Please, Before you Become a Step-Parent…

blended families

I sat drinking coffee with a small group of moms.  We chatted about the various struggles each of us has with our children.

“Suzie has started telling fibs,” One mom confessed.  “Oh, we’ve been there,” another empathized, “We had to really crack down hard.  Be consistent; you’ll figure it out.”

“Johnnie just won’t potty train,” lamented a third mom.  We all took a sip of coffee and agreed she should be patient; after all no one sends their kids to college in diapers.

Round and round the circle we went.  Venting, laughing, telling stories, offering advice.   When suddenly, a newer friend, bouncing a young baby on her lap, jumped in, “I really don’t like my step-son right now,” She confided.  “He’s kind of a brat. He’s disrespectful, rude, he refuses to do his chores.  He’s ten but he acts like he’s four.  To be honest, I really dread when he comes over; he throws the whole family into chaos.”

The group went silent.  Someone offered an uncomfortable, “I’m so sorry.  I’ve heard blending families can be very difficult.”  Everyone nodded.

My heart seized.

I have no idea what it is like to be a step-mom—to invite and accept another woman’s child into my home and heart.  I don’t know what it is like to try to parent a child who already has two parents.  I don’t know what is like to have all the responsibility of parenting without any of the authority.   I imagine it is very difficult.  I imagine it can be very painful.

While I don’t know what it is to be a step-parent, I do know what it is to be a step-child.  I know what it is to lose a family and then try to piece together a new one with strangers.   I know what it is to feel like  a guest at home.  I know what it is to have the sense that you are a disruption and interruption.  I know what is to sometimes have your worst and most vulnerable moments on display in front of someone who is an outsider.

It is exhausting.  It is excruciating.  It is maddening.  It is frightening.  It is awkward.

As I listen to my friend vent, I empathize less with her and more with him.  “Of course,” I want to scream, “he’s acting like a four-year old.  Think how hard it is for you to figure out your place in this new family, and you’re an adult; can’t you imagine how difficult it is for him?”  But I stay silent  because  I know she’s agonizing over this; I know learning to be step-parent has been difficult on her, and she deserves support too.

As I take the downward slide toward 40, I seem to know and meet more and more blended families. I hear the gripes and tales of  weary step-mothers mixed with the gripes and tales of the mothers.  Always, I think, their complaints and frustrations are valid; but, as I listen I can’t help wondering  what they thought they were getting into, what they expected.  I can’t help wondering what they did before the wedding to prepare for the blending.

Right now I have another friend who is engaged to man with a daughter.   Not long ago, over plates of eggs, she asked for my advice.  What, she wanted to know, should she do to make this little girl feel welcome.

We talked about the obvious:  my friend and her fiancé need to have long detailed conversations about discipline, values, and responsibilities.  The girl should have a room in their home, her space and belongings.  My friend should work to become a trusted mentor.  The girl should get alone time with her dad.  They should establish family rituals, traditions and routines.  But as we chatted another need bubbled to the surface in the form of a difficult memory.

It was Christmas and we were visiting my step-mother’s family a few towns over.  It was obvious when they opened the door that they were not expecting my sister and me.  The look on my step-aunts face was a mix of confusion and horror.  The tree brimmed with gifts for my step-brother, the family’s biological grandson and nephew, but not one gift was there for us.   Not even a small one meant to be sent on later.

I watched my step-mom and her sister disappear and return a few moments later with two small packages which they snuck under the tree.  I was old enough, a young teenager, to understand when I opened the gift and found makeup and perfume samples—the kind you get for free at department store counters—that we had been forgotten.   We were not expected at the party, so we did not exist to them.

Over the years there would be other unwelcoming moments, and  each of these moments, these family omissions, led to feelings of isolation, bitterness and resentment, and not just for me. The lack of acceptance by my step-mom’s family also led to many disagreements and hard feelings between my father and his wife.   Which I’m sure had no small impact on the ultimate failing of their marriage.

