If there’s anything I’ve learned from being a longtime Kveller reader and contributor, it’s that raising kids is HARD. Kids need attention and love all the time, but they also need dinner, a bath, and a bedtime story, all before 7:45 p.m. or you will pay for it in the morning. Diaper changes and temper tantrums, picking a school, picking up toys, monitoring screen time–it’s endless.
All of that said, I envy all you moms and dads out there, because being a parent seems (from my no-doubt warped perspective) a whole lot simpler than being a stepparent. There are approximately 673,491 difficult things about being a stepparent, but here’s my top six list (and then two things that make it all worth it).
1. You never did any of the awesome bonding.
Those first few months after the baby arrived you probably didn’t get much sleep. And you may have felt like kind of an imposter (who let you take this baby home from the hospital? Don’t they know you have no idea what you’re supposed to do?) but you figured it out. You suffered through the sleepless nights and the cryfests because your baby was gorgeous and perfect and you just LOVED looking at her while she nursed or playing peek-a-boo with him. You watched him laugh for the first time, take her first steps, and you cried when he first said “Mama.”
I did exactly none of those things. Stepparents become a part of their step-kids lives at some later date, and the bonding has to be intentional without seeming forced. Say you get lucky (as I did) and end up with a stepchild who is perfectly into you and relatively happy to have you around. That’s still not at all the same as being there from birth, being the person who they have always been able to come to for hugs and stories and snacks. My parenting does not come from a place of established love and nurturing. Make no mistake, I love my stepdaughter and I’d lay down in traffic for her in a second, but my parenting comes from the head first, then the heart. That’s really hard.
2. You begin by playing a terrifying game of catch-up.
Think about everything you know about your child. It took you the kid’s whole life to get that knowledge, right? And when you meet your kid’s new teacher or babysitter, and you have to describe your child, it feels weird and difficult, because how can you even explain your little guy in five days, let alone five minutes?
Stepparents have to try to pick up a kid’s entire history–from favorite foods and activities to allergies, fears, and aversions—at some later date, and on the fly. You will always feel like there is some important piece of the puzzle you have not been given. The older your stepkid was when you came into their life the harder this is, but it’s still plenty difficult if you enter their life when they’re still in diapers.
3. Want to set up a routine? You may do so…half the time.
Some stepparents have primary or exclusive guardianship of their stepkids, but assuming that you’re co-parenting with your partner’s ex, your ability to set up real routines (which everyone seems to say is the bedrock of good parenting) is effectively zero. You can set up reliable routines in your own house, but you simply can’t know what’s going on when the kid is not with you. Even if you have a good or genial relationship with the other parent, and share a general parenting philosophy, you will still end up doing things differently.
This isn’t the worst thing in the world. Kids are resilient, and everyone eventually adjusts to a back-and-forth routine, and the norms of each home. But you still only have half the time to set boundaries and reinforce them, and it’s possible that those same boundaries might not exist in child’s other house…which sucks.
And oh, say you want to be an attachment parent, or a tiger mom, or a French mom, or some other kind of parent? Have fun towing that line 50% of the time. If your partner’s ex isn’t on board (or if they have a different or opposing philosophy) you’re going to be trying to employ a holistic approach to your stepchild’s welfare in half the time. Worse problem: your partner’s ex subscribes to a parenting philosophy that makes you insane (say, she’s a tiger mom, or he’s a lotus dad). Short of concerns for the child’s safety, you have to suck it up and practice “acceptance-that-this-child-is-learning-crazy-things-in-his-other-environment-and-there’s-nothing-I-can-do-about-it parenting.”
4. It’s bad form to complain about your stepkid.
Last year a friend of mine with two kids under three referred to her own children as “a holy hell.” I am a big fan of Dooce, who has plenty of choice words for her kids when they’re being bratty–even referring to them as assholes. Though some people would and do criticize parents for complaining about their kids, I think it’s totally legit to complain. Parenting is really hard work, and it often goes completely unappreciated. It’s only natural to feel whiny when you’ve been peed on, watched the dinner you made go untouched, fought over screen time, and endured a 20 minute tantrum from a kid who’s mad that her favorite sparkly shoes no longer fit. Complaining about family is natural, and an important way of blowing off steam so that you can deal with them again in the morning.
But it’s different with a stepkid. Speaking from experience, I feel really reticent to complain about my stepdaughter because I don’t want anyone to construe it as mean-spirited or wicked-stepmothery (more on that later). She’s not my child, and I just don’t feel comfortable whining to my friends (except the very very closest ones) about her the way I would if I were her mother. Saying mean things about your family seems natural. Saying mean things about someone else’s family seems…nasty. But she’s a kid, and from time to time, she frustrates me. So mostly I complain to my partner, which sucks for him, because I’m sure he doesn’t want to be the recipient of lots of whining about his kid.
5. Where are your peers?
It would be really awesome to have a group of stepmoms to hang out with, people who know what I’m going through and can sympathize, empathize, or just bitch along with me about how hard it is. But I know two other stepmoms, and they both have kids of their own, too, which also changes the equation considerably. There are, of course, lots and lots of stepmoms out there–but I’m 29 and many of my friends who may one day become stepmoms are not yet in that position. Number of stepmom meetups in Philadelphia: 0. There is one in the far-burbs, and it has three members.
Bonus whine: my mom is not around to give me parenting advice, and my grandmother, who was my dad’s stepmom and came into his life when he was 4–the same age my stepdaughter was when I moved in with her dad—died two weeks after I moved in with my partner.
6. The wicked stepmom stereotypes sting.
There’s not too much to say about this, except that being a stepmom to a kid who loves fairy tales feels kind of like being a recovering alcoholic married to a sommelier.
It doesn’t make anyone’s life easier that “wicked” is the first word people associate with stepmothering. And no, I cannot ever watch the Julia Roberts movie Stepmom again now that my own mother died of breast cancer.
OK, so those are some reasons that being a stepmom sometimes makes me want to scream and cry and punch things. But there are also some amazing things about being a stepmom.
7. Half-time Parenting
Sharing custody can be a logistical nightmare, but on the nights when we’re kid-free, we can stay up late, sleep in until whenever, make super spicy food for dinner, and go to a late movie without finding or paying for a sitter. And on the nights we do have a kid at home, we get to read stories together, snuggle on the couch in front of a Reading Rainbow, take bike rides, and pet puppies all as a family. It is an article of faith that parents don’t realize how much freedom and sleep they had pre-kids, and once they realize it’s too late, but there is honestly something pretty sweet about being able to enjoy the best of both worlds. (The key here is “being able to enjoy.” Some weeks are not the best of any world.)
8. Suddenly Being Related to an Awesome Kid
Not everyone can say this, but I happen to be incredibly lucky that my stepdaughter is jaw-droppingly awesome. At 5 she’s a human rights activist (tell her that a politician is trying to take away resources from a community and she gets awesomely belligerent and demands to know what you’re going to do about it), has an eerily accurate recall of basically everything she’s ever seen or heard, is a brilliant artist, and is alarmingly cute. She is also the best and most hard ass teacher I’ve ever had. And she comes with a dad who is unfailingly sweet and thoughtful, as well as wise, kind, and hilarious.
I’m no saint–if Ronia was not as amazing and lovely as she is, I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to sign onto this lifetime of stepparenting. But she’s great, and I’m in love with her dad, and even though it’s hard (you guys, it’s really hard) to be a stepmom, I feel really lucky to have landed with such an amazing pair.