by GAYLA GRACE
I’ll never forget the day my stepson shot back at me, “You’re not my mom, Gayla. My mom would support my choice.” I had disagreed on an important decision he was making and voiced my opinion–because I loved him. But he didn’t see it that way.
Piercing words. I wanted to respond in anger, but I chose to remain silent, recognizing the loss that haunted him as a result of his mother’s death. I understood the feelings behind his words. What he was really saying to me was, “I miss my mom. I wish she were here so I could have this conversation with her.” But she wasn’t.
Stepfamilies come together as a result of loss. Some stepchildren have experienced multiple losses through death, divorce and remarriage, with little healing or understanding on how to relate to the new step-relationships in their family. As a stepmom, your words and actions can aid or hinder the growth of your stepfamily relationships. Here are a few tips to help combat the evil stepmom stigma and promote healthy relationships in your stepfamily.
1. Commit to the long haul. Decide you won’t give up when it gets hard, because it will get hard. Continuously strive for love and acceptance of one another, but don’t expect harmony overnight. The average stepfamily takes seven years to integrate. Complex stepfamilies–when both parents bring children to the marriage–can take longer. You may take one step forward and two steps backward, but that doesn’t spell failure. Family identity is established through challenges, uniting the family in the long run.
2. Make your marriage relationship a priority. It’s easy to put the marriage on auto-pilot when the parenting demands consume your time and energy. But without the marriage acting as a foundational piece, the challenges of stepparenting can tear a family apart. My friend and co-author of “Unwrapping the Gift of Stepfamily Peace,” Heather Hetchler, says it best: “The marriage relationship has to come first. It’s not at the expense of the children but rather for their security. Putting the marriage first by backing each other, being respectful and modeling love toward one another positively impacts the children.”
3. Don’t take everything personally. We make our stepmom role harder because of our insecurities. We think we’ll never measure up to the biological mom, competing with and comparing ourselves to her constantly–always coming up short. If we learn to spend more time improving upon who we are already, we’ll be more comfortable in our stepmom role. When we’re secure in ourselves, it won’t bother us when our stepchild questions our choices. Our natural reaction becomes: I won’t take that comment personally or get defensive. I will accept her thoughts as her own, even if they’re different from mine.
4. Consider it a privilege to impact another child’s life. I remember clearly the day a counselor said those words to me when I was crying out for help in the first year of our marriage. I didn’t understand how to consider my stepmother role a positive aspect of my life. I love the words of stepmom and child psychologist Maria Saugstad, “Look at it as a calling–creating a good home for your stepkids; it will take sacrifices but also be rewarding to create something good.”
As a stepmom, your words and actions can aid or hinder the growth of your stepfamily relationships.
5. Work harder at being a friend rather than a parent, particularly in the beginning. Developing a relationship with your stepchild is the primary goal for a new stepparent. Find common ground that allows time together comfortably, doing things you both enjoy. Study your stepchild to understand how to relate to him or her. Let the biological parent take the lead in disciplining during the relationship-building period. Moving into a parental role too soon will result in anger and resentment. Find ways for you to be the “good guy” as your stepchild gets to know you.
6. Recognize your needs count too. Give yourself grace, space and understanding. Admit when you have failed in your role, but don’t get stuck there. During our early years of marriage, the shortcomings of my stepchildren irritated me. I reacted in favor of my biological children during times of conflict and was frustrated with my lack of patience and fairness toward my stepchildren. As I sought to forgive myself and learn from my failures, I could pick myself up and start again. Take a break from the stepmom. Recharge yourself with a spa day, coffee with a friend or date night with your husband.
7. Create healthy boundaries with the other home. Encourage healthy co-parenting with your spouse and his ex-wife but stay out of the middle of their disputes. Define the needs of your home and communicate expectations to the children that create a cooperative environment for managing chores, homework, schedules, friends, etc. Don’t allow the other home to dictate what happens in your home or seek to interfere with happenings in their home.
8. Live in the present–not the past or the future. Celebrate your successes as a stepfamily. Don’t hold grudges over mistakes of the past or project challenges of the future. Live one day at a time, focusing on the needs of today. Maintain a positive attitude if possible, thinking good thoughts about your stepchildren and expecting healthy interaction.
9. Affirm the value of your stepmother role. Don’t allow others to negate the importance of your role. Yes, it’s a different role than the biological mom, but that doesn’t lessen its value. A stepmom provides an objective view a biological mom cannot. Without the emotional entanglement of a blood bond, a stepmom recognizes unhealthy patterns a biological parent may not. I learned to listen to my husband’s objective opinion during my daughters’ teenage years and found wisdom in his stepparenting advice.
10. Don’t quit until you’ve arrived. The statistics of divorce in remarriage with children are staggering. According to marriage and family therapist Ron Deal, founder of Smart Stepfamilies, 25 percent of remarried couples with children divorce within the first two years and 50 percent divorce within the first three years. The stepmom journey is difficult but if you quit, you’ll never know the impact you could have made in your stepchild’s life. Commit to the long run.
Stepparenting is tough. Mistakes are made. Misunderstandings happen. And variables outside our control influence stepfamily relationships. But there are new tomorrows that bring a fresh start to work through differences.
I’ve been a stepmom for 20 years and can now honestly say, “It’s been a privilege to take part in raising my stepchildren.” In the end, the rewards outweigh the burdens. My 21-year-old stepson’s Mother’s Day card brought tears to my eyes. It read, “Thank you for putting up with all my crazy ways and being a great mother to me!”
As a stepmom, you’ve been given an opportunity to influence a child’s life like no one else can. Are you up for the challenge? I hope so because there are rewards to your efforts if you don’t quit.
GAYLA GRACE treasures her role as mom and stepmom to five children, ages 14-30. She loves to encourage stepfamilies through her website and blog at stepparentingwithgrace.com.