Ask a Psychologist: How Do I Keep From Screwing Up As A Stepparent?


Making sure the kids really are alright

by Shara M. Brofman, Psy.D.

Q: Dear APW,

I’m having some big anxiety issues.

So, some background (with apologies for my inability to be succinct): my fiancé and I are living together in a house we rented a couple months ago. His kids (ages fifteen and eight) are with us half of the time and with their mom half the time. I don’t have kids. Our wedding is in March, less than six months away. I am getting increasingly nervous (panicked?) about his kids’ acceptance of me, about my ability to be a good stepmom and not screw this up, about my presence in their lives causing them some anguish. I feel a lot of guilt. My fiancé’s divorce was not THAT long before he and I got together and I got to know the kids. (He and I had been friends for years but did not get together until we were both single.) I worry that the kids blame me for the divorce. That they wish I didn’t exist. This makes me feel like they need to be happy all the time when they’re with us, or it’s my fault and they’ll end up hating me.

I should mention that I’ve had no problems with either kid. My fiancé’s teen daughter and I get on shockingly well—we like to watch the same TV shows together, we ran a 5k together, she sends me Facebook messages sometimes when she’s at her mom’s and I haven’t seen her in a few days. His son, the younger kid, definitely likes me (or at least he did initially—I’m never sure lately, but I’m pretty paranoid). He’s very enthusiastic and loud, and made it clear he was happy when I was there. Lately he’s been making a lot of comments, though, about being excited when he goes to his mom’s (I made a nice spreadsheet for our fridge to help the kids keep track of when they’re with whom, and he’ll check it and say things like “Yes, I’m going to Mom’s tomorrow!!”), because he gets to see his cat. My fiancé tries to convince me that this really is just about the cat (who his son is admittedly obsessed with). But I feel terrible anyway.

I’m just so scared of screwing this up, of them hating me, of failing. I just keep finding articles online about second marriages failing, and how hard it is on kids, and basically just listing ways I could be doing damage. I suppose I should also mentioned that I have a history of depression and anxiety, ongoing since I was a teenager. I’m on Zoloft, and I have seen a psychologist in the past. (I think I need to make some new appointments with mine.)

So, my question: I’m not sure. How do I not screw up? Do you have any advice? I just can’t take the anxiety I feel whenever his kids seem less than 100% happy (and sometimes even when they do).

Thanks,

Anon

A: Dear Anon,

The media and larger culture have put all sorts of ideas in our heads about stepmothers, from Cinderella to Julia Roberts. In addition to having some of these negative stereotypes to juggle, there are the significant pressures put on parents today, specifically, the pressures to Be It All/Do It All and to Be the Best Parent. Let’s also acknowledge that entering into a family with children, especially having not yet had children, is very anxiety-provoking in itself. And right now, you are navigating All of the Issues and Feelings of new motherhood, as well as all of the issues related to marriage and entering into and creating a new family. That is enough to make anyone anxious. (Luckily, Meg has written some on-point, relieving, and mind-opening pieces on the topic of motherhood here, here, and here.)

It seems like you are marrying into a truly lovely family. You’ve given some beautiful examples of the positive relationships you have with your fiance’s children. There is no evidence in your letter that his kids are in “anguish.” On the contrary, there is lots of evidence of many positive interactions and feelings between you, your fiancé, and his children. And, kids don’t tend to beat around the bush. If they’re upset, you’ll usually be able to tell by observing changes in behavior (e.g. oppositional, angry, or withdrawn), which you haven’t seen. So, you may be in anguish over your anxiety, but it sounds like the kids are all right.

People cannot be happy, or, really, one particular emotion at all, 100% of the time. Most mental health professionals today understand emotions to be temporary, and to occur in somewhat of a wave form, with an increase, peak, and drop in intensity. This includes positive emotions. Yet, there seem to be a lot of messages lately that we should be happy all of the time, and that we should definitely be making sure that our kids are happy all of the time. One of my professors in graduate school once commented that in the 1800s, and maybe even into the 1950s, psychotherapy treated a culture’s repression of positive emotions. People were suffering because it was unacceptable in society to express their positive emotional experiences (e.g. sexual fantasies or experiences), so these thoughts were manifesting in dysfunctional ways. Now, we may be treating people who are unsatisfied and anxious because it’s unacceptable in society not to be happy 100% of the time, and if they’re not happy, then something must be terribly wrong. Fortunately, APW does particularly great work to dispel this myth in the context of partnership and marriage. Last, and importantly, the kids are allowed to be happy about seeing their mom. This is natural, and it’s an important relationship to them. Why is their being happy about seeing their mom mutually exclusive with their being happy about seeing you and your fiancé? Both things can be true. Stepparenting often cultivates a sense of competition, but it doesn’t have to.

