Every time I thought about writing this blog, I struggled with what my number one tip for step-parents would be. Well, today that became painfully obvious as I got jabbed across the face with it. So when my step-daughter, the one I raised for the most part by myself for the past 10 years, got upset at her biological mother, and said she wished she was born to her mother’s sister instead, it broke my heart. I recall the days when she told me that she wished that I was her real mother. Yeah, I get it. The girl got a raw deal in life, but it still stung. She didn’t say it in a moment of anger, but she didn’t try to back pedal when she realized what she said. And just like that, the person who has driven every single life changing decision I had made since 2009, shows me the impact I had on their life was lot less profound than I thought it was.
This moment was not about me. This moment was about my step-daughter once again being disappointed and hurt by the one person in the world she should feel the safest with. These moments are not rare, but that does not seem to save her from the grief. So even though I was hurt, I needed to get past that and help a daughter cope with having her mother once again betray her. We talked after all was said and done, and she said that when she wished her aunt was her mother, she meant that she wished that was who she was going back and fourth to, not instead of us. It did not dawn on her that if her aunt was her mother, our relationship might not exist. I am glad I did not get caught up on my own hurt feelings in the moment and let my daughter express herself freely. She got out what she needed to and when she felt better we were able to talk and understand each other. So starting with the most important, here are the top rules I would give bright eyed, optimistic, and naive new editions to the group long referred to by Disney, and most others, as wicked.
- Have Thick Skin
This applies to all parents, but I feel like an extra layer of armor is necessary for us step-parents. Your biological kid can say they hate you all they want, and it may sting, but you know they don’t mean it. Biological children are hard wired to love us. Unfortunately, because you lack this bond with them, when it is a step-child who says it, they very well might mean it, and you may just feel more insecure than you otherwise would.
It is also not just the kids you need to shield your ego from. Many people, sometimes complete strangers, will completely undermine your role as a step parent. You will either be doing too much or too little in people’s opinion and they will make sure you know. This leads to the second rule of step-parenting.
- Do Not Adhere to Other People’s Expectations
No one knows the specifics of your situation, nor do they need to. And whatever you do, someone is going to think you are wrong. People have preconceived notions of how step-parents should act and have no problem doling out advice, judgement, or even insults. Get ready to walk a fine line between conflicting expectations or learn to completely ignore them. I suggest the later because these expectations are at least undesirable and at worst, completely unattainable.
You will be expected to love them as your own but don’t you dare feel slighted if they can’t take 2 minutes to draw you a Happy Mother’s Day card since the one they make at school goes to their real mom. Don’t for a minutes think that just because you spend your real money, time and effort and cry your real tears that it makes you any more of a real mom, because it doesn’t. So you just give them everything you would give to your own child, quit your whining and take a way back seat at school events, sporting events, doctors visits, and if you are not careful, even in your own home. And this brings us to the next rule.
- Know Your Role in Your Own Household
You do not need to be the parent to set the rules in your own home. Children do not pay rent. If yours do, please tell me your secret so I can get these slackers contributing. As an adult in your home, you get to set your own boundaries regardless of kinship, otherwise you will not feel at peace in your own home. If your partner does not back you, then maybe they need a refresher course on what partners are.
So if you want people to knock before they enter your bedroom, ask before they borrow your stuff and don’t plan on being a short order cook, make that known. Also, how much work you plan to do on your own is not dictated by whether or not your spouse lets the kids get away with out lifting a finger. If he thinks the kids shouldn’t have to lift a finger while they are with you, that is up to him, but unless you choose to pick up the slack, he needs to deal with the extra burden of his choice and pick up their slack himself.
- Do Not Take Care of Children You Cannot Discipline
If you are given no control to discipline the kids in your household, then you should not be alone with these children, ever. Would you leave your kids with a babysitter and then tell that babysitter that they have no means of stopping your children from misbehaving? It is not only dangerous, but these children are being taught that the world revolves around them. It does not, nor should it. The world will need to deal with this child when their parents are done raising them, so it is important that they learn this now.
I am not saying that you should be allowed to spank, verbally abuse or discipline in a way that goes against the family values, but at a bear minimum, you need a way to diffuse a situation and you need the bio-parent to back you 100 percent in front of the child. You are partners, not unpaid daycare, and although you should take a backseat to the parents when it comes to major issues, you should never be expected to play the role of helpless spectator in your own home. And when it comes to decisions about the kids, you need to be consulted in the cases where they affect you.
