I’ve seen the Disney movies. I know stepparenting isn’t an easy gig.
But after taking the plunge and marrying my husband Gabe and his entourage of three sweet children, I was still shocked to come up sputtering for air and flailing wildly. In what seemed like seconds, I was drowning. My first months and years as a stepmom were nothing like I imagined. I felt overwhelmed and confused and alone.
Today, many years and frustrations later, when I meet a new stepparent, I drag them into the nearest corner to share the five stepparent secrets I wish I’d known at the start of this adventure.
Truthfully, at first the newbies aren’t always excited to hear what I have to say. My stepparent secrets don’t inspire fist-bumping and back slapping. They can be uncomfortable to hear. But I want new stepparents to know their experience, as jacked-up as it may seem at 3 a.m. locked in the bathroom wondering how this all went down, isn’t unique.
These are the five stepparent secrets I wish an older and wiser stepmom had shared with me at the start of my journey.
1. Loving anyone takes time.
I know you think you get that. You’re projecting a year or two out in the future, and figuring that you can wait. That’s t-i-m-e. I mean T—I—M—E.
The children didn’t choose you. They didn’t ask for you to join the family (even if they actually did, chances are it was to appease their parent #toughlove). They will view you as an interloper, a mid-season replacement to a beloved discontinued series. Even if you are not. Even if you do everything in your power to assert you are not, in fact, a replacement, you will sometimes be viewed as such. It can take years for the children to comfortably and consistently show you love.
Oh, and you may not love them at first either. That doesn’t make you a horrible person, and it doesn’t mean the children are unloveable. It simply means that loving someone takes time because it is built on a foundation of deep knowledge and acceptance. You’re a beginner.
2. You will be expected to do the work of a parent without the recognition.
Doctor’s offices will expect you to know vaccination dates. Schools will expect you to sign folders and find library books and donate baked goods. Store clerks will make eyes at you when the 6-year-old touches each and every candy bar in the checkout line. Strangers will comment on the number of children piling out of your SUV.
That doesn’t mean you’ll make the first draft of the “My Family” picture. You may not be invited to the Mother’s Day breakfast program at preschool. You may not vote on when a child can wear makeup, or take on more responsibility with household chores, or come off the family payroll.
There is a delicate balance to your contribution and your influence as a stepparent. It will surprise you and hurt your feelings and burn your biscuits. It takes some time to get it right.
3. You can’t clean up a mess you didn’t make.
Your partner and his or her ex have a history you do not share. Because you love your partner, you may be tempted to help support him or her as they navigate sticky situations with the ex. Fight the urge. Stay far away from this kind of “help.”
You don’t understand their story or what really happened. You understand your partner’s perspective. You have an inherent bias, a blind spot. You may also be triggered by more interaction with (or just more exposure to) the ex. A triggered partner isn’t helpful or supportive to your love.
Support your ex by recommending he or she seek counseling for any issues still surfacing with the ex. And then step out and focus on creating the happiest and healthiest partnership possible. Remember, those two have failed at marriage once already. Don’t let both players enter yours.
4. Every family dynamic ebbs and flows.
Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug. Things can be great for one day, one summer, one year, and miserable the next. That’s not about you. That’s about growing kids and changing circumstances and shifting perspectives. That’s life.
Don’t overthink a bad day or week and don’t grow too comfortable in the good ones. Things change.
5. You will miss the life you might have had, but you won’t trade this one.
It’s normal and okay to daydream about a life without color-coded calendars and kids pulled between adults. It’s normal to think about what might have been if you hadn’t fallen in love with someone who came with a mini-entourage. Maybe it would be simpler and less expensive and less heartbreaking to begin together at the start of everyone’s story.
But you’d miss this one. Every memory you make includes this broad cast of characters and their current idiosyncrasies and that partner you love madly. This life in progress is the one that was meant for you, despite its nontraditional path and sometimes-frustrating obstacles. This story, with everyone in it, is yours.