There is also the sense of a deadline—the pressure and impending doom (increasing anxiety) surrounding the wedding date. There is the sense that everything must be in order before the wedding. Or… what? Relationships, like the topics Meg suggests talking about before marriage, involve an ongoing, dynamic, fluid process. They get figured out and settled into over time. And, if things are going well now, why is there the sense that, once the wedding happens, things will not continue to go well? You’re probably overthinking things if you’re getting into this pattern of wondering.

Then again, while too much anxiety is unhelpful, a little anxiety can be healthy, and is often actually necessary and useful. What might your fear of “screwing up,” the kids “hating you,” and your “failing” be communicating to you? What is this anxiety really about? Is it an ongoing, deeper anxiety, and thus maybe not entirely related to what’s going on now? Is it about concerns about what your fiance’s ex-wife thinks? Is it anxiety about your relationship or upcoming wedding or marriage? Or, whether the two of you will have your own children, and how that would potentially affect family dynamics? Maybe it’s all of the above. All of these anxieties are normal and would make sense.

Right now, it’s really important to work through all of this anxiety, to make sense of what anxiety is helpful and what is not, and also to ensure that your anxiety doesn’t affect the positive relationships that you have with your fiancé and his children. It is definitely a good time to begin seeing a therapist again. It’s also important to communicate your concerns to your fiancé, who sounds very understanding—but it’s critical to have your own space in which to safely, objectively explore your concerns. You’ll be a more relaxed person afterwards, and you’ll be able to continue to be an awesome fiancée, soon-to-be wife (!), and new stepmom. You should know that the APW community will be behind you, cheering you on.

More support for stepparents can be found in the online support forum here, and in Meetup groups here.

The information provided in Ask a Psychologist is intended by Dr. Brofman and APW to serve as general advice and guidance for all readers. The advice herein does not constitute a clinical recommendation or relationship, and Dr. Brofman and quoted mental health professionals do not take clinical responsibility for this information. Ask a Psychologist does not take the place of a confidential clinical consultation with a trained mental health professional. 

Shara M. Brofman, Psy.D.

Shara Marrero Brofman, Psy.D., is a psychologist who values all things practical. She studied Child Development at Tufts University and worked in case management and clinical research before earning her master’s and doctoral degrees in Clinical Psychology from Rutgers University. Dr. Brofman practices in New York City and has special interests in women’s and reproductive mental health. She can be contacted at drsharabrofman at gmail dot com. Photo by Smitten Chickens.

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  • Class of 1980

    Man. It sounds like the best of all worlds.

    The kids are excited to be with you AND excited to be with their mother. This is what everyone strives for. You’re doing something right.

  • Violet

    Just the same way kids are told they are not responsible for their parents’ divorce, I think the adults in these situations need to be reminded that they are not responsible for making the kids “happy” about the situation. Be warm, loving, respectful, communicative, etc. But just because you do everything you think you’re supposed to doesn’t mean it guarantees a particular emotional outcome in the kids.

    Even though my divorced parents pretty much did everything “right,” I’d still be PISSED sometimes. (Still true, actually. Divorce suuuuuuuuucks.) They handled the divorce about as well as all the books say to (not that I’ve read them, but I get the gist: don’t bad-talk the other parent, etc.), and I *still* get mad at them sometimes. They’re my feelings; I’m allowed to have them. They dissolved my family, and no matter how nicely they did it, the outcome is the same, and it makes me sad/angry. So I hope OP doesn’t place too much responsibility on herself for the kid’s feelings. Just as the good Dr. says, no one can (or should, really) be happy all the time.

    Also, while some kids project their parents’ divorce onto a step-parent/new partner, not all do. My preference would be for my parents to still be married. But since I can’t have that, my next choice is for my dad to be married to his current wife. She’s great, and it’s MUCH better being around him with her in his life, too.

    • KEA1

      THIS. So much this. Happy kids are excellent, but NOBODY has a responsibility to “make [someone else] happy.” Even parents for their kids. You’re allowed to have your feelings, the kids are allowed to have theirs, etc, and it’s actually quite unfair to everyone involved to expect that one’s own actions are supposed to guarantee an emotional outcome in someone else.

    • Alyssa M

      I’m totally the peanut gallery on the topic of step parents, but just from my experience of friends relationships with step parents… that’s dead on. My friends could always see right through any attempts to force happiness and either resented it or learned to abuse it.

