One of the pieces of advice I often see given to stepmums is to step back.
They’re not your kids, step back and leave the bio parents to do the parenting. It’s not bad advice, but it is advice I’ve seen leave stepmums feeling disconnected from their families and powerless in their own homes. I’ve seen it lead to stepmums feeling they quite literally hate their stepkids, and their relationship is doomed.
Being a stepmum is like dancing the Hokey Tokey – step in, no not that far – you’re overstepping. Step back, no not that far – you don’t care about your stepkids, you’re an awful person. Love those kids like your own, no not that much, that’s their mother’s role – how dare you try and replace her!!
And round, and round, and round we go…Dizzy and exhausted with trying to contort ourselves into just the right amount of stepping in and stepping back to make everyone happy.
There is our first mistake.
There is no ‘making everyone happy’. It’s a mission in futility that most often ends in abject misery on our end.
How about we start with the idea that it’s our job to make ourselves happy.
SAY WHAT NOW?!?! We are supposed to make our own happiness a priority? What about the kids? What about my partner? What will the mum think?
Putting our happiness in the hands of someone else is such a dangerous game to play, for our own wellbeing and also for the wellbeing of our relationship. We are unconsciously setting our partners up to fail. We’re expecting them to know what we need, when we need it, and exactly how we need it.
How on earth are they supposed to manage that?
Yet, when we expect our partners to parent alone and to parent in the way we think the children should be parented, we are doing exactly that.
I’ve seen so many stepmothers go from hating their stepkids to enjoying healthy, happy, loving relationships with their stepkids through stepping in.
What do I mean when I say ‘stepping in’?
Lots of times we talk about stepping up as part of becoming more of an active stepparent, but I prefer the idea of stepping in. It’s about moving into the family circle; it’s about creating a closer connection.
Parenting is usually seen as how we mould kids to become functioning adults. We are teaching them who and how to be in the world and giving them skills to navigate life; that role is definitely the responsibility of the bioparents. As stepparents we can be co-pilots, but the main course setting and navigating needs to come from the bioparents.
So, if the bioparents are in charge of that, what can stepparents be in charge of?
Their own happiness in their homes.
I correct the children for eating with their mouths open. I can hear a kid chew with an open mouth 2 rooms away. It is definitely in my top 10 triggers. My husband has a 50% hearing loss, he couldn’t care less, he can’t hear it. I am in charge of telling kids to close their mouths while eating. Not because I want them to have good manners, but because it drives me nuts when they don’t. I take responsibility for making sure my home environment works for me. The stepping back advice would be to eat separately. I’m not going to be pushed out of eating with my family because kids haven’t learned to eat with their mouth closed.
See how that works?
The priority is me ensuring that my home works for me. It’s an absolute bonus that the kids learn some basic table manners at the same time, but it’s not the end goal; my happiness and calm is.
So often we expect our partners to care about the things that make us unhappy, when those things are not a priority for them. How would we feel if we kept being asked to tell kids off for things we don’t really care about, on top of telling them off for the things we do? How difficult would it be to catch them doing something we know upsets our partners, when we have become numb to it and have learned to tune it out? How frustrating and soul destroying to be in conflict with our partner because we just can’t parent how they think we should?
It’s a double whammy. Our partners are caught in the middle, between an angry partner and resentful kids. Throw in an angry ex who is challenging why our partner is suddenly changing the rules…it’s a perfect storm of chaos and resentment.
What does this mean in practical terms?
It means it’s ok to ask kids to upskill their table manners, it’s ok to ask them to say please and thank you, it’s ok to ask them to pick up things and put them away. Exactly where this line starts and ends needs to be something you and your partner agree on. If your partner insists you can have no say in how things work in your home regarding the children and their behaviour, it is probably time to call in some expert help. Expecting you to live in a home where you have zero input in how it runs is not usually sustainable in my experience.
While all of this might sound reasonable and doable, how do we prevent stepparent burnout while stepping in?
I am very familiar with overextending myself when it comes to trying to make up for what I saw as deficits in the parenting of the children. For a long time I felt like I needed to make up for the things the children had not been taught or given by their bioparents. Finally – I got it.
As stepparents we can’t be more invested than the bioparents are.
Read that again.
If it’s not a priority for the bioparents, we can’t expect to create sustainable change in our family. I’m talking big things here, like homework, chores, behaviour. The smaller things, like close your mouth or pick up your stuff, those things we can manage to a level that works for us. Being invested in kids getting a good education and being on task, those are the things where bioparents need to take the lead.
So if you’re feeling powerless in your home, or as if the stepkids will be the death or you or at least your relationship, what can you do to take back your power and make your needs and happiness your priority?