I looked across the breakfast table at my happily engaged friend and felt the need to add to my advice.  Don’t, I implored her, get married unless YOUR family is willing to take on his daughter too. Blending a family is about more than a wedding and some kids. It’s about more than an agreement on how involved you can be in discipline or whether you’ll go to parent-teacher conferences.  Children need a family.  A whole family.  They need to feel welcomed, safe, protected, enjoyed.  And if you can’t offer them that; if your parents and siblings refuse to offer them that, you should really rethink getting married.  Kids don’t deserve in-laws, especially the difficult kind– they deserve family.  And if you’re going to marry into kids, you have to be willing and able to give them that.

Just my two cents.


7 thoughts on “Please, Before you Become a Step-Parent…

  1. Carmen says:

    Wow. Your childhood experience sounds awful, I am so sorry to hear this. That said, the stepmother in your post’s intro and I have a lot in common. It’s hard, and most of the time is fine, and I daresay I am damn proud at how my family has accepted my stepdaughter as one of the family. I love her, and I do a lot of caretaking, and I have almost no say on how she is raised. Even in my own home. That she has not been required to learn respectfulness at her other home spills over to mine. So frustrating, right? Should I have let that stop me and my husband from getting together? Because I am disappointed in my little girl and her behavior?

    • momupsidedown5 says:

      No Carmen, I don’t think that at all. My point isn’t that the struggles of step-parenthood should keep two people from getting married, but that the step-parent involved (and his/her family) should be ready to love the child and bring the child into the fold. Which it sounds like you are doing! I’m not a step-mom, but as a mother I know how frustrating kids and their behavior can be, and I’m sure that is amplified when you have little say! Keep doing what you’re doing mama, it sounds like you’re doing great!

  2. Yvonne says:

    I have been a stepmom now for many years. Lets just say my step children now have grandchildren. You are right that people need to think before they get married about the responsibilities of being a step. It is a fine line you walk with the kids being the casualties when mistakes are made. The one rule I insisted on was there were no steps. There are only family. I don’t think most of the grandchildren even realize that I am not blood related to them.

    Even after all these years, there is times I resent all the time that the kids, grandkids and great grand kids take up. But I shallow it because I know that this is what I signed up for.

  3. Mary Ann says:

    I was so touched by this post. I can’t even begin to understand what it must be like to be a part of a family torn apart by divorce or death and then having to deal with the fact of step-families. You are an amazing person to share what obviously is a very painful (and understandably so) experience. I continue to say you and Courtney are very brave people to open your lives to all of us and to share really important messages. You may have saved many people from hurting so many–both young and old. You have given us so much to think about. Thank you.

  4. mcguiregirl2248 says:

    I’m a step-mom. I took on the responsibility when I was 25…. I was young and delusional. I had fantastic dreams that my soon to be step-son and I would always get a long great and we would have the perfect family until his mother constantly undermined everything that I said and did. It ended up that 6 years after I married his dad, we received custody of him. Best thing that could have happened I thought. I raised this child as my own and my family always treated him and still does as he always has been a part of the family, never forgotten at the holidays or birthdays, he had his own room always, his own things but it wouldn’t be enough at times. His mother was constantly in the background telling him to lie to us and do things that she knew would never fly at our home. He tried to run away when he was 13 and finally once he was in high school it seemed to settle down until wonder mom messed with his head again….. come and live with me she said as she made all this vacant promises just to get him enticed enough to want to leave. We soon got to the bottom of that and worked it all out so he didn’t leave. My goal was to get him through high school. I was the mom at the football games, not her. I was the mom helping behind the scenes with the lunches and the concession stands, taking him to practice, picking him up. Supporting him while he chased after his dream of becoming a chef while in the culinary program at school. Watching as his culinary team win the state title. Mom was no where to be found. He made it clear at graduation that his grandparents and my husband and I were the most important people to him when he gave us the roses and left his mom and step-dad sitting with not even a nod. We have had many ups and downs, constant bold face lying, sneaking, stealing. Things that have broken my heart because I love him like he is my child. He is now 22 years old, engaged and only comes to see our family, not is mother’s at the holidays. He lives 6 miles from us and stops by from time to time. We must have done something right but it is hard………. so very, very hard. Even if she takes your advice……. it is hard. It can be done though.

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