    • Jules

      There’s a certain type of grief in divorce, too. Allow them to work through it. Mine divorced 5 years ago, my dad is now seeing someone, and I am THRILLED. But the holidays are…still tough. I really like the lady my dad is seeing, and I hope we can have a relationship (though I’m 24, and it’s much different than being raised in their household), but I’m sure I will experience periodic sadness that really has nothing to do with her personally. When I do, she needs to LET me do that.

      Vaguely related, I’m also adopted and sometimes I feel very alone and stressed about that. I know that must be tough on my parents, but it has nothing to do with them at all, and they’ve been loving and supportive as I work through my feelings on it.

  • Jules

    I mean this in the most loving way possible, but LW, residual sadness it is *probably* not about you!

    If the internet is making you feel bad about it being his second marriage/a stepmom, then it’s time to stop reading the internet. Do not let the situation that *describes* you, define you. There are so many beautiful and loving second marriages and stepfamily relationships.

  • Amy March

    I think this is a classic example of healing your anxiety by focusing on your anxiety, not by trying to fix the underlying issue. Cause these kids? Sounds like everyone involved is doing a pretty fantastic job.

  • Amanda

    I’m really surprised that Dr. Brofman pointed Anon to that particular online forum. I’ve tried to visit that forum a few times for support and insight and found it to be a terribly negative place filled with anger and resentment. I’m sure there is lots of great advice and insight on the website but you have to sift through a LOT of negativity to find it and I think the information on there might only fuel Anons worries!

    Anon, Please take the information on that forum with a grain a salt. It is a place people go solely to vent and I think it casts a particularly negative light on step family dynamics.

    • Kayla

      I just clicked through to that site for about 30 seconds, and the first thing I saw was this poll:

      In your experience as a stepparent, which is easier to deal with?
      Toddlers 32%
      Teenagers 5%
      There is no good age 63%

      “Terribly negative place filled with anger and resentment” sounds exactly right. I won’t go back.

      • vegankitchendiaries

        Ugh! YES! Thread titles including “Entitled and spoiled SS”, “step kids sucks!”, “Generation of helpless children”, and “terrible five year old”. This sounds like a great place for a person to become MORE anxious….

    • Yikes- sorry that some of the forums were unhelpful. I’m not affiliated with them, and certainly agree with the grain of salt!

  • z

    I would recommend you take a parenting or child development class, or at least read some books. That will help you be more confident as a stepmother, and interpret their behavior so you can tell what’s age-appropriate and what is an actual problem. It will help you get along with your husband and his ex as well, because you will understand better what they are doing and why.

    It does sound like you’re on a pretty quick timeline, for the kids if not for you. They are adjusting to a new dad’s-house, a new dad’s-partner, and now a marriage, all in the course of a year, and dealing with the day-to-day upheaval of shared custody as well. It’s a lot. If a little voice is telling you to slow down, maybe that little voice is right. It’s worth the wait if it makes the future easier.

    And yes, you need to accept that the kids may strongly dislike having divorced parents, and dislike sharing their dad with you, or may feel that way in the future even if they do not mind right now. Divorce casts a long shadow and issues can flare up unexpectedly. They may not appreciate the benefits of having a stepparent until they are older. My parents are amicably divorced and they’re happy, but I still think it suuuuuuucks. If my stepmother expected me to play Fake Happy Family for her benefit, that would piss me off even more.

  • Kayla

    It sounds like these kids are happy and like you plenty, but even if that changes, I think it’s important to remember that at these ages, especially at 15, a lot of kids a) aren’t happy and b) don’t get along with their parents. That isn’t your fault, Anon!

    You can’t blame yourself because being a teenager is shitty sometimes. It’s shitty for kids with married parents too. It can be a terrible time, regardless of what parents do. So if these kids go through some growing pains, that probably isn’t because their parents divorced; it’s because being a teenager is terrible.*

    *in most cases

    • KC

      And even in cases where there’s no external cause for teenage angst (friend problems/jealousy/boys/awkward bodies/stress/whatever), there are often hormones and mood swings and “It’s the end of the world because [insert minor problem, such favorite socks being in the wash instead of available to wear]” or “I hate you because [insert parent being reasonable and loving but not a complete pushover]”.

      Not saying don’t listen to teenagers at all, because whatever is serious to them right now really *is* serious to them right now (or is subbing in for something serious, as when crying over a broken shoelace is really about them being on the brink already because of friend drama or something). Just, not all of this will be such a big deal forever, and yes, growing pains.

  • z

    Honestly, it might be good to make your peace with the idea that they won’t like you, if that’s the worst-case scenario here. Lots of people don’t like their stepparents. I don’t like my mom’s boyfriend, but it isn’t the end of the world– I have to put up with him, so I do. He still enjoys dating my mom, as far as I can tell. It’s not that big a deal.