- You Get a Say in Things That Affect You
I said that mom and dad get to make all the major decisions about their children, but they don’t get to dictate your life. If mom and dad decide that junior will be attending school across town but have not even ran it by you, who drives him to school daily, there is a major lack of respect. Although they should guide his education, they don’t get to dictate your life. So they can make this decision, but they may need to find the child a personal chauffeur.
When we had shared custody, we had a turbulent situation, and it was understood that if we were offered more time, that her dad should jump at the chance and we, which usually meant me, would figure it out later. But I hear a lot of step-mothers complain that they are just expected to change plans on the drop of a dime without even being asked. Married parents don’t do this to each other when plans change, so why would it be okay to do this to someone with even less claim to the child? It’s not. Set boundaries early. If you are expected to do something, whether that be to look after or transport the child, you should be asked, and your contribution should be up to you.
- Decide What Equal Means Before It Becomes Relevant
There are major differences in what people find fair. Do not wait until Christmas time to find out that only one of you thinks the children who live and celebrate Christmas at another house should also get the same amount of gifts at your home as the children who only get one pile from Santa. Don’t wait until college to find out you are giving each kid the same amount even though that will leave two with much greater resources. There is no normal in these situations, no expert to consult. It is hard enough for two married parents in one household to come to agreements, but to add in multiple marriages and households ups the stakes. Discuss these ahead of time so you don’t have added pressure from a ticking clock.
- There is No Such Thing as Half When it Comes to People
My daughters are sisters. Period. They have different mothers, but they are no less sisters than anyone else. It should be like a ladies’ age. If I ask my daughter what my age is, she always replies 29, and unless I am filling out paperwork, we leave it at that. They are sisters. Unless one is donating a kidney to the other or doing a genealogy report, that is all anyone needs to know.
- Learn What You Cannot Control Early, And Then Let It Go
This one is key. Step parenting can be the most active spectator sport there is. The amount of play time you get is not entirely up to you. Some step-parents like myself get non-stop game action, and others get side lined by overbearing biological parents who see their presence as a threat, rather than an asset. I say spectator because sometimes that is exactly what it feels like. You get left out of so many important decisions but still usually take an active role in all the grunt work.
Right now, I pretty much have all of the control and make all of the decisions. What I cannot control is emotional abuse my step-daughter is subjected to every time she talks to or sees her mother. I cannot control the relationship, or lack thereof, that she has with her siblings on her mothers side. It kills me that she hardly sees her other siblings, but I have to let it go. This gives me room to focus on what I can control. I can control the way I react when my step-daughter comes home and lashes out at me after seeing her mother. I can control the relationship she has with her mothers side of the family, which I try to balance with keeping her safe because her mother’s boyfriend is an ongoing threat. These are quite tame in comparison to the things out of my control while going through family court. Things many parents can take for granted were in jeopardy, like her safety and having access to her as well as things like insane lawyer fees and plentiful court dates and other mandatory obligations. These were incredible difficult to manage and lead to the next tip.
- Find the Right Support Group
Not everyone is going to get it. Refer to tip 2. People have certain expectations for step-parents, and many people think that you don’t get to suffer like a real parent so you may find people who just don’t have the same reaction they would have if you were dealing with your birth child. I raised my step-daughter more than 50% of the time since she was 3 until her mother decided to try to cut us out of her life completely 3 years later. I was heartbroken and feared for her safety. I did not need the ear of anyone who did not get how emotional this was for me. Birth or not, that was a child I raised and loved like my own. How many other parents loved or just claimed to love them was completely irrelevant.
Anyone dealing with a high conflict biological parent also knows how powerless and hopeless you can feel. Yes, like I said, you need to know what you cannot control and let it go, but sometimes you need a little support to do that. I was lucky enough to have really great friends and family who listened and understood me, but often I felt so overwhelmed and worked up, that it was too much for me to put on just them. With little effort, I found an abundance of fellow step-mothers in various Facebook groups who were so supportive. Whether it was advice, just someone to listen to you vent or just hearing similar stories, these groups can be a tremendous asset.
- Do Not Keep Score, If You Count Anything, Let It Be Blessings
You may want what is best for your step-child and feel like you are going above and beyond, but it is not a contest. Being disgruntled because your bonus and savings went to braces for your step-child, while Mommy Dearest has never paid a dime in support, is futile. Stop counting the days you took off of work to go up to school for events just to compare. You are not doing any of this for the other parent, you are doing this for the child. Period. Count yourself lucky that you get to be a part of this wonderful child’s life, and even though God did not choose you to carry and birth them, he chose you to play a special role.
Are you a step-parent, bio-parent or step-child? Have you experienced or tried any of these tips yourself? Do you have some tips to help new step-mother’s adapt? If you are a step-father, do you feel left out or can you relate? Please let me know in the comments.