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As far back as I can remember, the one thing I always wanted to be was a mom. I had dreams of being the perfect mother, giving and showing love and affection to my children and having them give that same kind of unconditional love back to me. Unfortunately, that was not meant to be. It seems God had something else in store for me, something that I wasn’t totally prepared for, and that was the role of a stepmom. Helping to raise one child that is not biologically yours is difficult, imagine having three of them. Coping as a stepmom is truly a work in progress, filled with rewards and challenges, and many of those challenges have to be dealt with through understanding, compromise, and love.
My adventure in becoming a stepmom began on October 29, 2005 – the day I married my husband and his three children. He had been divorced from his ex-wife for four years when we finally tied the knot. When I met him in 2004, he had been a bachelor and single dad for three years. Of course, he and his kids got use to being together and doing things together, so it wasn’t easy trying to fit in – especially for and with the kids. They quickly let me know they had a mother and weren’t too interested in having another one.
One challenge we had to address early on was what were the kids going to call me. When we first met, they called me Miss Sheryl, and that was okay because it was respectful. They didn’t know that their father and I were really serious about each other, and had been talking about the possibility of marriage by the time I was introduced to them (which was 4 months after my husband and I started dating). Right before we got engaged, I remember saying to the kids that they should drop the “Miss”, and just call me by my first name. That was simple, and didn’t sound so informal and unattached. The youngest at the time, 9-year-old Trey, and oldest, 13-year-old Haley, thought it was a good idea and made the change right away with no problem. On the other hand, it wasn’t easy for the middle child, 10-year-old Lunden. She had the hardest time because she was not ready to let go of the idea that maybe her parents would get back together. Once the engagement was announced and wedding plans were underway, she came around. Out of the blue, she just started calling me by my first name.
When the conversation came up as to what they should call me after their dad and I were married, I told them to continue calling me Sheryl. I didn’t want to put any pressure on them to call me something that would make them uncomfortable. Parenting experts say “in their desire to present a close-knit family image, step parents and parents often push for relationship terms as mom and dad, or mama and papa, or straight mother and father”. They go on to say that for the kids, these terms could symbolize the replacement or loss of the biological parent, and instead of unifying the family, it can put up a barrier (Visher, & Visher, 1982). This is certainly not what I wanted to happen. By allowing them to continue to call me by my first name, which is what they were use to and most comfortable with, the transition from dad’s girlfriend to wife and stepmom was seamless and painless in that respect. I know I’m not their mother, and the last thing I wanted was to add to their stress level of feeling disloyal to their mom because I was in their lives now.
Speaking of their mother, the relationship between the two of us started out a little shaky. I must say this was one challenge that I didn’t think would ever come to a peaceful solution, but it has to some degree. The first time Sharon and I met was awkward. My husband and I were still in the dating mode when we went to pick the kids up for a 4th of July picnic in the park. I tried to be as cordial as possible, but she wasn’t having it. She gave me a quick and cold hello, and then went about her business of talking to my husband and her kids.
I remember telling one of my girlfriends that I had never been treated so rudely, and that if she was going to treat me that way, I could easily reciprocate. But my girlfriend explained what Sharon was probably feeling because she herself felt the same way when she met her ex’s new girlfriend. Consequently, she told me to always keep the best interest of the children at the forefront. Audrey Seaton-Bacon, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Whittier, California says “having your little ones see birth parents and step parent working as a team is valuable and helpful” (Hunter, 2006). I have found that to be so true. When my step kids first heard that their parents and I actually sat down together to talk about them, I sensed they were shocked and relieved. My husband, his ex-wife and I try to keep the lines of communication open at all times. Author Anne Burt says this is the most important thing. She also says no matter how much dislike there may be between a biological parent and a step parent “remain respectful and never show any hostility or resentment in front of your child – it’s important for mother and stepmother to be grown-ups” (Burt, 2007).
Now we all attend school plays, concerts, and other events as a family – as much as we can be as a family without discomfort. “A child’s public events should be an opportunity for the whole family to bond” (Burt, 2007). I think once my step kids’ mom realized that I wasn’t a threat to her and she could never be replaced, she became less jealous of me and now she’s even friendlier. That has been a positive for all of us. The kids love and respect her as their mom, and they give me the same as their step mom. Seaton-Bacon says “it’s actually good for kids to develop a healthy attachment to a step parent” (Hunter, 2006).
We all agreed early on that when it came to the discipline issue, dad and mom would handle that. Like many stepmoms, I didn’t want that responsibility for fear of resentment. On the other hand, I felt that my husband was too laid back and needed to improve in that department. It was hard for me to sit back and say nothing but I learned that was best. In one of her ten parenting tips for stepmoms, Rachelle Katz says “when stepchildren misbehave, first focus your attention on your partner rather than the children. Let him know, gently and calmly, that you feel he needs to assert his authority in order to help his children grow and develop, and feel secure and protected. If he isn’t capable of being a strong parent, then your life, his life, and your stepchildren’s lives will suffer” (Katz, 2010). This was and still is a touchy subject. No matter how gently I try to bring this to my husband’s attention, he doesn’t seem to take it too well. I’m not giving up though, or backing down from sharing my feelings or thoughts on the matter.
While trying to develop a cordial, working relationship with my step kids’ mom, I was also trying to find my place in the family structure. I know my husband loves me, but I had some hard truths to deal with – the fact that he was married before, and that he had kids. I, too, was married before but did not have any kids. Therefore, my husband doesn’t have to deal with my ex the way I have to deal with his. Extended family situations come up quite frequently, with his family or her family, and it takes a lot of patience and understanding to handle those situations. What seems to help me the most is remembering that I am his wife now, and my main role is to be my husband’s wife and help mate. By doing this, I feel I have found my place.