    More importantly, you will *feel* as if they dislike you. You just will, and you have to learn to cope. Kids, especially teenagers, are unhappy, rude, inconsiderate, and just oblivious to the feelings of others. Your presence, your influence on their lives, your habits and behaviors, may irritate them just as theirs may irritate you. And even if they try to be caring towards you, remember that they are juggling a complicated family situation with many people to consider. I try to consider my stepmother’s feelings, but after my own, my husband’s, my children’s, my sister’s, and my mother and father, I’m all feelingsed out. It’s just too many people. So she tends to come in last, even though she’s a nice person and I have nothing against her, but I have compelling obligations to others and only so much time and energy. Sucks for her, but it’s the best I can do, and I wouldn’t expect any different if I were a stepmother.

    • Violet

      While I agree that the worst-case scenario is a good one to consider, I take strong issue with a generalized statement without any qualifiers that kids are: unhappy, rude, inconsiderate, and oblivious to the feelings of others. That’s not being a kid, that’s called being a sociopath.

      I know kids are egocentric more so than adults due to underdeveloped theory of mind. They often don’t have fully formed delay of gratification. They’re working on their inhibitory control to not blurt out every passing thought they have. They are learning manners, which are social conventions and therefore not hard-wired. The usual about teenagers and hormones, etc. But I know plenty of kids who are happy, polite, considerate, and careful of the feelings of others despite all the growing and learning they’re doing. Kids of all ages, in fact.

    • Amanda

      Why does she have to make peace with the idea that they don’t like her? They already seem to like her and I think it’s weird to think that she should make peace with the fact that the kids living with her don’t like her as a general rule. There may be times when she irritates them or they irritate her or whatever but it doesn’t seem neccessary to blindly accept that the people you are living with don’t like you for forever. The kids will probably always love their biological parents more and care for them first, but that doesn’t mean she should expect that they dislike her.

      • z

        Because making peace with the worst-case scenario can be a helpful way of managing anxiety. She doesn’t “have” to do anything. I just said it “might be good.”

        • Amanda

          I think that would be a really hard way to live your life — thinking that the people you live with and care for dislike you. Also, I think if you walk around assuming that, it would be near impossible for that to not come through in your actions towards the kids. How can you truly care for and a be a support system for kids when you just assume they dislike you? That would be hard — harder for you and for the kids. I think taking the position of, I’m going to do my very best and understand that the kids are going through a lot and may not really love the role I’m now playing in their lives is fine but accepting they dislike you is rough.

          • z

            Amanda, you’re making up things that I didn’t say. I never said she should “assume” that they will dislike her. I said it’s good to make your peace with the possibility, because it’s a good way for some people to cope with anxiety. They might dislike her, and if her happiness in her marriage is contingent on them liking her, that would be a difficult situation. Making her peace with the possibility might help her reduce anxiet and ensure that the marriage decision is a good one.

            If that doesn’t work for you, fine. But please don’t put words in my mouth.

          • Amanda

            You said that she will feel as if they dislike her — will being the main word there and I disagree. If the kids actualy like her (it seems like they do right now), what might be more helpful than learning to accept that she might feel like they don’t is learning more about being a parent and kids behavior at different ages.

          • z

            Funny coincidence, I recommended that she learn more about parenting in an earlier comment in this thread.

          • Amanda

            :) I absolutely agree with that!

        • Kayla

          “Because making peace with the worst-case scenario can be a helpful way of managing anxiety.”

          Truth.

    • Brittany

      Not really on topic, but teenagers are not unhappy, rude, inconsiderate, and they especially are not oblivious to the feelings of others, at least not anymore so than adults. They have fewer inhibitions and less impulse control, but as a secondary school teacher who has worked with nearly a thousand teenagers in my career, they are as varied in personality as adults. In fact, I have found that they are often more justice-minded, empathetic and passionate when directed than most adults I know. They are also less jaded and more optimistic. I think when approached with those characteristics in mind, interactions with teens tend to be much more positive. That, of course, makes sense. Who responds well to someone who meets them already having decided that they are rude and egocentric? I don’t.

  • Kate

    I’d like to second (third?) what everyone has been saying – it sounds like you’re doing a wonderful job! A word of caution, though. As others have said, don’t try to read too much into the kids wanting to be with their mother. Where an amicable relationship with my stepmother started devolving into eventual emotional abuse was when she started placing her self worth in our opinions of her. What was a natural relationship changed into jealousy of our mother and our affection. Soon we were forced to say we love her and to fake ‘beg’ to spend time with her to soothe her ego, which just made us resent her. In no way do I see indications of this in you, so I guess I just want to say to remember that kids aren’t always wonderful at showing their affection, but from what I can see, they definitely feel that way. Their love for/wanting to be with their mother is no reflection on the job you’re doing as a stepmother.

