My husband and I have been married for eleven years. After the first year, his two children from his previous marriage came to live with us. While I was already a stepmother in title, I was suddenly catapulted from the role of fun weekend stepmom to full time parenting duty. It was an adjustment that I wasn’t prepared for. The sweet children that I had come to know where about to unleash a fully loaded arsenal of hellion style resentment that highlighted their unpreparedness as well. Being a stepmother is a role that challenged me far more deeply than I expected. It brought out some of my deepest insecurities and highlighted weaknesses that I didn’t even know I had. It challenged my marriage, my motherhood, my values, my peace and even my sanity at times. Yet, it was also the catalyst for a journey of personal growth more profound than any other experience that I have had. Every family has its own backstory and complications. There is no “one size fits all” strategy. There are numerous people and emotions involved and you cannot control every aspect. However, I can enlighten you with insight that empowered me to disconnect from my idea of what my journey was supposed to be and embrace what it was. I began to focus on developing genuine connections with my stepchildren that developed into love more powerful and sincere than I thought possible. Here are 5 ways you can do the same.
Define Your Own Relationship
If I had to sum up this entire article with one piece of advice, I would say don’t focus on trying to define your role in this new family dynamic. Think of it as building a new relationship and give that relationship the same time, nurture, respect and lack of expectation that you would give any new friendship. It’s very easy to get stuck in expectations. I remember hearing that “If you love someone, then you will automatically love their child too.” I’ve heard that saying many times along with others that suggest that if you love your spouse then that love organically and effortlessly extends to their child. That is not necessarily true. Love can take time and it is okay if love takes time. Diving right in with the assertion that you love them (and now expect them to love you too) can often set you both up for failure. Value the relationship enough to develop and grow it. Build authentic connections. Find something you love that they love too no matter how simple. It could be a book, food, television show or a love of corny jokes. Find that thing and nurture it. You two get to define your own relationship.
Boundaries: Create Them | Enforce Them | Respect Them
Strong and meaningful relationships are built on a foundation of mutual respect. There are several factors that contribute to respect. Adhering to certain boundaries is a big factor. You have boundaries that you must enforce and they have boundaries that you must respect.
Children push boundaries by nature. Your stepchildren will push, pull, bend and walk right across the boundaries. Don’t take it personal. Consider it a little bit of ritual hazing. Yet, there is a point when minor disobedience becomes outright disrespect. Respect is non-negotiable. Discipline may be one of the hardest areas to navigate in a blended family and there is no universally correct way of handling it. Often times, the desire to be liked causes stepparents to shy away from any discipline whatsoever. You don’t have to be an authoritarian but you do have to set boundaries. It is difficult. The children will likely feel that every rule you make is targeting them and every correction that you issue is just because “they aren’t your real kid.” That is a natural reaction but you have to set boundaries anyway. Clear and enforced boundaries provide stability and children need stability even if they don’t like it.
Children have boundaries too and just as much as they should respect yours, you should respect theirs. There is no correct way for them to feel about you being a part of their lives. We can’t micromanage their feelings. Respect the boundaries around their personal thoughts, feelings and emotions. We can require respectful behavior and communication. We cannot require love or even acceptance. Let them have their feelings. They shouldn’t be pressured to pretend that they are okay all the time. Their feelings are a necessary part of their experience.
Forgive Each Other Over and Over Again
I had every intention of being the perfect stepmom. I was prepared for difficulties and challenges that we would conquer as a family with lighthearted comedy and loving anecdotes just as all the sitcoms had taught me. Instead, for the first few years I spent half the time feeling like I was on an episode of “punk’d” and the other half trying to determine if I was the evil stepmom or they were the evil stepkids. Long story made short: It didn’t go how I wanted it to. My stepchildren used to start all of their sentences with “my real mom said.” While the reasonable adult in me knew that I should just let it go, unfortunately, there were many times when my own pettiness took over and I would retaliate in some passive aggressive gesture of my own like buying cereal that I knew they didn’t like. Yes, you read that correctly. I was a grown woman using cereal to retaliate against children. If you are a stepparent, then you know they were absolutely using the phrase, “my real mom said,” to bother me and you know that sometimes a “cereal retaliation” is all you can come up with to try and secure a win. We were in a battle of “all things trivial.” We were doing little things to irritate each other that sound silly to others when you say them aloud, but we were each aware of exactly what the other was doing. It became an exhaustive game of tit for tat. So I had to end it. I took them out for ice cream one day and literally called a truce. Kids don’t usually need a profound speech. I asked them to forgive me for everything that I did that hurt their feelings or made them mad and I asked them to keep forgiving me every day because I was going to make mistakes sometimes. I told them that I forgave them for everything they had done that was hurtful or made me mad and I promised to forgive them everyday because I know that they might make mistakes sometimes too. Over ice cream sundaes, we promised that we would forgive each other and start over as many times as it took for us to get it right. Neither of you know what you are doing. You are both going to make mistakes. Forgive each other over and over again.
The Power of Perspective
From my perspective, I was opening up my home to them. From their perspective, I was an uninvited guest in their lives. From my perspective we needed to grow together as a family by spending quality time all together. From their perspective, I never let them have any time with their father alone. The list goes on and on. Perspective: everyone has one. Remember to consider theirs.
You Don’t Have to Call it Love
You must consider that your biggest desire may be their biggest fear. It took me a full three years to realize that my stepdaughter was scared to love me because she thought it would be a betrayal to her mother. I had spent so much time and energy internalizing her resistance toward me that I hadn’t considered that it had very little to do with me at all. She was fighting an internal battle of her own. She needed her mother’s permission to love me and that permission may never come. In part, because her mother didn’t realize that she needed it and in part because her loving me may have unconsciously been her mother’s biggest fear also. I had to give her the only thing I could: permission not to love me. It sounds silly, I know, but it was all I had to offer. I sat with her and told her, “it’s ok if you don’t love me like a mom. I think you are cool. Do you think I’m cool too? She laughed and said yes, giving me a big hug that turned into a cry. I don’t think she knew why she was crying but I knew that it was relief. Children internalize many things especially when we tell them they “should” feel things that are different than what they actually feel. She felt guilty for loving me and guilty for not loving me. I had to release her of the guilt. Don’t get caught up in the word love. The feeling of love by any other name is still love. Sometimes you might have to settle for being cool until they can handle more.