I didn’t set out to be a stepmom. In fact, I had long held the opinion that I didn’t want children of my own–even though I love kids and absolutely adore my nieces. I had no ticking biological clock urging me on as I spent my 20s and 30s taking my laps in the dating pool. I was 37 when I met my husband, 40 when we married, and given his “one and done” conviction about not having any more children, it’s a good bet that I will never be anything but a stepmom and an auntie.
This is the life I have chosen, and I’m happy with my choices.
There are lots of advantages to step-parenting. I get to be a mom, without having to have been pregnant and given birth (the idea of which, frankly, kind of terrifies me.) I get to do all of the “parenty” things; getting GT up for school in the morning, making his lunch, helping with his homework, going to his events, and sharing and encouraging his interests in science, reading and gaming. Then, much like when you get to enjoy other people’s kids and then give them back to their parents when you’ve had enough, I get a break every other weekend when GT goes to stay with his mom and her husband.
I’m also incredibly fortunate that GT and I have a great relationship. We share a lot of mostly nerdy interests that his mother and father are less enthusiastic about. He’s never once yelled “you’re not my mom” or given any indication that I’m anything less than a full parent in his eyes. Of course, he was four when I first started dating his dad, and six when I moved in and we unofficially became a family. For as long as he can remember, I’ve been a part of his life.
It hasn’t all been roses, though. When I first took on the step-parent role, I had plenty of ideas but no direct parenting experience, and GT was already accustomed to the different styles of the two parents that he already had. We clashed, a lot. All three of us. I knew going in though, that it wasn’t going to be easy, so I tried to be prepared. I found The Single Girl’s Guide to Marrying a Man, His Kids, and his Ex-Wife* at the bookstore and not only read it myself (a couple of times) but tried to get my then-fiance to read it too. I tried to start discussions about parenting styles, shared discipline strategies and other topics that were recommended for “being on the same page” with my partner, with limited success.
We figured it out though. Now, looking back, I can see that although I had tried to be prepared, there were a few lessons that I had to learn for myself. If I were to give my own advice for the new step-parent-to-be, it would be the following.
You are not–and should not be–your partner’s top priority. While you have every right to your fair share of your partner’s time and attention (this is a marriage, after all), don’t expect them to pick you over their own child or children, especially in the beginning. I got to be the center of my husband’s world every other weekend, when GT was with his mother. At all other times GT’s needs came first, and rightly so. That didn’t make it sting any less when my husband would automatically side with GT when we were butting heads, or when weekend plans had to be suddenly dropped because GT’s mother changed her plans and wouldn’t able to take him for her scheduled weekend.
In the beginning, you will be a disruption in every possible way. You will disrupt routines, the family dynamic, the way that the space in your home is utilized, interpersonal relationships, communication, finances, priorities, belief systems and much more. When I first moved in, I literally disrupted the house itself by remodeling half the rooms (including the kitchen and bathroom) to make it more functional for three people and to accommodate the additional electrical and plumbing demand. Even if I hadn’t physically disrupted the household, I would have still disrupted it in every other way. My fiance and his son had their own rhythm and routine, their own communication process and worldview. I came in with my ideas and expectations (and my two dogs) and threw everything into turmoil.
Your new stepchild/children will often react to you in ways that have nothing to do with you. At home, GT was openly affectionate, resting his head on my shoulder while we watched movies on the sofa or giving out bedtime hugs. But, around his mother, he would avoid all physical contact with me. It took almost five years for him to initiate a goodbye hug or any display of affection in front of his mother. It felt hugely significant the day last year when he wrapped one arm around my waist and the other arm around his mother’s waist and pulled us both in to give us each a hug at the same time. I don’t know what she was thinking in that moment, but I was desperately trying not to make it seem like it was anything but normal.
You and your partner will have an ongoing negotiation regarding your share of the limited parenting “stock.” I have accepted that I will never have an even 50% stake–partly because I have to split it with my husband, his ex-wife and her new husband–and partly because my husband is always going to insist on a majority holding. When we first started out, he wanted me to focus on being a friend to GT to better establish our relationship before I tried to “parent”. I felt that as an adult in the household, I was by default a parent and should be be able to act as such. This was the cause of a lot of conflict as we started our new life as a family. Over time, I learned to ease back when necessary and let my husband fill the “bad guy” role, although I can still sense his unspoken frustration if I jump in too quickly to discipline, chastise or offer my opinion on something that he feels is his responsibility to take care of.
You may never get to be “Mom” or “Dad”. I know that to GT I will always be “Tammy”, and never “Mom”. It doesn’t matter that I will be the one who raised him, and attended all of his school concerts and events, helped him with his homework and bonded over Doctor Who and Mythbusters. Even though I know that someday he will recognize and appreciate the role that I have played in his life, I will still always be “Tammy”. “Mom” belongs to someone else.
*Full disclosure: I liked this book and found that the author gave a lot of really great advice. She also writes with a clear sense of privilege that can be hard to take. Her website (sassystepmother.com) is no longer available, and based on a quick Google search, it appears as though she is no longer married or identifying as a stepmom.
Featured image provided under an attribution license by the Boston Public Library on Flickr.