What I've Learned from Stepping Into (Step)Motherhood
Becoming a mother was never on my radar. Then, I became a stepmother and found that t’s just as messy, chaotic, instantaneous, and identity-shifting as the “real thing.”
Stepmothers have received a lot of bad press in media and film over the years. They’re often portrayed as evil, overbearing, and mean to their stepchildren. In short, they don’t do anything to make what’s already a difficult transition any easier.
I am a stepmother. And I don’t deem myself evil or mean; rather, I am the stepmother who calls her stepsons my kids. While I don’t know what it’s like to have my own biological children, I love and care for my stepsons as if they were my own. And although I didn’t carry them for nine months, I have a bond with them that is unshakeable.
I came into stepmotherhood like many stepmothers before me. I dated my husband for a while and was slowly introduced into my stepsons lives. I was recently divorced, and having kids was never a thought that crossed my mind. But my stepsons stole my heart, and so did their father. We got married, and my transition from girlfriend to wife and stepmother was nothing short of a train wreck.
Step one of becoming a step mother was figuring out my relationship to the biological mother.
At the time of our whirlwind courthouse marriage, my husband’s relationship with the boys’ biological mother was tumultuous, to say the least—the less she knew about us, the better. When I became the boys’ stepmother, their mother knew very little about me, my relationship with her ex-husband, and my relationship with her children. I naively expected this woman to embrace me immediately.
Right after our marriage, my husband was stationed overseas with the military. I stayed in the States and lived forty-five minutes away from my stepsons. At my insistence, my husband emailed bio-mom on several occasions to meet me in person, to let me have time with the kids in his absence. The emails often met with responses such as, “Tess will never be a part of the boys’ lives.” I was angry and hurt.
After a few volatile incidents, one that the boys witnessed, I learned to take a deep breath and a big step back. None of us were putting the boys’ best interest as a priority. I stopped asking my husband to defend me or speak for me; I didn’t get out of the car during timesharing exchanges. When the boys called my husband, I let him have his time on the phone, without interruption. I learned to quit inserting myself into everything involving my stepsons, and I stopped expecting instant acceptance and trust from bio-mom.
Fast-forward five years later—it has taken work. A lot of hard work, and a ton of patience. The boys’ mother accepts me as their stepmother, and that’s about it. We don’t necessarily embrace each other; we’ve had our moments, good and bad, and we will never be BFFs. But I can say that lifting her up as their mother has made being a stepmother a lot easier on everyone. My stepsons constantly get an earful from me about respecting their mother, a speech that I’m sure they can recite in their sleep. I only speak of their mother in a positive light. I help them understand how hard their mother works to give them the comfortable life that they have. I support her decisions in regard to discipline and punishment in order to present a united front.
The respect I have received in return from both my stepsons and bio-mom is priceless.
Additionally, the tiny gestures we make toward each other keep our relationship respectful and cordial. If my husband can’t FaceTime with the boys, bio-mom is perfectly fine with me speaking to them. I make an effort to send bio-mom pictures of the boys when they are with us. We aren’t moving heaven and Earth for each other, but it’s the little niceties that keep our relationship stable and forward-moving.
Forming a relationship with my bio-mom was hard. But stepping into motherhood was even harder.
Oftentimes the assumption is that dealing with a bio-mom is the greatest challenge for stepmothers, that otherwise it’s blue skies and easy sailing. The biggest challenge for me, however, has been losing my identity, finding it again, maintaining it, and repeating this cycle over and over—just as many biological mothers often feel.
I consider myself a strong, independent, no-nonsense woman. Motherhood can make me feel like the complete opposite of that. Now I feel it is my daily goal to see how many people I can make happy in a very short period of time—my kids, my husband, bio-mom. I am anxious and overly cautious, and I rely heavily on my husband to lead the way. I love him dearly, but relying on him to be the guiding light is not my style. Our marriage tends to be a partnership, so feeling like the woman who needs “rescuing” goes against my entire belief system.
Here’s a short preview of the thoughts that run through my head when I’m in stepmom mode: “Are the kids happy? Is my husband happy? Am I trying too hard with the kids, or taking too much time away from my husband? Am I communicating too much with bio-mom, or too little? Am I trying to discipline them too much, or not enough? Is it okay to talk to them like that? Oh shit! I cursed in front of them. They are damaged forever!”
The identity crisis of motherhood is not lost on stepmothers.
This is not who I am as a person—it’s who I am as a stepmother. In the first few years of my reign as stepmother, I lived with these emotions even when the boys were not with us. Part of this is due to the fact that I have chronic anxiety and I am a worrier. The other part is simply because I was concerned about being judged—by bio-mom, friends and family, and society as a whole.
Let me clarify: I have been judged, many, many times. It is no secret that our society harshly judges women and mothers for practically everything.
There is, in my opinion, a special type of judgement reserved solely for stepmothers. We are too hands-on or overstepping our boundaries. Or we aren’t hands-on enough and relegate too much responsibility to Dad. We don’t stay in our lane. We don’t communicate enough. I’ve heard and been subject to these judgements and many more by friends and family, as well as bio-mom. Oddly enough, I’ve even been involved in several stepmom support groups on social media, only to be judged and ridiculed when venting my frustrations or simply asking for advice.
In thinking about how to grapple with this shift, I realized it’s about figuring out what’s best for you and your family, and giving the middle finger to societal norms and expectations. No two blended family situations are the same. If you are a blended family, you will often find yourself admiring other blended families and wondering, “Why can’t we all just get along?” Well, that’s not reality, sister.
Here’s what I’ve come to terms with. I do not expect a perfect family. I will not always be liked; there will be arguments, and my stepchildren will wholeheartedly dislike me at times. I will not try to measure up to bio-mom. It’s not a competition. No matter how much I disagree with her and/or her parenting style, she is their mother, and there is no one on this Earth like her. I do not compare myself with bio-mom, as we are completely different. Although my bond with my stepsons is unshakeable, she physically made my stepsons, and there is no bond like a mother and her children. I can’t top that, and I respect that bond tremendously.
I will pick my battles and remain respectful, even when the children are not involved. And, most importantly, I will stop expecting perfection from myself! Although stepmotherhood is not an organic process, I will do my best to let it happen as naturally as possible, without forcing the relationships with my stepchildren and bio-mom.
I am grateful for my experiences as a stepmother, and I don’t typically live with regrets. These experiences have shaped me into the woman and stepmother I am today and will continue to mold me. I feel as though I was an infant five years ago, and now I’ve blossomed into a woman who can literally slay dragons. It’s a clichéd analogy, but that feeling is extremely empowering.
Remember, step-momma, that every single day is a work in progress. Don’t lose you or your voice, because knowing who you are in the midst of all the chaos is sometimes the only key to sanity.
Tess Massey is a wife, stepmom to twin boys, and mom to Lola the Italian dog. She’s a traveler at heart, and has a strong passion for writing, reading and learning.