We all know marriage is hard work. But a blended family marriage is just harder. I mean question-every-fiber-of-your-soul challenging. But it’s not impossible. When I met my now husband, I knew he had two small kids (at the time 4-year-old twin girls and I was lucky to fall in love with them almost instantly). But despite being from a broken/blended/batshitcrazy family myself — I still had NO CLUE what I was in for.
Now, I’m 7 years in and we have two kids together in addition to my step kids and holy crap, it’s complicated. My biggest regret is not knowing sooner what personal development I really needed before I could be in a healthy blended situation.
In fact, I’ve taken a long time to write about this topic because it requires extreme vulnerability — people judge stepmoms (thanks Disney) and being judged sucks. I also still don’t know if I am doing it “right” or how things will turn out in the the long run. I also happen to be one of the unfortunate souls who has to deal with a bio-mom that won’t acknowledge my existence.
So, if you’re a new stepmom or even dating someone with kids I am going to tell you what 4 things I wish someone had sat down and told me:
#1 You, yes YOU, need to work on your Emotional Intelligence.
If you aren’t sure what that is, start with Google, read a book, heck read an article, and find a counselor if you need to. Here’s a quick Wikipedia definition to give you an idea:
Emotional intelligence (EI) is the capability of individuals to recognize their own emotions and those of others, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one’s goal(s).
Being an emotionally healthy stepmom is the most important thing to the kids, to your relationship and to the overall success of the blended sitch. You might need to dig into the depths of your past to learn about your contribution to the function or dysfunction in your life. You need to have the tools and words to handle a multitude of stressful situations (ex wife, finances, behavioral problems, value differences, etc).
EI will help you know when and how to set healthy boundaries for everyone’s sake including when to get involved and when to step aside. And generally, EI means you’re less likely to be a self-centered asshole who doesn’t bother to understand how kids feel when they are getting a stepparent (hint: it’s complicated).
EI tip: When you’re frustrated with the kids or your husband or the ex or younameit — don’t think about how they need to change — think about how YOU need to change and grow. Always, ALWAYS focus on your role in the situation. Why? That’s the only thing you can control.
It’s okay to vent about the hard times in parenting and step-parenting; but blaming your step kids for the challenges of a blended family isn’t just unintelligent — it’s downright damaging. Not only to your marriage but to the humans you are affecting.
#2 Being a [good] stepmom is like learning new language — you need training and practice.
I wasn’t even that comfortable with kids when I first met my husband and I still thought I would be really good at stepmom life — because, all you need is love? It turned out that being average with kids was really the least of my problems.
Early on, I started to recognize that I was having troubling feelings toward my husband for his divided attention. I also became overly focused on the kids liking me, and it overwhelmed my every move. Now I recognize these as very common challenges and nothing to feel shame about.
At that point, I took a step back (pun intended) and thought about whether or not I was the right woman to handle a blended family. During that time, I started reading anything I could find about step-parenting (see recs below). I read articles, blogs, books, and forums all around being a stepparent (and for what it’s worth, I commend you for even reading this). Some of the advice out there is negative and scary (not to mention those alarming divorce statistics), and what’s worse is that you might relate to that negativity.
There will be moments you need that comfort of not being alone in your challenges, but there are more moments you can use that experience to focus on learning, growing, expanding your ability to stepparent successfully. Soaking up stepmom knowledge gave me the tools and confidence I needed. In fact, I still have some of my favorite stepmom topics bookmarked and I read them often during difficult times to remind myself to learn something from every situation. And, there will be difficult times. Think of being a stepparent like you would any other skill in life — it takes time, training and experience to get good at it.
#3 Know what’s solvable and what’s not.
This applies far beyond step-parenting into all familial relationships. But in the context of step-parenting, generally, it will be difficult for you to have significant influence on your step kid’s fundamental values and personalities. Most of the time, especially if the kids are older, these things have developed over a significant period of time — a period of time where you didn’t exist. Trying to change existing patterns within the family could cause you disappointment by creating unmet expectations of others.
Knowing which challenges are solvable vs. perpetual is a great way to focus your love and support in a helpful (and not harmful) way. Solvable problems are typically those that involve household logistics like schedules, rules, and communication breakdowns. Perpetual problems are caused by differences in values, beliefs, opinions and personality.
Perpetual problems need to be managed over time — with improved expectations and understanding. Just by identifying them as perpetual gives you the perspective you need to address it differently. Solvable problems need to be, well, solved! For instance, if you’re having a disagreement about chores, you can problem solve or use consequences to motivate change. But, if there are underlying issues that are triggered when you disagree about chores or enforce consequences, it’s probably not going to resolve with an easy conversation.
Decide early if a topic is solvable so you don’t waste time and energy trying to change perpetual issues, which don’t often change just because you want them to. Move toward embracing the perpetual problems, changing your expectations, and focusing on your role and what you need.
# 4 A strong relationship with your step kids is not “thankless”.
When I first started reading stepmom advice online, I kept seeing the same reference to what a thankless job being a stepparent can be (any and all parenting can feel this way at times). In the case of step-parenting, it can feel like since they aren’t your biological children they may never love you the way they love a biological parent, even if you are giving as much (or more) as said parent. Also, sometimes you get missed on Mother’s Day and during special occasions. Talk about lonely!
Even though that may all be true, a strong and healthy bond with your step kids will influence them in a positive way to encourage their own healthy and positive relationships later in life (even if you don’t realize it now). I often wonder from my own family what it would have been like to have a stepmom who accepted me, and how I could have learned from that example instead of stumbling into stepmomming. Don’t let your step kids have to wonder!
Not to mention, there are so many fun and significant memories to be made with your step children and so many ways you can personally nurture the relationship they have with their biological parent that you married. Someday your step kids will look back and will recognize your influence, support, and love and show appreciation.
The first counselor I ever saw when I was becoming a step mom told me this: kids can intuitively tell who cares for them and loves them. You don’t have to work so hard at it, just be genuine in it.
So shout out to all you “thinking” stepmoms — loving hard, learning harder, and leading the way. And try to remember, the best things in life often take the most work.
I know this is a lot of information to digest and I plan to write more on this topic now that I am learning to embrace the imperfection of my blended family.
Oh, and here are some cool resources!
- A book for step kids — so incredible for helping them learn about stepmoms being nice and not evil!
- A book for you — no matter how you stumbled into stepmom-hood there are some related stories and excellent ideas in this easy read.
- My personal favorite book (if you like research) — a comprehensive look at the culture of step-parenting from a stepmom perspective, noted as “the thinking woman’s guide to stepmothering”
QC // Julie