Hi! I’m Marissa. I’ve been married to my fantastic husband Kenton for almost a year and have been living with him and his two darling, silly 8-year-old twin girls for just over two. I remember back in the day, when Kenton and I were a couple of idiots in love, he said, "So you know I have two little girls - and if we're going to be together for the long haul then you'll also have them in your life half the time... are you okay with that?" and without hesitation I said, "Of course! I love kids!"
...ooooh, Marissa. You ignorant fool. What a lovely, if not completely misguided, thought. Loving these kids is probably the easiest thing I have done while stepmom-ing. That being said, here's a list (which is not at all exhaustive, but it’s a start!) of six things I wish I’d known before jumping headfirst into stepfamily life.
1. In the beginning, be a friend!
I know - we hear this a lot as stepmoms. But taking on a parental role in the lives of kids you've just started living with is a delicate process. I quickly realized that I needed to just be a cool aunt/friend type person; the parental role would come later. That was tough – especially when I needed to get them up and dressed and out the door to go to school in the morning and one was crying about her outfit and the other was crying about eating breakfast, and then both refused to put shoes on and both wanted to be carried to the car and fought about who would get to go first. Meanwhile, I’m wondering, “Is 8 a.m. too early for wine because OHMYGOD.”
As a 30-year-old girl without kids of my own, trying to manage all this craziness while also trying to get these kids to like and respect me, and see me as their ally, was tough. And I realized that getting frustrated, parental, or giving consequences right off the bat would likely just alienate them from me. So I did what any good non-parent would do and I bribed them out the door and into the car with candy. That's right - for the first few months in this role, I just did whatever it took to get the task accomplished in a non-parental, I’m your friend and we’re in this together sort of way. Sometimes you just have to do what you need to do to protect the beginnings of your relationship with your step kids. And for the record, the girls now happily do what I ask them to do, sans bribery, and best of all, they know I’m in their corner.
2. Rejection happens.
There will be times you feel rejected. And it really sucks. I remember one of the first times I saw my stepdaughter at her dad’s new house. She stormed past me (she was 6 at the time), and told her dad that mommy told her if she didn't want to be around me, she could go back to her mom's house. While that was the worst of it, there have been countless times since then when I know I’m doing my best to be a loving, fun stepmom and still I’ll hear, "I want to go to mommy's" or "I miss mommy" – and my heart breaks a little because they really DO just need their mom. I’ve had to work hard at not taking this so personally. When you're loving kids so fiercely and doing all you can for them, it can hurt to hear that they still need their biological parent. However, feeling sad and sulking was not a good long-term plan for me, so I decided that instead of feeling sorry for myself, I’d start putting myself in their shoes. They can love me and love our house but still miss their mom. After all, none of this was their choice. So I’ll give them a hug and say, "Of course you miss your mom, sweetie!" and then I listen to whatever is going on with them. Sometimes they just need to feel they can express whatever emotion they're having at the time and have an adult listen to them and validate that feeling. Other times they might tell me that mommy has been busy lately and they want some one-on-one time with her, which gives us parents a chance to find a solution. Either way, focusing on making sure they feel heard and respected has made a world of difference for them – and for me.
3. Learn to manage change and stress - in a healthy way (with wine)... (kidding)!
Stepfamily life is a living, breathing, organism. Well, not really, but the point is that it’s constantly changing. The problems you had two months ago are different than what they are now. The problems you have now you never thought you'd encounter two months ago! I wish I had reminded myself of this more when I first started out being a stepmom. Something would be going on with the kids, or with Kenton’s ex-wife, and I would get so stressed about how to fix it that it would consume all of my energy - making me less of a great wife and stepmom and more of a crazy person! Usually, though, it would either eventually be resolved or just stop being an issue altogether. Looking back, I think, "WOW, I wasted a lot energy getting worked up over that issue."
So now, when a new issue pops up - for instance, when one of the girls is all of the sudden having trouble going to bed and is crying and getting up every few hours - I don't let it keep me up at night. I still try to think of solutions, but I remind myself that this too shall pass. And guess what - it usually does. The same goes for disagreements over holiday schedules, homework trouble, behavior problems - yes, these things need to be addressed but no one’s going to die and I know that we’ll find a solution.
