Mother’s Day can be the loneliest holiday for stepmoms. The children they are helping to raise are with their mothers. They’ve often helped create something special for the children’s mother and often the work they do is not acknowledged.
“You go to Starbucks and they don’t know you’re not a mother and they wish you a Happy Mother’s Day,” says Kendall Rose. She along with three friends formed The Stepmoms’ Club and now she writes about becoming a stepmother and the challenges of this unappreciated role.
In “The Stepmoms’ Club: How to be a Stepmom Without Losing your Money, Your Mind and Your Marriage” ($15.99, Source Books), Rose shares stories and wisdom learned after 15 years of helping to raise her husband’s children from another marriage. Rose, which is a pen name she chose after her’s and her grandmother’s imaginary tea names, uses that name to protect her stepchildren. All the names in the book are not real names, but they are real women with real stories of how hard it is to be in this role.
How do you overcome the “wicked stepmother” stereotype perpetuated by Disney and make it work? The biggest rule is to always focus on the children and their needs.
“When parents don’t get along, they’re not focus on the issue at hand what’s going to be be most beneficial for the child or children,” she says. “That’s when we see the strife.”
Sometimes you have to put your needs last and take a step back. “There are times when the children really want you to be involved,” she says. “And there are other times looking for mother and father to be in that situation, even if it’s difficult as a stepmom that wants to be involved.”
You put the kids’ needs first, which is always the right answer.
That might mean that the mom, not you, shops for the dress to the dance, or that you sit with the mom in the bleachers at the game so that the kid doesn’t have to look for two different sets of parents. It might mean that there are times when you take a step back and let the biological parents get all the public acknowledgement.
Rose recommends entering into the relationship slowly and with knowledge. It will take some time to decide what this relationship is. “Making it into a big deal turns it into a big deal,” she says.
Instead, do more informal introductions, slowly start spending more time with them rather than launching head-first into part-time or full-time mom.
She recommends waiting until it’s very clear that this relationship is going to be permanent.
“In a new relationship, you’re still learning about one another, and then you’re learning about another family’s dynamics,” she says.
Once you do enter into the relationship, fill yourself with knowledge. That means you’ve read the divorce decree and all the custody documentation. You know what the rules are for how much time the children will be with their father, how holidays are divided and how much child support is each month.
This and a conversation with your partner will help you figure out what your role as stepmom will be. “Don’t make the assumption that you’re jumping full feet into the water, and you’re taking on the role of the mother,” she says. “They have a biological mother. Know where you fit within the family dynamics.”
You also have to figure out what your house rules are, which might be very different than Mom’s house rules. And then you have to figure out if it makes sense for you to be the main enforcer of these rules, for their father to be or for you both to be.
“There is something so important about letting go,” Rose says. “It sounds so much easier than it is. It’s about not getting caught up in what happens elsewhere.”
Often, the kids won’t be so welcoming to you. After all, this wasn’t something they got a choice in. “Tread lightly,” Rose says. “Try to connect with them on some level. Ease into it.”
Recognize that they might blame you for the breakup of their parents’ marriage or they might feel like liking you is a betrayal to their mother. You also don’t know what they’re being told at their other house.
“You have to let it play out over time,” she says. “Don’t try to be everything to everyone.”
Stepmoms have to recognize that there’s a lot they are not in control of: the terms of the divorce, the way the other parent parents. “There are things you can’t change, but you can change how you react to things,” Rose says.
Stepmoms are often the last to know important details like what’s going on at school because the teachers often primarily communicate with mom, maybe dad. You can make sure that you’re on the emergency contact list, that you’re on the teacher’s email that goes to all the parents, that you are in contact with any coaches or after-school activity provider. Rose also suggests giving the teacher a box of self-addressed stamped envelopes for them to mail to you a copy of any papers that might be going to home to the other house.
Recognize that there are parts of the children’s life that you’ve missed and are going to miss. And yes, they will talk about that time when they were little and said the funniest thing or their favorite stuffed animal, and you won’t be able to tell them more about that. “You have to let it go,” she says. “You weren’t there, as much as it hurts.”
There are some wonderful things, too, about being a stepmom. Often they come at unexpected times when you get a nice note or a card and you know that you mattered. “The smallest thing has the biggest impact,” she says.
And when a blended family works, it’s incredibly rewarding, Rose says.
“Parents can love multiple children; children can love multiple parents,” she says. “Sometimes it’s just a little bumpy, but they can get there.”