level, I bought him books my boys had loved and we read aloud to him. I don’t side with the children in front of them if they disagree with Gabe, but I am often a quiet voice for their interests after they’ve gone to bed. I work to get my stepchildren what they need.
I meet them where they are. Sarah is at the age where physical touch makes her uncomfortable, so I don’t force her to hug me. I help her with her hair and let her stay up late talking to me perched on the side of my bed, but I don’t make her awkwardly embrace me. Amy feels the mom/stepmom competition keenly, so I don’t add to it. I don’t wait for her response when I tell her I love her. I stopped telling her she could just call me Kate, instead of Miss Kate. I tell her I’m glad she and Mom are in a mother daughter book club because I honestly am. Jack is a different animal than his sisters – he craves cuddles and I love you’s and all the trimmings. So he gets them, early and often. When he slips and calls me mom, I don’t correct him.
Ally and advocate and meet them where they are – at the surface, this is how I love my own children. The difference in loving my stepchildren is in how I do those things.
I don’t step into roles that, in their minds, others fill. I don’t compete. I don’t weigh our relationship down with my own need for acceptance or love. I am openly supportive of all of the people in their life, all of the love they receive.
I love Sarah, Amy and Jack with every fiber of my being. I show that love differently because it makes it easier for them to accept it.
Kate Chapman is a mom and stepmom to six children, ages 7-15. She writes about her modern-day Brady Bunch adventures at This Life in Progress. Drawing on her extensive experience as a coach and a background in psychology and sociology, Kate addresses the tricky topics of divorce, coparenting and blended families. Need help? Submit a question to the weekly Ask Kate column or check out her humongous collection of divorced and blended family resources on Pinterest.