  • My sweet, darling, amazing Anon. You are brave and amazing. I feel like I know you because our worlds are so similar. I’m a new step-mom to two kids, too, ages 11 and 13. We also have them half-time, and have ever since I met them 6 months into my relationship with their dad.

    When I first met them, they were 8 and 10. I was terrified they wouldn’t like me. Terrified that my place in their lives would never fit, that they’d resent me, miss their mother. That their hearts weren’t big enough for a mom and a dad’s girlfriend… now, a stepmom.

    Initially I just befriended them. While I knew my commitment to their father was lifelong, I didn’t get deep or lovey or heavy with them. I mostly just acted like a cool older sister, and overtime, I saw that I was reaping the rewards.

    When I first met the older one, she was cold and distant. I felt much closer to the 8 year old because she was more like a little girl… we’d sit on the couch and sort of snuggle and she’d let me brush her hair and we talked about cats. The older one… not so much. So I decided that a little bit every time I saw her might help. When it was bedtime, I’d crawl into her little cave she’d made out of her bottom bunk and I’d just wait. She’d start talking about something funny in the lunch room that day, and I’d tell her about something funny from lunch when I was a kid. I gave her some christmas lights that I hung in my old bedroom to put in her cave.

    When their dad went out to work his evening job as a bouncer (a short gig that lasted a couple months) we’d watch movies together, and I’d let her watch movies that were for teenagers (that I knew were totally appropriate, but she’d think were cool).

    The main thing was, I just befriended her without a real agenda. I went into her and her sister’s world and I dove in headfirst. I decided coloring and the mall and Avril Lavigne wasn’t boring. I asked lots of questions and was determined to remember their friend’s names and their friend’s cat’s names.

    When the bond was growing stronger after a couple of months of this, we started doing “one-on-one’s,” where I’d take one girl out while the other went off with their dad. Dinner, candy shop, a dollar movie, and then swap. The kid got to pick what we did, and it was a secret to the other pair where-ever we went.

    After about a year of this I realized our bonds had grown stronger. They trusted me in a new way, because I wasn’t just their dad’s girlfriend, and I wasn’t just another grown-up. I was a unique adult that had authority but also could swear and tell anecdotes about boys and boobs that wasn’t embarrassing because I wasn’t biologically their mom.

    But hold on. They also made comments that I seemed like a big sister, not a mom. They talked about how I wasn’t their real mom, all casual and like it couldn’t hurt my feelings. The transition from friend to mom was HARD… mostly because it seemed like they were totally unaware of my feelings. I helped implement chores, and working for an allowance. They said they liked their mom’s house better because their mom could “handle doing all the housework and didn’t need help.” There were fights. It hurt. We would be distant and come back together again weeks later.

    There’s an ebb and flow, now. And also dealing with some level of depression (I’m not on medicine, but I do see a therapist regularly, something the kids know but don’t quite understand), sometimes I have panic attacks. The last time I did, I had to pull myself together (not easy) stop hysterically sobbing, washed my face, and went to their room and apologized to them for scaring them, for saying mean things, and I treated their opinions like they were adults. They hugged me and forgave me and said, “I love you.”

    That ebb and flow is for real.

    I hope this story helps you. Often times for me real-life anecdotes help more than vague advice, because it includes the underlying complexity of the many layers of life and emotions. Wishing you all the best and more, mama.

  • Lindsay

    my main point is just to echo that you’re doing fine! my dad and stepmom got married when i was in my early teens, after having been together for several years, so she’s been part of my life since i was probably 8 or 9 years old, and my sister was 5 or 6. we both love her a lot, and she’s far from perfect, as a person and as a stepmother. but, so is my mom. i’ve been mad at my stepmom, and at my mom, and at my dad and my stepdad. it’s not a competition of who is my favorite, because they’ve all been and continue to be incredibly important people in my life. your stepkids-to-be are very lucky to have you as another parental figure to love and teach and support them. i definitely count myself as lucky to have had four wonderful, flawed, loving people as parents.

  • Emily

    HUG. Anon, being a stepmom is hard situation that our culture isn’t openly talking much (yet). I haven’t read all the comments, but I suggest you focus on what you can control– you. You can’t control whether the kids will like you or not. And their reaction–liking you or not liking you– might be more about them than it is about you.You can’t take it personally.

