I knew about blended families, in fact, had intimate knowledge of the inner workings of such families, but my own childhood experience made me determined that I would never be a step-mother. As fate would have it, I fell head over heels for a man who was just ending a marriage and who had two teenage daughters.
Jokingly at first, my friends and family told me “Run for the hills!” As time went on, their inquiries became more serious, more pointed. “He’s a great guy, but do you really want to take on two teenage girls?” I was in love and I was certain that because they were his children, I would fall for them just as easily as I’d fallen for their father, and more importantly, that if they saw their father happy, they would be happy.
I was hopelessly naive.
I love my step-daughters. I would go to the mat for either of them, even against their own mother. I believe that I have a decent relationship with each of them, however, the road to this point has not been an easy one. I entered their lives at a time when they were most vulnerable. Their parents’ divorce was deceptively quick, and we all seemed determined to get along and be civil for the sake of the children. We invited the former spouse to our home for a party we hosted when their youngest graduated high school, and I tried to consult her regarding anything major to do with the girls, i.e., moving homes, decorating their rooms, medical issues. However, when their mother moved two thousand miles away four years later, leaving them behind, things began a downhill slide that ultimately ended in litigation. The suit has been settled, but it nevertheless took a toll on everyone.
Being a step-mother is really hard. It’s soul-sucking at times.
Unless you have the respect of the former spouse, you will never have the children’s respect. You have no control over what the former spouse says to these children who spend time in your home. You have no control over what your step-children say about you to their absent parent, no control over what hare-brained schemes they might cook up to come between you and your spouse. You have no control over disciplining the children because if there are different rules in your house, it will only confuse them and increase their confusion and feelings of alienation. No matter who made the new rules, you will be blamed.
Being a step-mother is that it’s nothing like being a mother. There is always a boundary between you and your step-children, no matter how hard you try for there not to be. All the things you do automatically with your own children – the snuggles, the kisses, the bedtime stories, the special treats you know they love, the little jokes, the memories – they all become suspect. Your step-children will always question your motives, your sincerity. Even if you try the method of hanging back and letting them come to you, which I did at first, that’s seen as a negative because they think you don’t like them and aren’t trying hard enough.
You and your step-children aren’t bound by your love for one another, you are only bound by your mutual love for the same man, and in some instances the mutual love for children that may come from your marriage. Neither you nor your step-children chose this arrangement, and all of you may resent it being a requirement of continuing a relationship with their father and your husband.
When your step-children achieve, no matter the role – financial, physical, emotional – you may have played in them getting to their goal, you don’t get to crow with pride; instead you watch their absent parent take credit for your hard work and support.
There is no justice in being a step-mother. When you’re a mother, you will make mistakes, but your children forgive you and still love you. When you’re a step-mother, however, one mis-step or mis-statement brands you forever. You are only as good as your last trick, and mistakes are unforgiven, held close like cherished mementos to be revealed as proof of your lack of belonging.
As a step-mother, you will always be an outsider. You will never be included in their version of family photos, but if you dare to exclude them from yours, even if they are physically absent and it is a casual photo snapped by chance, there will be anger and recriminations.
But the biggest reason that being a step-mother is hard? Because no matter how their mother hurts them, no matter how hard their mother may try to push them out of her life because they don’t fit with her new version of herself, she will always have the one thing that you desperately want: the unconditional love and affection of your step-children.