The Smart Stepmom—Who is She?
“I wish I had learned this stepfamily stuff before I got remarried,” Jessica, a one-year stepmom shared. “I assumed we would bond and blend easily. I want to love my husband’s kids the same way I do my own family. I had no idea the issues we would face.”
As a stepmom of more than 35 years, I understand this woman’s concerns. A few months into my second marriage I was discouraged by the complexities associated with being a stepmother of two boys aged 11 and 13. Learning how to function in a blended family has been a process for all of us. But I did discover a few helpful tips toward becoming a smart stepmom.
Stepfamilies are Birthed Out of Loss
When a marriage or parent dies, or the family unit comes apart, it often induces grief, anger, insecurity, and fear in children—whether young or adult. The loss of the original family is the foundation upon which a remarriage is birthed. I’m not saying the remarriage isn’t founded on love. But rather that there would be no stepfamily situation if the first family hadn’t expired.
Why does it matter? It’s crucial for any woman dating, engaged, or married to a man with kids to understand that the shattered dreams, frustrations, uncertainty, and pain from the first family will likely overflow into the second marriage. And the emotions associated with the loss of the nuclear family were present long before the stepmom enters the picture.
A Healthy Stepfamily Takes Time
One of the most common misconceptions about stepfamilies is that everyone will bond quickly and smoothly.
Stepfamily expert Ron Deal shares, “The average stepfamily takes seven years to integrate. Parents want to believe their kids will be okay, thus the power of hope blinds couples to the realities of stepfamily integration.” (1)
Many couples enter a remarriage without researching or believing that it’s not uncommon for the kids to struggle. When parents attempt to rush or force the relationship between stepchildren and stepparent, it creates tension.
The Kids (young or old) Need Dad
A smart stepmom encourages her husband to spend time alone with his children. Kids, even if they are adults, often view Dad’s new relationship as a threat. The best way she can combat those fears is to help her husband set up specific times where it’s just him and his kids. During that special time, their bond with dad is solidified and secured.
The number one statement from stepkids who express why they feel such frustration, anger or depression after dad gets remarried is, “It feels like I lost my father. We used to do stuff together but now I must share him with his new wife and her kids. I lost him. I don’t matter anymore.”
As an adult, we might think, “That’s ridiculous, they still have a dad.” But that’s the adult brain speaking to us, not the underdeveloped or wounded brain of a child. Whether they are 8, 18, or 38 it’s their perception of what’s true for them, not for us. That understanding is the key to healing.
Jealousy is Normal
As immature as it sounds, it’s very common for a stepmom to feel jealous of the closeness between kids and dad.
“I feel ridiculous,” stepmom Jenna whispered, “But when my stepkids snuggle up to their dad on the couch it makes me jealous. I feel like an outsider like I don’t belong. I become sad and resentful. Aren’t I terrible?”
No, Jenna—you aren’t. You are normal. A smart stepmom learns this is a common emotional ambushed for stepmoms and it’s why stepfamilies are so radically different than biological families.
A smart stepmom learns how to take gut wrenching emotion and let God teach her how to overcome them.
Here are a few helpful suggestions I learned:
- Attend or form a healthy, safe stepmom support group. This is where she can learn, grow and de-stress. God knows there is wisdom and healing in gathering eye-to-eye with those who understand.
- Calmly communicate your feelings to your spouse. Come up with a “code word” so that he will know when the “outside the circle” feeling has gone on too long. He can help to draw you into the conversation, etc.
- Read and Learn. Fortunately, today’s stepmom has resources I didn’t have when I became a stepmom. Learning what’s common, wise, worthy of boundaries, and standard stepfamily dynamics is a huge benefit. A good resource that helps a stepmom define what’s broken, and why, goes a long way toward healing.
- Discover Your Role. Before marriage, most stepmoms think their situation as a stepmom is going to be something it realistically isn’t or shouldn’t be.
- Does a Dream Need to Die? For many stepmoms like myself, we had an image of what our blended family would look and feel like after forming. I blame it on Brady Bunch reruns. Christians, above all people, should be realistic. Once you discover some of the things you dreamed would occur, aren’t going to, or haven’t yet, it becomes easier to embrace the truth.
- Pray. When is the last time you prayed for your husband’s former wife? YIKES! That one stings. It’s amazing how God will soften your heart, and give you clearer thinking, decision-making when you pray for someone. This goes double if they have hurt you.
The Marriage Must Come First
Thirty percent of people remarry within a year after a divorce, and many do not take into account the tug-of-war between the spouse and their kids which may result. (2)
If a marriage is going to flourish, it’s necessary for the relationship to become the priority. However, guilt may prevent one or both parents from placing the marriage before the children. If the marriage is going to survive, the dad and stepmom must create a unified team. Working through the issues which cause stress can build a firm foundation.
God Can Teach You How to Love
Many stepmoms deal with stepkids who are difficult and unloving. Remember that hurt people—hurt people. It’s not uncommon to love your stepkids differently than you do your own biological children. However, the goal must be to learn how to love your husband’s children even if they never love you in return.
This doesn’t mean becoming a “doormat,” and ignoring rude, disrespectful behavior. It does mean learning to love sacrificially is going to take time, patience, and training. (Philippians 2:2-5)
My journey as a stepmom has been filled with mistakes and victories. One of my greatest pleasures is to use my experience to help other stepmoms.
My stepsons are now adults with families of their own. And it ain’t over – we continue to build our relationship.
(1) Ron Deal, The Smart Stepfamily, (Bloomington, MN, Bethany House, 2002), p 64
(2) Ganong & Colman, Stepfamily Relationships: Development, Dynamics, and Interventions. (New York, Kluwer Academic, 2004) p.68