    There are going to be days when you mess up- you get mad that one can’t find her coat (that was me yesterday) or about the mess in the bathroom or something else. This happens with all parents, step or otherwise. I am a step-parent, and I remind myself that all I can do is my best. I try hard to do that, and to keep in mind what is best for the kids (not necessarily what the kids want–I do believe there is a difference between a parent and a friend). In my house, it is best for the kids to have a relationship with all of us: Mom, Dad, and me. We–the adults–acknowledge all the relationships as important. For instance, I will tell the kids that I know that Mom loves them very much, and I will tell the kids when Mom is right about something. Mom also does this for me. When Mom and I disagree we do it in a space without the kids; also, I don’t say anything if I don’t agree with Mom or Mom’s actions. The kids see the adults supporting each other and they feel a connected piece of all of us.

  • sporcupine

    Your anxiety sounds to me like the stuff of becoming a real parent: You worry. You want to give it your best, and you don’t entirely know how, and even if you figure out how to do it perfectly one week, next week the kids will change and need something different and you’ll be guessing again. If you’re committed and generous, it’s mostly going to work out–and your letter says you’re ready to put in lots of effort to make a good life for your self, your beloved, and those kids.

    Now, I’d like to offer you an idea that might be helpful and might be completely off. What if the eight-year-old is puzzling about you while you’re puzzling about him? One reason to mention his mom could be to see how you react. Is it okay to talk about what happens in one home at the other? Is it okay with you that he loves her? From your letter, it sounds like your answers are emphatically positive on both points. Maybe he just needs to see that a few more times to be sure.

  • Jennifer Cary Diers

    As the child of divorced parents, with two stepparents, I can provide my insight (for what it’s worth):

    My stepparents handled parenting in drastically different ways. My stepfather decided he was going to be my father, in every way that counts, from day one. He set and maintained rules, waited up when I was out too late, paid out my allowance and bandaged my knees. I call him “Dad.” He had a lot of problems when I was young and our relationship was strained–even scary–but ultimately, he’s my dad. He got help in my teens and our relationship is excellent. Although he is my brother’s only father, I never have to worry about his love for me because he makes it plain all the time. I am his child.

    My stepmother came into my life a few years later, when I was only 10, and she and my dad didn’t handle things as well. Firstly, they decided that I would not call her “Mom.” That hurt me badly at the time and still bothers me a lot. It felt like she didn’t want to claim me. She still introduces me to people as my father’s daughter (not hers) and her family has never really accepted me, I think because she never really committed to parenting me. Our relationship is loving but distant, and I feel like most of the work is on me to maintain it. We communicate more like she’s a close, loving aunt. When we have arguments (and we’ve had some bad ones in my adult years), I can’t feel confident that her love is secure. I get anxiety attacks when I think about disappointing her. I’m not really her child, and it’s obviously difficult for her to manage.

    So my advice is simple to say and hard to do: Make those kids your own. Be their mother. They need to feel so secure in your love that if, god forbid, your relationship with their father breaks up in the future, your relationship with them would survive it. Stepmother should be Mom in every way. Unconditional love. It should be for life. Otherwise, you’re doing it wrong.

    (Oh, and if bio-mom has an issue with that, tell her (kindly) to go screw herself. The kids come first, and the kids need two moms–not a mom and a woman dad is married to. She needs to understand that.)

    I wish your family the best.

    • MTM

      “Make those kids your own. Be their mother. They need to feel so secure in your love that if, god forbid, your relationship with their father breaks up in the future, your relationship with them would survive it. Stepmother should be Mom in every way. Unconditional love. It should be for life. Otherwise, you’re doing it wrong.” I think this is a really unfair expectation to have of a person. I do my very best, and take care of the kids in my life and try to create a positive relationship with them (independent of being “mom”), but expecting instant, unconditional love from a step-parent isn’t realistic (and not reciprocated from the kids). There is a lot of responsibility/sacrifice/frustration that comes along with a step-situation and adding the expectation of an instant, unconditional love is tough. My partner’s children have a mom and a dad and very involved grandparents…I don’t need to compete with that; rather, I see my role as supporting that, and supporting them with what they need.

      For me, my relationship with my partner comes first. That doesn’t mean that the kids don’t factor in to decisions, but it’s important that our partnership is stable and healthy. This also doesn’t mean that my relationship with the kids is unimportant — it just means it doesn’t trump everything.