And every now and then, I’ve learned that it’s healthy to take a step back and remind myself that these aren’t my kids, this isn’t my ex-wife, and that wasn’t my divorce. That reminder can be freeing when I feel I am getting too caught up in whatever’s going on.
4. Fitting in ain’t easy.
Whether it’s family, friends, neighbors or the school community, there are going to be people who aren't receptive to a stepparent taking an active role in their step kids’ lives. But the truth is, a lot of these people either just don't get it - because how could they? it's a tough thing to get! - OR they have their own hang-ups that have nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. So when another mom doesn't reciprocate my efforts to be friendly, or I tell someone I’m a stepmom and they tell me how hard it must be for the biological mom to have another woman helping raise her kids (true story), I smile and let it go. It’s not about me.
The truth is, I may not always fit in seamlessly with other moms or be accepted by everyone. And I can live with that. I find it helpful to focus on doing what I feel is best for my family and my stepdaughters, and find support and friendship from people who do get it (shout out to the Kick-Ass Stepmom Group on Facebook). Connecting with other stepmoms has made this whole experience feel much less isolating and has also helped me care a lot less about 'fitting in' with those who aren't on board with the whole stepparent role.
5. A solid marriage is a must.
Take one new marriage, add one non-amicable divorce, one not-so-happy ex-wife, two young kids, home renovations, job stressors, health issues, life... and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a shit show (pardon my French). Having a strong marriage has been the single most important factor in our life not turning into a shit show thus far.
Kenton and I learned very quickly that we needed to make our marriage SUPER solid - and be a team even when we might not always agree with each other. So while I have my own therapist, which is a huge help, we also found a couples therapist to help us hone our relationship skills and work through our issues with parenting/marriage/the ex/etc. We wouldn’t be where we’re at today without both those supports helping us navigate some tricky situations. We’ve still got work to do, but we’re learning to be solid communicators, we’ve learned what our relationship needs to thrive, and we both understand how this situation affects each other much better than we did before. We work hard to keep our marriage a priority and strive to show the girls what a happy, fun, loving, stable relationship can be.
6. It’s okay to mess up!
You’re going to screw up. I promise! Those who know me know I am a bit of a perfectionist. Unfortunately, perfection is impossible when it comes to parenting and step-parenting. I’ve messed up more times than I can count. I’ve said things I shouldn’t have said, sent texts/emails I shouldn’t have sent, stepped in when I should have butted out, gotten frustrated, made parenting blunders, and so on. Basically, I have been human. But when you’re a stepparent, it’s easy to hold yourself to an even higher standard than any biological parent would. And that's where I've had to learn to give myself a break.
If I've learned anything - it's this: kids are resilient. They really are. My girls know I love them, take care of them, goof off with them, and am there for them - so one not-so-great moment here or there is not going to undo all that. And at best, messing up is a chance for me to set an example for them - I can show them that it's okay to admit when you're wrong, not be too hard on yourself, and try to do better the next time around.
And in the end...
I have to end on a positive, because there are so many awesome things that have come from being a stepmom! Having children in my life has made me realize things about myself that I really like and things about myself that I need to work on, and it's been immensely helpful in terms of working toward becoming a more present, open, grounded, humble, and easy-going person. The girls are constantly teaching me new things about myself and providing me with the opportunity to become a better me. They also bring out my fun, silly side more than anyone else ever has and it is the BEST! We have so much fun running around the house screaming our heads off, making up secret languages, having ridiculous dance parties, having 'tickle-fests' and sleepovers, setting up candy buffets, walking around the neighborhood with our kitten, Leo, while wearing cat ears on our heads... they (for now!) think I am their cool, funny, crazy stepmom, and I think and tell them often that they are the loves of my life. Despite how hard being a stepmom can be, I know I am really really lucky to have these girls and Kenton as my family. I admittedly had no idea what I was getting into two years ago when I told Kenton, "I love kids - bring it on!" - but the more I learn to let go and embrace the crazy, the more I love being a stepmom!