Let’s be real, stepfamily situations can blow at times. However, despite their challenges, stepfamilies seem to be the new black. Thirteen hundred new stepfamilies are formed each day according to the US Census (this info is from the 1990’s but it’s hard to find current stats). In embracing the times, we need to embrace stepfamilies. As a stepmom, I am well aware of the challenges associated with embracing stepfamilies.
I have two stepkids, each from a different marriage. This situation has brought me many challenges, and quite a bit of awareness around the intricacies and numerous differences possible within stepfamilies. Stepfamilies are a bit like snowflakes; no two are alike. My husband also grew up with quite a few divorces (imagine that) ultimately setting the stage for divorce dynamics in his own families. My parents have been married for 43 years, though not always happily. This contrast in upbringing, my rather hardcore Aries spirit, and, my background in the social sciences has made the stepmom journey an interesting life challenge. I’m not sure if I’ve had more days wondering what the hell was wrong with me to stay in such a challenging situation, or, days where I am grateful and happy in my life. I do know that I have more of the later now. My husband is usually worth it, and now I have a baby girl which has brought some new confusing dynamics to our situation, but, boundless love between the three of us.
Below are a few things I have learned from my experience. I am well aware that every situation is different and that these things do not apply to every situation. My intent is to put this out there for anyone that may benefit.
1. Every situation is different.
There is no cookie-cutter solution to problems within step-families. Some stepmoms have been with kids since they were nine months old, and some since they were twelve years old. This difference alone will create completely different family dynamics, and this is only one of many possible factors at play. Relationships between two people alone are intricate and unique. In stepfamilies, there are many moving pieces tugging at relationships. It can be difficult to navigate and find reliable supportive information.
I have found that navigation requires self-awareness. You have to be willing to take time to understand your own feelings and then try to handle them in an adult manner. This can be challenging because it can take time to understand what exactly is bothering you. Then, you have to begin to work at understanding other family members feelings’ as well. Their feelings will not be the same as yours or that of a biological family.
Stepmoms have a particularly challenging role. Mom’s are often the emotional keepers of families. You have to gauge how much of this you can actually take on. Many times it is not a healthy place to be, and as a stepmom, you are allowed to check out because many times it has nothing to do with you. Most likely, it will affect you, however. I took on other peoples problems as a way of self-protection. If I could fix the chaos I would be in a safer place. This turned out to be true but it was not a fun ride that I would take again.
2. The Outsider.
Anyone who has had any experience with divorce has felt like an outsider within their own family. It is not exclusive to stepparents and frankly, it’s a really shitty feeling. The outsider feeling does not build strong families. Couples have to work extra hard at creating unity when kids from other relationships are involved. It is not a natural progression and relationships, especially new ones, can only take so much drama. Your relationship becomes the foundation that shoulders the blows of emotional trauma associated with divorce. In my experience, a stepmom cannot feel like an outsider in her own relationship. The entire family will suffer and probably fall apart.
3. Many times, it’s the dynamics, not the people.
Try not to displace frustration or anger onto people when it has more to do with the situation. Of course, this is not always the case but I have found this helpful when trying to resolve problems because it makes the situation less about a person being inadequate and more about a situation being challenging. This gives family members an opportunity to identify challenges and try to deal with them in a safe environment.
4. Stepfamilies require comfort with spacious relationships.
People have more dynamics to work through in stepfamilies. Don’t be offended if your stepson needs a year to figure some shit out. Embrace this for your own personal well-being. This space can take some getting used to if you were not raised amongst divorce. When people need space, give it to them. When you need space, take it. Don’t worry about it. However, space should not be used as a weapon. That is an unhealthy dynamic. There is a line.
5. Stepfamilies can feel unnatural.
Often times something just feels wrong, particularly if you were not raised in a stepfamily. Allow relationships to develop into whatever they will be.
6. See the situation for what it is.
This takes communication but the quicker people can accept the situation for what it is, the easier it is to deal with the problems at hand. This, of course, means that you need to understand what is going on. For example, does your partner understand how you experience the difference between a stepmom and a biological mom? There are all sorts of scenarios here. Clear roles make everyone’s lives easier, but of course this is easier said than done. Communication is key. Also, bear in mind that relationships take more time to grow in stepfamilies and allow space for this to happen.
7. It doesn’t end, but certain times are better than others.
The dramas associated with stepfamilies come in waves. There are times when you can focus on building your relationship with your partner and times when you have to focus on taking care of yourself because of the chaos in which you are surrounded. Take advantage of these times for what they are.
8. You have been robbed of building a foundation at the beginning of a relationship and possibly of many other things.
This was a learning curve for me. I have felt robbed of many things. One example would be a “normal family”. There was no way for me to know the variety of things that I would have felt robbed of. These feelings surfaced again after I had my baby, something I did not at all expect at all. It sucks but it is always your choice. Can you make something good out of the situation?
9. Stepmoms are human. Don’t try to be perfect.
You have weaknesses just like everyone else. Stepmoms are expected to be superhuman. Sometimes it can seem as though there is no space for your imperfections as they can be magnified exponentially. Become comfortable with your weaknesses and recognize them. This will set the tone that everyone else can be human too. A safe family accepts people for who they are.
10. Some days it’s just not worth it.
Some days your relationship is just not worth the struggle of stepfamily dynamics. If you are in a solid relationship these days will be few, but they will be there. The days come and go, don’t hold onto them unless there are too many of them. If you decide for yourself that there are too many, your relationship may not be worth it. It is always your choice. Just know that you are not alone and that most stepmoms feel that way too.
11. Seven Stages of Stepfamily Development
This model has been the only thing that I have found to be helpful in seeing the process that is unfolding. A light at the end of the tunnel if you will. http://www.steptogether.org/development.html There are quite a few versions of this on the internet. Find one with wording that works for you.
12. You will be underappreciated, judged, and feel isolated at times as a stepmom.
Being a stepmom will force you to be solid in who you are and stronger than you thought you could be. That is the only way you will make it through. There will be people who judge you because they don’t have a clue. You will have friends and family who have no clue what you endure and what you bring to your situation. You may isolate yourself. It is a journey. In the end, you are the only person whose judgments can affect you. Use this to your advantage and be patient with those who do not understand. They probably haven’t experienced the complications of divorce.
In closing, yesterday I went to yoga. While in savasana, the left and right side of my body felt very different. Both were tight in different places, I believe my left hip and right shoulder were tight and I just felt uneven, something I am getting used to as I near 40. Instead of fidgeting to make myself more comfortable, I just laid still. Eventually, certain parts of my body began to release; parts that I didn’t even notice before. It was all subtle but reminded me that there are always things under the surface of tension that we are not aware of. I like to go straight to the tension, but usually, the source of tension is somewhere else. Sometimes you just have to get comfortable with how things are, and then change happens. I do believe that you need to be willing to go deep when it comes to being a stepparent. It is a challenging journey within the self and your relationship.