      • Jennifer Cary Diers

        I understand how you feel– I really, really do. It sounds like you’ve been struggling, and I can empathize with that. When I say “unconditional love,” I mean it literally: love that is guaranteed, without conditions. Not that it trumps our love for other people; I don’t believe love should be portioned out that way. Unconditional love isn’t instant for anyone. It is continuous work. In my opinion, the work of developing and maintaining unconditional love is what you signed up for when you joined the family. Much like open adoption, stepparenting starts with the work of building love and trust. You say “my relationship with my partner comes first.” Should a heirarchy like that even exist in a family? Of course not. And why merely support the birth parents, without fully engaging? Why relegate yourself to a supporting role in the lives of your immediate family? Who could possibly benefit from that? I don’t know how old the kids are, and I do think it can be different if they are full-grown adults. But only in the type of work, not in the necessity of unconditional love. I don’t know if you wanted children or are planning to have more, and honestly? It doesn’t matter. Your partner’s first relationship ended, and his or her role as parent carried on. That’s because parenting is permanent. It’s forever. Your partner’s children have a mother and a father. They also have you, and you are a parent too. We all feel unconditional love for many people who did not birth us– aunts and uncles, best friends, even pets –because we make a choice to feel it. You can and should get there. If you have a terrible argument with a child, do they have to worry that you might not love them after? Do you worry they might not love you? I know from experience: it’s a horrible feeling. I’m so sorry if you are in that place. It isn’t a competition or a race– kids have enough love to go around –but you do have to try harder because you haven’t been around as long. You haven’t had time to prove that your love is permanent, and the children will reciprocate when they feel safe. You are playing the long game. Ultimately, the love you give your partner’s children is love for your partner, and familial love is the backbone of a stable partnership. In the same way that maintaining your relationship takes work, maintaining a family takes work. Every single day. Unconditional love for your partner AND the children you are now raising together creates a family that can weather any storm.

        • MTM

          Still disagree. The kids were not decision-makers in our vows. They are not obligated to love me because their dad does. They are tiny people with minds and hearts of their own, and we’re making our own relationships without the pressure of what it “should” be. This doesn’t mean we don’t have a good relationship (not sure why you’re reading that), but it’s not the same as what they have with their mom. And I think that works for all of us…I can have conversations with them (both pre-teen) that their parents can’t…I fill a space of a caring adult who is family…there isn’t any competition, nor do I have anything to prove.

          “You say ‘my relationship with my partner comes first.’ Should a hierarchy like that even exist in a family? Of course not.” Well you first said that you thought the children should come first, so you clearly think there is a hierarchy, it’s just different than mine. I don’t agree with “the children always come first”…that’s not realistic or healthy for any marriage/family. Obviously the kids are well-taken care of, and they sometimes come first, but not always. For me, if I’m making a major life decision, there is a hierarchy…first it’s me, then my partner, then our family unit (us+kids), then other family, then friends.

          I think you’re describing not unconditional love (because you think your step mom is loving) but unconditional relationships — and those don’t exist. Every relationship has boundaries and conditions. So while I may continue to care/love someone, that doesn’t mean they will unconditionally be part of my life (e.g. abusive parents, unfaithful spouse, family members with addictions). At some point, you have to take ownership for the relationships you choose to have in your life. If you’re having huge fights with your step mom, that’s doesn’t mean she doesn’t care, but she’s also not under any obligation to continue unhealthy behavior.

          • Jennifer Cary Diers

            I think we are going to have to accept that we are on radically different sides of the aisle here. One thing that is tricky about communicating online is that we really just have to monologue at each other, rather than conversing. I never, never said that children come first in your relationship with your partner, only in your relationship with the children’s mother (if you reread my comments, you’ll see that). I meant that from a functional sense, because that’s the nature of most bio-mom/step mom relationships, but maybe it was an unfair assumption for your situation. I also did not mean unconditional relationships. I did not mean that at all. I meant what I said: the promise that your love is secure. The kids were not decision-makers in your vows? I find that hard to believe, from your partner’s perspective. My dad got my permission to ask my stepmom, and I was only 10. After an estrangement between my other set of parents, my stepdad asked me if it was all right for him to move back home with us yet. He made it very clear that he would wait if I said no. Again, I don’t know how old the kids are here, but every time we marry, we are joining an extended family. How can that not be a major factor in our vows? No matter how many arguments my stepmom and I have, we are going to need to work through it. We are a family. Sure, we might need space from each other, but if we gave up on people just because we have a few bad years, very few people would have a relationship with their parents after their teens. “If you’re having huge fights with your step mom, that’s doesn’t mean she doesn’t care, but she’s also not under any obligation to continue unhealthy behavior.” I’m sorry but OF COURSE she is obligated to continue our relationship. She is married to my father, and he loves me unconditionally, and he loves her unconditionally angryAnd yes, that means that I, too, am obligated to do the work of loving her even when I am angry or hurt. We are a FAMILY and, to me, that means that we’re in this for the long haul. For better or for worse. I would fight to keep all four parents in my life, no matter what, because they are my parents. My stepmom knows that, we’ve discussed it, but I really don’t know if that love is fully reciprocated. That’s just my situation. Like I said, we don’t know one another well enough to have a real discussion this way. So I guess I just disagree with you. Wholeheartedly.

