The stepmother paradox: Finding a new place in an established family

There’s certainly no manual for becoming a stepmother; one writer details her ups and downs
By Kelly McQuillan  Published on 10/30/2018 at 10:31 AM EDT
Julia Roberts and Jena Malone in the 1998 film 'Stepmom', which depicts Roberts as a new stepmother struggling to get along with her stepkids and her husband’s ex-wife Columbia Pictures

I met my husband when I was in my early 30s and childfree. He had two children from his previous marriage, and I went into the relationship knowing that. The kids, however, lived primarily with their mom in another Canadian province, so my time with them was limited to fun activities during school holidays. Two years later, I became a full-time stepmom to two kids (then 9 and 10), and life became significantly more complicated.

A teacher, I was comfortable with kids and mostly knew what to expect in terms of caregiving responsibilities; however, I was not at all prepared for how actually different being a step-parent is from being a parent. The challenges of the circumstance, coupled with hazy definitions of roles, led to a lot of stress and disappointment when my step-kids continued to be lukewarm about me, even after a couple of years. I felt like an outsider in my own home, a person who took up physical space, but was not part of the family core. It was heartbreaking.

I wish I had known another stepmom, or had at least read a frank discussion of the emotional toll of step parenting, especially for stepmoms. Even though our numbers are growing (1,300 step-families are formed each day in the U.S.), we often cope in isolation, comparing our successes (or lack of success) with those of the biological families around us.

I had no frame of reference for what “stepmother” should look like in terms of a relationship with the kids (excluding, of course, the nasty fairy tale trope). I grew up in a so-called nuclear family and my mom was the nurturer, the caregiver, the organizer, and usually the shoulder to cry on. I felt that, in the absence of their own mother, I should be fulfilling at least some of these functions for my step-kids. Many people in my circle seemed to assume the same thing.

Erin Careless, PhD and stepfamily coach, discusses how this pervasive “mothering ideology” in our society leaves stepmothers in a real quandary—if they do not provide the affection, nurturing, household-running and general kin-keeping expected of mothers, they are thought of as cold or uncaring; if they throw themselves into the mothering role, they are admonished for overstepping and trying to replace the birth mother.

In fact, as Careless points out, building on earlier writings by Irene Levin, the word “stepmother” itself is an oxymoron: step connotes distance while mother connotes closeness. When your title itself is a paradox, you know you’re in for a rough ride!

There are so many tensions and contradictions inherent in the stepmother/stepchild relationship: It is easy to feel confused, lost, and overwhelmed much of the time, especially if you expect your family to function like a biological one. It’s simply not the same thing.

As a primary-caregiver I chauffeured, problem-solved, tended to injuries, fed hungry bellies, scheduled activities, helped with homework, shopped for clothes, and waited in clinics. I did all the parenting tasks, but I wasn’t seen as a parent. So I was mostly excluded from those occasional “perks” that biological parents enjoy: spontaneous demonstrations of affection and connection like hugs and “I love yous,” Mother’s Day cards, or sometimes even thank yous. Looking for validation in these gestures and not receiving it definitely stirred some bitterness and hurt. I also began to feel like maybe I wasn’t worthy, that I was doing something wrong.

It is easy to feel confused, lost, and overwhelmed much of the time, especially if you expect your family to function like a biological one.

I was determined to love and care for my husband’s children as I felt anyone in a “mothering” role should. But I didn’t consider that my efforts might be unwelcome and even resented. The reasons why step-kids might have difficulty returning love or showing affection, may have nothing to do with the stepmom herself. By showing any affection for me, they might feel disloyal to their mom, and she will always be No. 1 to them. I invested myself so deeply, that when the kids told their dad they didn’t even like me, I was absolutely devastated.

Now that I’m also a biological parent, I can say that being a stepmom is much harder. In fact, it’s the hardest job I’ve ever undertaken. For so long—years, in fact—I felt like an absolute failure. It was only once I let go of the expectations that my efforts entitled me to love (or even appreciation), or that I needed to fill the space of “mother” in our household, that I was able to find some peace. I was able to take a step back, not from caring about my step-kids, but from using their acceptance/love/connection with me as a measure of my personal worth and ability.

Over the years, my role in our family has become more clearly defined as that of “caring adult.” Once I explicitly assured the kids that I wasn’t trying to take their mom’s place (in retrospect, I wish I’d had this conversation up front, instead of a couple of years in) the kids visibly relaxed and warmed to me. It was still messy—after four years they (at 13 and 15) decided to move back to their mom, although my stepson returned to us two years later. My stepdaughter has graduated and lives on her own now, but my stepson knows that I am here for him, and respects that as one of two adults in the household I have equal say in how it functions.

It is part of my job to help provide the necessities of life and to keep him safe. Extras are left to him to initiate (seeking advice, help with homework, sharing personal info, etc.). Now that there aren’t awkward, invisible expectations hanging over us, our relationship has had space to blossom. He opens up to me about his life, we laugh, and slowly-but-surely the tensions from years ago are melting away. Loving is always a risk with no guarantee of return, but I choose to continue taking this risk.

So, to the stepmoms out there—if you are feeling confused, frustrated, or any of the myriad emotions that come with step-parenting, know that you are not alone. Until society’s ideals catch up with reality and outdated gender roles are revised, stepmoms will be caught in this gut-wrenching paradox.

The logical thing to do at this point, as Careless writes, is to “change the discussion” and look at child-rearing as more of a team effort: “a community of support that raises children.” Talk to your partner and figure out what your role in the family can be, instead of what you think it should be. Check out supportive resources, such as these suggestions from Above all, be kind to yourself. You’re doing a really amazing thing—you’re helping to raise a child!

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