We are growing together and bonding as a family each and every day, and this process will continue for years to come. One thing that we had to do was come up with house rules that involved making changes and setting boundaries. At first, I always felt like an outsider, and I think that had a lot to do with not knowing what I was allowed to do or say in my own home. Once we established the house rules that each of us had to abide by, I was finally able to speak up, based on whether or not the rules were being followed. In her book, “How to handle your husband’s kids”, stepmom and author Jacquelyn Fletcher says this is when she finally got some relief. One house rule for her family (and mine as well) was to keep common areas clean. Fletcher says she finally got to say, “Hey guys, remember we have to take our toys upstairs. House rules” (McKinnell, 2007). Just like her, I was finally able to say what I needed to say without holding back and holding it in. The new rules also helped my husband and I grow closer because we found common ground and a way to “parent” together. “When everyone in the family knows the house rules, you and your partner can back each other up when a transgression occurs. Working together as a team is important for you as a couple and teaches children that they can’t divide and conquer” (Katz, 2010).
As my stepchildren and I have grown closer, we’ve developed quality relationships. The three of them have very distinct personalities and have to be treated accordingly. Parenting experts say enjoying time with your stepchildren is a necessity. Now that they’re all teenagers, I’ve found ways to hang out with each of them that they enjoy. The oldest and I go shopping together. Our tastes in clothes are very different due to our ages, but she seems to value my opinion, and asks my advice. My middle stepdaughter and I spend a lot of time just talking. She is the one that needs lots of attention, and always seems to have something on her mind that she needs to discuss, so I provide that listening ear. My 14-year-old stepson is easy. He’s very creative and outgoing. Right now he is into writing song and rap lyrics. He asks for my opinions and suggestions all the time. The fact that I show an interest in what he’s writing and why he’s writing it has made all the difference in our relationship. He is always thanking me for my support. The book, “The Happy Stepmother”, states that in order to have a good relationship with your stepchildren, you’ve got to spend some quality time with them. “Since quality relationships are built from one-on-one interactions, spend private time with each of your stepchildren. Find common interests and activities, such as a hobby or a sport, to do with them” (Katz, 2010). It has taken some time, but we understand and accept each other without any added pressure or stress. We feel what we feel, and that’s okay. “Love is an emotion that can’t be forced. If you love your stepchildren, that’s wonderful. If you don’t, that’s also acceptable, as long as you provide kindness, compassion and respect to them. No more and no less should be expected of you” (Katz, 2010). I found that to be so true. Once I realized that I didn’t have to love my stepchildren right away, and that they didn’t have to love me back right away, it was easier for us to bond. All we had to do was be nice, kind, and respectful to each other.
Finding the right family blend in a stepfamily situation can be difficult at best. There are so many obstacles to overcome and feelings to consider, but these family units can become strong. It has taken a lot of hard work but we have built a foundation based on trust and good communication skills – listening and talking to each other. We know that we’re different from “normal” or “first” families – both structurally and emotionally. An article written in 1997 for The Coalition for Collaborative Divorce states that stepfamilies would be the most common type of family in the country by the year 2010 – this year! So maybe we’re normal after all. And we’ve already taken on some of the helpful actions listed in the article to deal with common stepfamily challenges and develop a happy and successful stepfamily life. As I mentioned before, we find time to sit, talk and listen to each other about what we we’re feeling. Dealing with and recognizing emotions are important factors when building a strong family unit. “It is wise to assume that people have good reasons for their emotions and reactions, even if the reasons are not obvious. This attitude helps build respect and trust” (Aronsohn, 1997).
We’ve come up with a new family tradition. Once a month, we get together for the Williams Family Gathering. This includes my husband’s immediate family (his mom, siblings, and their families). This is where we all come together, bring a dish or two, and rotate eating at a different home. This is quality family time that we value and look forward to doing. “This simple routine allows a sense of something stable, something to count on, something ‘this family’ does” (Aronsohn, 1997). My step kids are always asking when and where this month. They absolutely love it, and it’s something that wasn’t done before I came along so it really is “our” new tradition. This extended family togetherness is good for our immediate stepfamily. The love, care and concern that’s shown when I interact with my in-laws has also helped me to build solid relationships with my step kids.
In conclusion, coping as a stepmom is not the same as the role of mom. It can sometimes seem like you’re on a roller coaster ride that never stops. The frustrations, misunderstandings, and hurt that are part of that ride are too much to bear at times. Stepmoms have to tread lightly and cautiously. Every situation is different and needs to be handled in its own way. We’ve had our ups and downs over the last 5 years, and I’m sure we’ll have many more. But now we have a stronger foundation from which to work from. We just need to accept and address each issue as it comes up. This work in progress will continue to remind us of the valuable lessons we’ve learned – like understanding and compromising – to develop stronger, more loving, and successful relationships between us. By working together and appreciating each other’s role in our blended stepfamily, we’ve reached some common ground that seems to be working for all of us.
The challenges have not come without rewards. And one of those rewards was huge for me. During a celebration for my 50th birthday this past March, my three stepchildren stood together at the podium and told our family and friends that they consider me more of a mom than a stepmom. That was music to my ears. They admitted I’ve made a difference in their lives and the life of their father. When they said how much they loved and appreciated me, it brought tears to my eyes. For the first time, I felt like I’m doing something right as a stepmom.
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