Stepmoms Stepping Up: How families get blended
Author: Linda S. Hopkins
Divorce can seem like the end of the world to children of all ages—from toddlers to teens to adults. No matter how amicable the agreement or how fair the settlement, the nuclear family has exploded and the fallout is inevitable. It’s a big blow that can result in frustration, anger, resentment, confusion and sadness. Making matters more complex is the leftover guilt, shame and regret that often casts children smack in the middle of the parents’ tug of war.
Enter the stepmom. When Dad remarries, further complications arise, and the new wife may be in for some adjustments and surprises. While stepmoms have taken a beating in fairy tales, modern blended families have a much greater capacity for happy ever afters. If you are a stepmom, here are a few tips for writing that story:
Know your place.
First and foremost is understanding your role and where you fit into the picture. You have fallen in love with someone’s dad (the same man their mother fell in love with) and committed your lifetime to that relationship. You are his wife and number one in his world, but you are not his children’s mother, nor should you attempt to be their new best friend. Treat them with kindness and compassion. Be interested and involved while maintaining a position of authority. If you are lucky, they will grow to love you—maybe even adore you; and at the very least, they will respect you. The best way to make that happen is to be yourself.
Never, ever criticize their biological mother or try to take her place. Let her be the mom while you establish your own unique relationship with her kids. When the mom doesn’t feel threatened by your position in her children’s lives, she is more inclined to make space for you. And when the children see that their dad is happy, they are more willing to embrace the relationship and give you a chance at being a significant part of their lives.
Collaborate on the rules.
In order to become stable adults, children need consistency in their upbringing. A wise stepmother will show respect for the biological mother by making an effort to understand her rules for her children and by following suit. The exception is if certain behaviors are unacceptable to you and/or their dad. In that case, the two of you set the boundaries in your own home. But be careful not to step on Mom’s toes. If she says no TV on school nights, then no TV on school nights at your house. If she allows them to eat donuts for dinner, play with fire, sleep with their boyfriends, leave their dirty laundry on the floor or anything else that you feel is inappropriate or not in their best interest, then put your foot down. They may resent your tighter reins at first, but you will ultimately earn their respect for standing your ground on your own turf. One rule still stands: Do not criticize their mother. Period.
Stay off the battlefield
When disagreements occur between your husband and his former spouse, unless the matter directly affects your health or happiness, do your best to stay out of it and let them come to a resolution. This doesn’t mean your opinion doesn’t count; you can share your thoughts with your partner. Encourage him to do what’s right for the children, to show respect for his ex, and to be diplomatic and fair. Then trust him to handle it. Do not get caught in the crossfire or attempt to use the children as pawns. Doing so is the single most destructive action you can take if you expect to have a peaceful, loving blended family.
Attempt to understand the other side
By the time you have walked down the aisle with a previously married man, chances are you have heard his side of the divorce story. You may never hear the entire other side, but you can glean information by paying attention. Notice the sources of conflict between you and your husband. Chances are, those same core issues and problems played into the demise of the first marriage. It doesn’t mean that either partner was evil or wrong or that the first marriage was a “mistake.” It just means that circumstances were different and they couldn’t work it out. It’s up to you to find a way to break through any negative patterns as they crop up so that they don’t repeat themselves in your marriage. When you and their dad are on solid ground, the stepchildren will begin to trust you and see you as one of the family. They need to know that you are in it to stay and not planning to bail at the first sign of trouble. As adults, the mom, the dad and step mom share responsibility for providing a sense of safety and security. And you and their dad have an opportunity to teach them, by example, how to nurture and maintain a loving partnership.
Share in special occasions
Attending family events together may be one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome in the beginning, but making an effort will pay off down the road. When children are involved in sports, theatre or other activities, show up with a smile and be friendly to the mom. There may be some uncomfortable moments to start, but that discomfort will ease over time as you and the ex-spouse become accustomed to attending the same events with a mutual purpose: to support the child. There are going to be graduations, weddings, births, funerals and holiday gatherings. As time goes on, you may even want to arrange an occasional private dinner, cookout or beach day and invite everyone, including the ex-spouse and her new partner if she has one. When everyone gets along, the drama is significantly reduced and a cohesive level of acceptance settles in. As you get to know her, you may even find that you and the ex have more in common than the man in the middle. It’s all about showing love and respect, which are the foundational pieces of every successful relationship.
Linda Hopkins is the stepmother of two bright, beautiful young ladies. Previously widowed and childless by choice, she considers it a privilege to be a part of their lives. Hopkins credits their dad, Tom Hopkins, for being responsible and kind towards his former partner and mother of his children. She also extends gratitude and love to “real” mom, Polly Creech, who has so graciously embraced her as part of the family and encouraged her precious daughters to have a special relationship with their stepmom.
“Real” Moms Rule
As difficult and complicated as it may be to share your children, the greatest gifts you can give them are harmony at home and a peaceful family unit. Regardless of how your marriage ended or how you feel about their father, if you can find it within yourself to see his new wife as part of the family, you will gain another star in your crown.
Make it a point to get to know her through neutral eyes, as if you met her at your book club or bridge group. You don’t have to be best friends, but by opening the door to communication, you will gain an ally and comrade in the care of your children.
Remember that the stepmom is not your enemy or your competition. She has a role to play in your children’s lives, but she will never be “the mom.” You rule!