          • MTM

            The horse is dead on this one, but I did want to clarify a few things. I don’t really have a relationship with their mom because she’s in a different state and we have them full time…communication on that front is my partner’s job.

            I really don’t think the kids were decision-makers in the vows. They’re weren’t old enough to understand what that would mean (9 and 7 at the time) and I don’t think my partner sought permission; I’m sure if there had been major issues between me and the kids, that would have been a factor, but kids don’t get to decide grown up things. They were involved in the wedding at the level they wanted to be, but they were not up at the front with us, they didn’t vow to anything.

            “Sure, we might need space from each other, but if we gave up on people just because we have a few bad years, very few people would have a relationship with their parents after their teens.” So this is age normative behavior from a teenager. It’s the same thing as putting up with a tantrum from a toddler. But that doesn’t mean someone has to put up with that behavior from an adult. I give my family more leeway than I would a friend, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t boundaries.

        • Victwa

          So I kind of just love you forever for this response. I cannot tell you how many step-parenting articles/boards/whatever will tell you that you should take a back seat to the bio-parent, to start off as a friend, etc. (But there is very little that helps people think about how/when to transition into being not a friend.) But yeah, as a classroom teacher for many years, kids don’t NEED other friends– they need to know that the adults in their lives will care about them NO MATTER WHAT, and that doesn’t happen if I relegate myself to a supporting role. That said, my stepkids don’t call me Mom, and I don’t need/ask them to, but I know they are both sure that my husband and I are BOTH making decisions for the family and for them. Having a foster child who is still close to me did a lot to help me think about this, but the million internet articles tend to tell you to be more distant–as in, be a friend, take the back seat, let everyone else make decisions. My former foster daughter is by no means my biological child, and she has never called me mom, but she knows that we can go through some less-than-fun times together and I will still care about her. That happened because I showed up as my full self–not as my “dialed back because I’m playing a supporting role” self. I think there are many things in this world that tell women to be less than their full selves. I do not want my household to be one where I model for my stepdaughter being less than my full self in my relationship to her.

  • Mainer

    One of my mantras as I’ve been navigating the journey of becoming part of a blended family is that no two blended families are the same and there few practices that work well for everyone. I agree wholeheartedly with Emily below that what it means to be a “stepmom” or step-anything isn’t really discussed enough in our culture.

    When I met my partner and started getting to know his kids (3 of them now ages 16, 14 and 13), I did what every over-analytical, academic-type would do, I found books to read. Checked stacks of them out from the library. And I have to say, none of them resonated at all with my situation. The divorce was 8 years ago, the kids were middle-school aged, Dad had been basically single for most of that time, I’m much younger than him, I teach middle-school aged kids, Dad has full-custody. Our story is unique and nuanced and all of those little details make a difference in how I have learned to be a part of this family.

    For me, the word “stepmom” just DOES NOT WORK. I don’t like it. The thought of the kids calling me that gives me chills. But I am their “H”. I am consistent, reliable, loving. I also have strong boundaries. I think that there are a lot of roles for adults in children’s lives that aren’t “parent” but are still deep and strong and important. I think of teachers, camp counselors, aunties and uncles, the parents of their friends, doctors, family friends. In our home, the truth is that the kids have a Mom and a Dad, and they don’t really want another one. As teenagers, they REALLY don’t want another adult in their lives telling them what to do (refer to the list above). So my job is to be there for them, to tend to my relationship with their Dad so that they are living in a loving home with a model of a loving relationship, and to take care of myself. These foundations have made us all a little more sane, relaxed, and trusting of each other.

    So I guess in all of this I’m trying to say every blended family has to chart their own course. There are many ways to be in a relationship with a partner with kids. I love that APW loves to dispel myths and critique cultural narratives. I think this topic is an important new frontier.

    (oh and I see a therapist ALL of the time, she’s amazing, everyone should get one. And look into EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique for anxiety. Very powerful healing technique for all emotions!)

    • MTM

      Amen.

  • C_Gold

    OP here. Thank you thank you thank you, both to Dr. Brofman and to all the commenters here. I’m going to print this out and keep it in my wallet.

    I really appreciated the point about this not being a competition. I come from a divorced family myself, and I know that I love my dad AND my step-dad, and one does not detract from the other. I want the kids to have a great relationship with their mother. Of course. But I do feel jealous and weird and worried a lot, like it is a competition. (Their mother doesn’t care for me, and doesn’t really speak to me, so that doesn’t help.) So I make sure to not ACT jealous or weird or whatever in front of the kids. I can control my behavior about that, even if in my head I’m freaking out.

    Anyway, thank you, everyone. So good to hear from other people about this.