Watch any Disney movie and the stigma around stepparents (especially stepmothers) is evident. They are usually evil, profoundly jealous and have deep intentions to hurt, if not eradicate, their stepchildren.
It goes without saying that these depictions of stepparents don't really help our cause in real life. Being a stepmom definitely has its difficulties. But with this kind of reputation, it becomes much harder to think about ways to go about cultivating a healthy (and hopefully even close) relationship with our stepchildren.
When you remarry, there's no doubt that you love your new partner and wish to make your new family structure harmonious. But this isn't always seamless. As a stepmom myself, here are seven helpful reminders to help shift your self-perception away from "stepmonster," and toward authentic, supportive stepparent.
1. Acknowledge the differences rather than avoiding them.
Blending families is not easy; ask anyone who has remarried with children. There are a lot of kinks to be ironed out, even if there is already a ton of love, and perhaps even compatibility. Different families have different family cultures and making them harmonious can be tricky.
But with hard work and lots of sensitivity, it is possible create a large and happy family. Just as no one can ever prepare you for your own process of motherhood, no one can really tell you how to create a "blended family." Trying to make your stepkids conform to your norms as a parent will probably not go very well, so find a way to create new family norms to work for everyone.
2. Understand the deeper impact of divorce for everyone involved.
Divorce has a lasting impact on both children and parents, sometimes resulting in years of conflict and drama. Often, there is guilt from both parents because they were unable to make the relationship work, and these uneasy feelings are communicated to children, even if unconsciously.
Shared custody can make things even more complicated. Often, the parent who has less time with the children will try to make up for it in other ways, such as indulging the child either materially or emotionally. One parent may struggle when seeing their kids just after they were with the other parent; and moving between two homes for kids is undeniably disorienting, typically causing them to act out in ways that they may not normally. Patience may be difficult, but it is also paramount.
3. Tap into your well of love.
Always remember that you married someone that you love deeply. And when you did so you knew that there were children involved. This is a biggie, because while you are trying hard not to perpetuate the stepmonster image, jealousies can still arise from time to time.
When you first meet a new love, it is understandable that you'll want to rejoice in the "honeymoon phase." And there's no doubt that having kids around can dampen that experience. But expecting the stepchildren to put their needs on hold to make way for your new love is unrealistic. If you find yourself becoming annoyed or judgmental about your stepchildren, always remember the love you feel for your partner. These children are an extension of them. So if you have committed to an intimate, loving relationship with your new partner, then the same level of commitment is required toward their kids.
4. Remember that you are not the "Primary Parent."
Trying to figure out how to be a generous and supportive stepparent to your stepkids without trying to actually parent them is a fine balance. It can be confusing, as you may want, on some level, to parent them in the way that you would your own children in order to communicate your tender feelings. But this may lead to tension or conflict.
There may be ways that the primary parents are behaving that you don't approve of or would do differently. Expressing this privately with your partner may be important. But this can only happen if they are resilient enough to handle your feedback. Use your judgment. Remember that your two cents may, at times, lead to conflict within the relationship, so be prepared to deal with that, too.
5. Don't be a frenemy.
Another conundrum that arises when being a stepparent is that you will probably have to interact regularly with your partner's ex. If there were no children involved, you would usually never normally have contact with a partner's ex, so this can be disconcerting. It may be helpful to really think about the fact that this person is either the mother or father of your partner's children. So there is no competition there, really. Honor their relationship as much as you can, trying to dispel feelings of competition and jealousy no matter how normal they may be (and trust me, these feelings are normal).
Seeing your partner's ex as a friend, a partner in parenting, could change the dynamic significantly. Sure, you might not want to actively pursue this person as a shopping-buddy or call them up for a chat. But neutralizing any negativity that may bubble up is productive for everyone involved. Your partner will thank you for this in the long run, because they, too, inevitably feel some tension between you, your kids and their ex.
6. Quiet your critical voice.
It can feel convenient, even easy, to criticize everything about your stepkids or the way they were parented, especially because they are probably doing things vastly differently. But being critical doesn't help, it likely will only result in discord.
While your mind might feel the impulse to point out all the things that others are doing wrong, also remember that there is no normal, and that others would probably want to criticize your impulses just as much as you theirs. You thinking that things should be done in a certain way doesn't mean its inherently right. So choose acceptance over criticism.
7. Keep in mind that your stepchildren didn't choose you.
This is hard to digest, but it is the truth. Simply because your partner loves you and wants to be in a relationship with you does not mean their kids want you in their lives. You cannot force them to accept you or love you. If you let go of that notion early on, then you will be a better stepparent. Consider them with positive feelings, and make space for their humanness.
Being a stepparent can feel very unnatural in the beginning, and it's often hard to know what is right or wrong. If you take your cues from the children, and let go of your own expectations for the relationship, your partner and their other parent will also likely feel more at ease. Being a stepparent is, in large part, a process of acceptance.