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Being a Stepmom: Expectation vs. Reality

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The number one cause of frustration I see in my stepmom coaching clients? Unmet expectations. The reality of being a stepmom bears little resemblance to the role they envisioned.

When a stepmom expresses frustration that the stepmom role is so different than she expected it to be, I remind her that nuclear families and stepfamilies are not the same and require different skillsets, level-set expectations, and work with her to develop the skills necessary to master stepfamily life.

When you think about it, it’s obvious that nuclear families and stepfamilies are different and can’t function the same way. Here are just a few key differences:

In a nuclear family, parents are on the same team and work together for the good of the children. In a stepfamily, parents often have competing interests and views on what is truly best for the children.

In a nuclear family, parents demand respect from the children toward the other parent. Such is not the case for many stepfamilies.

In a stepfamily, usually, the parent-child relationship was formed before the parent-stepparent couple relationship. This can cause a strain on the couple and the family dynamics.

Here are five of the most common misguided expectations stepmoms have about their role, and advice for redirecting your thoughts to set you up for success.

We’re going to be one big happy family.

Expectation: A typical stepmom comes into the stepparenting role with rose-colored glasses, assuming her role in this ready-made family will be easy and natural. She dreamed of being a mom, and though this isn’t how she imagined it would happen, she embraces the process and is wholeheartedly ready to show up for her new family.

Reality: Becoming one big happy family may never happen for some stepfamilies. The kids may resist, they may have loyalty binds, or they could suffer from parental alienation.

Some women aren’t cut out for the stepmom role. Being a stepmom requires patience, accepting many things are outside of your control, and the flexibility to roll with a fluid role. Failure to embody any of these three attributes could cause tension—or worse, resentment—in your family.

Solution: My best advice is to remove the expectations from the situation. Remain hopeful you’ll all get along and make the goal to have a home where everyone feels welcomed and comfortable. 

It won’t take long for us to feel normal.

Expectation: Similarly, it can feel discouraging if your stepfamily doesn’t bond and mesh right off the bat. The stepmom yearns for connection and creating a new normal as a stepfamily. Unfortunately, it isn’t often a flip of a switch for your new unit to feel like family, or for your household to feel like home.

Reality: Research has shown that forming a stepfamily and really beginning to feel like a family unit takes an average of 4-7 years. If it takes a while for love and trust to develop, find comfort in the knowledge that this is entirely normal.

Solution: To encourage the deepening of relationships, set time aside to bond with your stepchildren. They won’t accept and respect you simply because they’re told to, so work to build trust and rapport with them. Things will develop naturally, and just because expectations haven’t been met (it’s taking longer than you’d like, you don’t feel a love connection yet, or your stepchildren resist your influence), it certainly doesn’t mean anything is wrong. 

Building a successful stepfamily takes time.

Everyone will appreciate my contributions.

Expectation: It seems like a given that if you step in and step up as a stepmom, that work would be appreciated. 

Reality: If you’re an involved, kind, and generous stepmom, you likely don’t expect recognition, but you could find yourself confused when those contributions aren’t embraced or appreciated in the slightest.

Most stepmoms I work with express confusion about the ex-wife and why she seems resistant to the stepmom. They’ll tell me “My partner trusts me–shouldn’t she?” and while I follow the logic, I know there’s so much more to it than logic. 

The fact of the matter is that the other parent didn’t agree to co-parent with you; she agreed to co-parent with your partner. She doesn’t have to trust you, include you, or even appreciate you.

I’ve been blessed to have a co-parent who has often appreciated my contributions, but many stepmoms don’t have that luxury. The other parent may discredit her completely—or worse, work against her.

Solution: Choose to focus on what truly matters in your stepfamily life. The only person whose opinion makes a fundamental difference and you should really care about is your partner’s. If your partner doesn’t appreciate you, that’s an entirely different conversation. Aside from that, no one else should matter. They’re not required to appreciate your contributions.

Being a stepmom is just like being a mom.

Expectation: So much of popular literature focuses on the mom role instead of the stepparent role, so it makes sense we assume the two roles are the same except for which came first. 

Reality: Stepmom may be the woman of her home, but she still isn’t her stepchild’s mom, even during her partner’s custody time. She may do some of the same tasks: cooking, cleaning, nurturing when her stepchild is ill or hurt, etc. But the roles are still distinctly different. 

There are natural loyalty binds that exist in the mother-child relationship. There’s an innate propensity to trust, respect, and love. 

Stepchildren are (understandably) cautious of stepparents and protective of their parents, and this is the root of the difference between the mom role and the stepmom role. 

Solution: Being a stepmom is a beautifully unique experience. You aren’t Mom 2.0. You get to be YOU. Embrace the difference and love that you get to do more bonding and less disciplining, Rejoice that you can step up or step back as much as you’d like. 

My partner’s ex-wife is a member of his past, not part of our present.

Expectation: In any other relationship, it’s just you and your partner, right? It can be fairly easy to get onboard with the idea that in this relationship, your partner will come with a little companion. But often, the ex is expected to be totally out of the picture. The new stepmom doesn’t factor her into the equation at all, because that’s a past relationship and she shouldn’t factor into the current relationship.

Reality: When divorced parents share custody, the ex will have an impact on the stepmom’s life, in some fashion. Sometimes it’s subtle like attending events together to support your stepchildren; other times, it’s aggressive like repeated custody court battles

It’s naive to think that your partner’s ex is part of the past; when children are involved, so is the ex.

Solution: Recognize the reality and work to accept her presence in your life. Focus on what is in your circle of control, and let go of the rest. When you do this, you can mitigate the impact she has on your life, and it will greatly improve your mental health.

If you’ve suffered from unmet expectations about the reality of being a stepmom, first, give yourself grace. No one gets parenting or stepparenting right on the first try.

Then, work to correct ill-conceived expectations to set yourself up for success going forward. When your goals are set for a stepfamily instead of a nuclear family, you’ll experience less letdowns and more peace.

Looking for some guidance along the way? I offer 1-on-1 stepmom support coaching and am here to help you find peace in your stepfamily.

P.S. If you’ve had unrealistic expectations as a stepmom, it’s likely you’ve believed some of these myths too.

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