by Shadra Bruce
I am very lucky to have been involved in the raising of five wonderful children, two of whom are my birth children (an 11-year old son and an 8-year old daughter) and three that I inherited by marrying their father, who retained custody of the children after divorcing their mother. I’ve learned some things on this journey that seem important to share with anyone who is a step mom or is planning to marry into a stepmother role:
1. In the children’s eyes, you are the final and most obvious symbol of their dashed hopes that their parents might someday work things out, so don’t be surprised if it takes a while for them to warm up to you.
2. There cannot be two sets of rules – daddy rules and wicked stepmother rules – you and your spouse should communicate regularly and have a united set of family rules that everyone lives by.
3. Do not try to compete with them-your husband loves you, but he loves them too. Don’t put your spouse in the middle of every tangle.
4. If you cannot open your heart to his children, do not marry him.
5. They are kids, you are the adult – they are supposed to make things difficult, and you are supposed to rise above it.
6. Children need consistency to build trust. Provide it with an open heart and mind.
7. The kids do not go away just because you said I do. They were there before you started dating, and they will always be a part of your life and his.
8. It is ok to demand time for just you and your husband-no kids, whether they are his, hers, or yours.
9. It is normal to feel a little insecure at times about where you stand-sometimes you are the outsider and they’ve had special memories without you, but it’s a sign of a healthy relationship when you can communicate those insecurities to your spouse and he understands and can help make you feel more a part of things (Dave shared old family videos with me so that I knew that the kids were like when they were little).
10. You have the right to be treated with respect, and your spouse should demand it of his children (he can’t make them love you, call you mom, or forge a friendship, but he can demand that they behave properly).
11. Be nice to the ex-wife. Period.
12. Never, ever, ever say anything disparaging about the children’s mother if there is even a remote possibility they will hear it-from you or anyone else.
13. If you and the new spouse have children, don’t forget that no matter how you feel about your step kids, your children will love them because they are siblings and will not want them treated poorly or differently.
14. Grin and bear shared holidays and birthdays-all the kids deserve to be with their families.
15. They don’t have to call you “mom” to have a parent-child relationship with you. It’s not the word that is important!
16. Be flexible. Realize that your husband has to balance many roles, and he needs your support and love, not criticism and manipulation.
17. Never, ever discuss child support, custody issues, or legal issues in front of the kids.
18. Give the kids time to get to know you BEFORE you get married-and give yourself time to get to know them.
19. Don’t berate your spouse in front his children. (This actually applies to your biological children equally as well).
20. Be prepared for tumultuous times-the children may try to test you, push you, find your boundaries. Be firm, pick your battles wisely, and remember that they ARE kids who are trying to find they’re way through an awkward situation they never asked for.
21. Biology does not make her a better mother than you, but children will only learn that over time, and only if you let them.
22. Children only want to please. If you just care and love and pay attention, they will respond and fill your heart.
23. If something does go wrong, don’t bury it-talk about it, with your spouse, with the kids. You’re a family, regardless of biology, so act like one.
24. Divorce is a life-altering moment for most children, and there will be issues of insecurity and fear that arise. Be there if they want to talk, reassure them that ALL of their parents love them, and help them work through their feelings.
25. Biology is only one way to be a mom. Tucking a kid into bed every night, being there for every success and failure along the way, holding their hair out of the way when they throw up-those things count, too whether or not you gave birth.
I have been raising my stepchildren for over half their lives now, and other than making the distinction for the sake of this article, I do not ever refer to them as “steps.” They’re just my kids, just as much as my birth children, and I’m grateful to have them in my life.