Survival Tips for Stressed-Out Stepmothers
Calmly navigate the waves of change in your new role as a stepmom.
Although it's clear that stepfamilies are here to stay, many stepmothers still struggle in silence, trying to figure out where they fit into the blended family dynamic.
The role of the stepmother is the most difficult of all within a new family because boundaries are often loosely defined. Society hasn’t been kind to stepmothers over the years either. Through the ages, stepmothers have been vilified in fairy tales, fables, and folklore. They've been accused of breaking up families, marrying for money, and attempting to alienate children from their biological mothers.
While first marriages have a 50% failure rate, second marriages have a 75% failure rate. It’s enough to make any woman wonder, “What have I gotten myself into? I fell in love with a wonderful, kind, loving man. So why is this so hard? What's the matter with me?”
If you're having doubts about your marriage, about your competence as a stepmother, and your ability to keep it all together, you're not alone. There are many other women out there just like you, and me, who are doing their best to make their blended families work and keep their marriages happy, strong, and healthy.
Here are some simple tips, coupled with insights from marriage counsellors and family and parenting experts, on how to survive stepparenthood.
Have you ever wondered why second marriages feel so different than first marriages? After all, if you love your husband or husband-to-be deeply enough, would it really matter if he was married before? Everyone has an ex somewhere in their past, and that hasn't stopped them from getting married to someone else and starting all over.
But having an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend, or even an ex-husband or ex-wife with no kids from the past is much different than getting married to someone who has kids from a previous marriage. Barbara LeBey beautifully sums up the difference between first marriages and second marriages in her book Remarried with Children.
First marriages are, in the beginning, all about us. The children come along one by one, and we get to know and love one another in a natural, evolving way. Second marriages begin all about them--the children, the ex-spouses, the former in-laws, and the new in-laws. The relationships joined together by a remarriage become a blended-extended family. This term, now often used interchangeably with "stepfamily," refers to a family unit in which one parent is not the biological parent of at least one child.
How do you make a second marriage work? You start by trusting yourself. Self-doubt is one of the biggest challenges that you'll face as a stepmother. You might wonder:
- Where do I fit into this family when they already have so much history together?
- How do I establish clear boundaries (and not get steamrolled) when it's not my place to discipline someone else's child?
- How do I relate to my stepchild without coming across as though I'm trying to replace the child's biological mother?
These are all questions that many new stepmoms struggle with. Remind yourself often that you're a competent, capable adult making the best decisions you can in a unique family situation. Believe in yourself and trust your judgment, your decisions, and your choices. When you have confidence in yourself, you're less apt to seek approval from others (i.e.; your stepchildren, your in-laws) who may disagree with you.
Taking time for yourself is a sign of love for your blended family.
Read books on step-parenting. One of the most important resources I've come across on what it really feels like to be a stepmother is a book called Stepmonster by Wednesday Martin, Ph. D. Reading books written by other stepparents, social scientists and family therapists is one of the best ways to get an objective perspective on the the role of a stepmom in a modern family.
This is, by far, one of the best books I've read on what it means to be a stepparent. The book deconstructed so many of the myths and stereotypes about 'evil' stepmothers in a pragmatic and unapologetic manner. I've been a stepmom for over 25 years and I had no idea how many of these societal myths I had internalized. It was refreshing to hear other stepmoms talking about how challenging this family role is.
Find a support network of other stepmothers. Join an online support group for stepmothers, stepmoms, stepmommas, second wives, new wives…however you choose to identify yourself. There's likely to be a blended family support group out there for you.
Keep a journal. Write about your fears, your hopes, your dreams, your insecurities, your troubles, your joys, anything you feel like writing about. You don’t have to write about just stepparenting problems; you can also write about and focus on other things in your life that make you feel worthwhile, competent, creative, and successful. You're a stepmother, but you are also a sister, a friend, a daughter, a hard worker. You don’t need to define your life by one narrow definition.
Check in physically with your husband every day. Whether it's an extra long, lingering kiss when you come home, a hand squeeze stolen under the table at dinnertime, or a playful game of footsies when no one is looking, connecting with your husband on a physical basis every day is important to your marriage success.
Don’t be afraid to make self-care a priority. One of the biggest things that stepmoms struggle with is the feeling that their needs come second, third, maybe even fourth, in a busy, blended family. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself. Doing so is not selfish. It's a gift to your family because you'll feel and act less stressed out.
What is the hardest part about being a stepmother?
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© 2014 Sadie Holloway