I’m lucky to have three lovely stepkids whom I adore, but we’ve had our fair share of bumps in the road.
A child of divorce myself, I brought my own baggage into the dynamics of our relationship; maybe I thought that being the “perfect” stepmother would help me heal the emotional wounds of my parents’ divorce and my own difficulties with my dad’s new family. I also rushed into my role as do-it-all stepmom without taking the time to let everyone (including me) adjust to our new, extended family.
The pressure I put on myself to be perfect wasn’t good for anyone. To wit: after spending hours online shopping for the “perfect” Crocs and corresponding Jibbitz (those little doodads you stick into the Crocs’ holes), I presented them to the kids as though offering them the keys to the Batmobile. When my then 7-year-old stepson balked at his superhero-themed footwear, I stuffed them back into their box and snapped, “No Crocs for you!” I eventually came to my senses and calmed down; the Crocs and Jibbitz were offered again and accepted (after a display like that, what choice did my poor stepson have?) and over the years I’ve come close to perfecting the art of being an imperfect, but pretty good, stepmom.
I often find myself fielding questions from women who are about to become stepmothers themselves. Where do your stepkids sleep? Do they like you? And above all, Is it hard work? The answer to that last question is yes–but it’s totally worth it. Here’s my advice, condensed into six easy points that even the most harried, trying-to-do-it all stepmother (or stepmom-to-be) should read.
1. Redefine “Stepmom”
Everyone brings their own definition of “step-parent” into a relationship. Maybe you have history with a stepmom of your own, or just an idea of what she looks like from the movies. What is a stepmother, anyway? Is she a wicked witch? A best friend? Or just misunderstood? Put aside your preconceived notions–as well as any labels you can think of, whether they’re negative, positive, or somewhere in between–and write your own definition. Become the stepmom you want to be. (But drop the word “perfect” from your lexicon–there’s no such thing, and there will be plenty of bumps in the road before you even get to “pretty good.”)
2. Give Everyone Time
Rushing things to get to your version of The Brady Bunch 2.0 isn’t good for anyone. First, everyone needs to get to know each other. I remember (cue flashback music) the first time I met Joe’s kids, Delia, Donal, and Ruari. I made hot dogs, which Donal pronounced “disgusting!” When I went to brush a stray hair off Delia’s face, she shrieked, “Leave me alone!” An inauspicious beginning? Perhaps. But I didn’t push, and I didn’t huff off in a sulk, either. I just tried to be consistently friendly and kind (with varying degrees of success, as my Crocs story illustrates). Seven years later, we’re all still going strong–although the kids still, inexplicably, prefer the park vendor’s frankfurters over my organic, all-beef, lovingly grilled dogs.
3. Don’t Try to Replace Anyone
Your stepkids already have a mom. If she and your guy are on good terms, all the better. But if she’s not in the picture–or even if she is, but you secretly feel you could be doing a much, much better job–your steps still don’t need a replacement mom. They don’t need a replacement dad, either. Just because you have that maternal thing going on doesn’t mean you should take over the parenting responsibilities from your partner. Don’t try to usurp him when it comes to matters of discipline, schoolwork, or other issues.
4. Make the Kids Feel at Home
In a perfect world, everyone in a blended family has their own space. But we live in New York City, where you’re supposed to drop to your knees and kiss the ground because your one-bedroom apartment has a foyer. Here, a room of one’s own is out of the question, but Joe and I still make sure his kids feel like they’re at home when they’re here. Everyone has a toothbrush in the bathroom–along with bubblegum-flavored toothpaste at the ready–and a set of pajamas awaiting them at bedtime. Little details like that help make our place feel like another home to the kids.
5. Set the Rules Together
Setting and enforcing rules with your stepkids can feel like a balancing act worthy of the most renowned trapeze artist. You don’t want to take over the disciplining duties from your partner. But at the same time, you shouldn’t play “good cop.” Joe and I have an ongoing dialogue about what’s important to both of us in terms of discipline and rules. We’re easy on the kids about bedtime, but there’s no wiggle room on saying “please” and “thank you.” They have to bring their plates to the kitchen after mealtime, but we don’t ask them to do the dishes. Agree on–and stick to–the areas where you both feel discipline is necessary, agree on what’s not important, and agree to disagree, for now, on the issues that can’t immediately be resolved.
6. Don’t Forget to Have Fun
Before our own two children came along, Joe and I had plenty of family-friendly adventures with Delia, Donal, and Ruari. We went to museums, the aquarium, and even braved the local Chucky Cheese (an experience we vowed to never, ever repeat). The adventures continue now that the older kids are showing the ropes to their younger siblings. There’s a lot of logistics when it comes to blended family life. But don’t forget, there’s a lot of fun and enrichment to be had, too.