Most of the stepmothers I know didn't grow up thinking, "Hey, someday I'm going to be a stepmom. I can't wait." Nevertheless, I grew up to be the stepmother to three and my sister—brave sister that she is—grew up to marry a man who is the widowered father of six. And the reality is, my sister and I both have friends who grew up to be stepmothers as well. If you are a stepmother or know someone who is, here are a few suggestions for making the most of blended family life.
Make your marriage the top priority.
Be assured, a blended family can be no stronger than the marriage that brought it together. The tricky thing, though, is that, given your instant family, your marriage can slide to the backburner once the wedding is behind you. Nevertheless, you owe it to your husband, yourself, and your kids not to let this happen. You can give your marriage the best chance possible if you and your spouse will choose to give your marriage two important essentials: good communication and a regular date night.
When it comes to communication, do your best to share uninterrupted talk-time every day, perhaps early in the morning before the children wake or after they go to bed at night. Do everything you can to have a regular date night, each week if possible—a night when you and your husband can be just a couple and have time to focus exclusively on the two of you.
Get to know your stepchildren.
Whether your stepchildren live with you or not, do your part to get to know them. If you do this, you will quickly learn there is much to love about them. One of the best gifts you can give your stepkids is a listening ear. There are few things more affirming to any child than feeling heard.
So, be a good listener but also be observant. What are their likes and dislikes as far as food, hobbies, movies, and so on? Who are their friends? When do they seem happiest? When do they seem down? Pay attention and you will find ways to connect with them in conversation, in the gifts you give them, and in the activities you share with them.
Create a positive vision of stepmotherhood.
Of all the stepmothers in movies and books, how many were portrayed as a positive force in their stepchildren's lives? Very few to none, I'd guess. In other words, literature and film cast you as the wicked witch of the blended family long before you ever got started. If you are going to have a positive vision of stepmotherhood, you are going to have to create it for yourself.
Write your own positive fairytale of stepmotherhood, portraying the stepmother as someone who is nurturing and loving, who makes a positive difference. You cannot write the roles for others, but you can write your own role and do your best to carry it out. Do this for your husband and yourself, but also for the stepmothers everywhere who are seeking a positive vision of stepmotherhood.
Support your stepkids in their relationship with their father.
Often when a father remarries, his children perceive the new stepmom as a threat to their relationship with their dad. This is the last thing kids need to worry about when their world has already been rocked by their parents' divorce or the death of their mother.
As a stepmom you can do much to alleviate these concerns by expressing and showing support for the kids' relationship with their dad. Look for opportunities to make simple but reassuring comments such as, "I see that you and your dad both love mystery stories. I think that's wonderful." Take time to have a serious conversation with your stepkids to let them know you will do whatever you can to support them in a relationship with their dad. Best of all, encourage your husband to spend some one-on-one time with each of his kids. The whole family will benefit.
Speak well of your stepkids' mother.
In ideal blended family situations, this should be an easy thing to do but rarely are blended family situations ideal. So, if you are tempted to speak ill of your husband's ex-wife in front of the kids, stop before you start. Such venting will only serve to distance the kids from you and cause setbacks in your overall efforts to create a sense of family.
Instead of venting in front of the kids, discuss your concerns and frustrations with your husband in private (though, keep in check you are doing this, too). And, if possible, together with your husband communicate directly with your stepkids' mother. When your husband's ex-wife does or says something positive, be sure to make a note of it with the kids. If you will honor her place as your stepkids' mother, your stepkids will be more likely to make space for you in their hearts.
Expect respect and revise expectations.
Most stepmoms I know go into stepfamily life with inflated expectations about how they will quickly become one big happy family. It is good to want this, to work toward it, but we can be setting ourselves up for major disappointment and heartache if we expect this to happen on our time schedule.
With this said, I believe each of us, as stepmothers, should expect to be respected in how our stepkids talk to us and treat us. Expecting to be treated respectfully doesn't make it so, but, nonetheless, it is a reasonable expectation and one every stepmom and her husband should encourage their kids in achieving. Be prepared to surrender or revise your expectations when it comes to your blended family life. When you focus on the love and acceptance you give instead of focusing on what you get, you will be more likely to receive the love and acceptance you reasonably desire.
(Almost) never take anything personally.
When children are hurting, stepmoms can be an easy target. After all, the stepmom has been in the family the shortest amount of time and serves as a reminder to the kids that their parents will not be getting back together.
When a stepchild says something that hurts your feelings, ask yourself a couple of questions: Have I said or done something wrong? Is there something I should be doing differently? If you can answer no to both of these questions, recognize that your stepchild may just be expressing their own hurt over their family circumstances in an inappropriate manner. If you give their comments some thought and realize that they have a point, make apologies and consider what changes you might make in the future.
Capitalize on your unique strengths and gifts.
Just as every mom brings special strengths and gifts to family life, so does every stepmother. What unique strengths and gifts do you possess that you can use in nurturing your home and family life?
Do you love reading? Read aloud to your young stepchildren or discuss your older stepchildren's favorite books with them. Do you enjoy cooking or baking? Find out some of your stepchildren's favorite dishes and prepare them as a special surprise.
Take time out from your daily life to make an inventory of the gifts and strengths you bring to the table and determine, in very specific ways, how you can use your unique nature to knit your family together in unity and love.
Connect with other stepmothers.
No one can know exactly what your situation is, but other stepmoms might have a pretty good idea. Discuss the disappointments and difficulties, but don't dwell on the negative. Participating in positive discussions will lighten your load and give you encouragement.
Commit yourself to uplifting and supporting the stepmothers you know. You can do this by providing a listening and compassionate ear. When appropriate, share what has worked for you in your stepfamily and learn from the experiences of other stepmoms. When stepmoms come together, seeking what is best for our families, we can do much to benefit one another.
Be kind to yourself.
Being a stepmom can be tough, sometimes even heartbreaking. I know of a lot of stepmoms who give it everything they've got, but sometimes those same stepmoms neglect to give themselves what they try so hard to give their stepkids: some genuine kindness.
Be kind to yourself. Keep working on the things you can do to improve as a stepmother, but be sure to acknowledge to yourself and your husband the good you are doing when, for example, you create an especially thoughtful birthday celebration for your stepdaughter.
If you're like most of the stepmothers I know, perhaps the kindest thing you can do for yourself is to learn to forgive yourself when you make mistakes and give yourself permission to put those mistakes behind you. Remember, the kinder you are to yourself in your role as a stepmother, the kinder you will be to your stepchildren.
Debra Sansing Woods is the author of two books: The bestseller Mothering with Spiritual Power and It's Okay to Take a Nap: And Other Reassuring Truths for Mothers Everywhere. You can visit her at debrawoods.com.