The Two Stepmom Struggle Camps
Over the past handful of years working as a stepfamily counsellor, and specifically as a stepmom mentor, I’ve come to realize that there are two main struggle-camps that we, stepmoms, tend to settle in. Either Camp A: The I-Have-Issues-With-My-Partner’s-Ex Camp, or Camp B: The I-Have-Issues-With-My-Stepkids Camp.
It’s no secret that I’ve spoken pretty openly about the difficulties I had as a new stepmom when it came to bonding with my husband’s son. It should come as no surprise, then, that most stepmoms who come to work with me have also found themselves settled into Camp B: The I-Have-Issues-With-My-Stepkids Camp.
And I’ll tell you right now, the predominant feeling that my camp of stepmoms sits with, feeling that they should have a different relationship with their partner’s kids than they actually do, is shame.
I mean, after all, we’re women. It should be easy to connect with kids, no matter who their biological parents are. Shouldn’t it?
If we have fallen in love with one of our our stepkids’ parents, then shouldn’t we, by default, also instantly love their kids as our own?
Well, actually, no. Arguably the stepmoms who do have that relationship with their stepchildren are the exception and not the rule. We can celebrate the stepfamily relationships that have come easy and naturally in the same way we can celebrate the stepfamily relationships that we’ve had to work (sometimes really, really hard) at.
But in the spirit of working really, really hard at connecting with our partner’s kids, today I want to have an important conversation about a (well-intended) mistake I’ve observed many stepmoms who struggle to bond with their partner’s kids are making…
Are You Making This Mistake With Your Stepchildren?
One of the biggest mistakes I see struggling stepmoms making over and over and over again is that they come into their stepfamily and attempt to implement a ton of new rules and roles and responsibilities for their stepchildren.
They tend to think: “I’m miserable because these kids don’t have any discipline, and I’m here to fix that.”
And look, I totally get it. Listen, I’ve lived it. That used to be me, too. And who can blame us? I mean, everyone tells you that kids whose parents split up will be deeply affected and, based on the research you read, maybe even damaged by their parents’ separation. So it only makes sense that you’d want to take on this responsibility of implementing routines and structure and predictability. You have a huge heart, and from the outside looking in, stepmoms pick up on a lot of parenting choices that maybe they don’t necessarily agree with, especially when the kids seem to need something… different.
But let me ask you this — do you think that every stepmom who comes in and tries changing everything for her stepkids actually ends up creating a peaceful, happy home where everyone loves and respects and appreciates each other? No way, right? I mean, that wicked stepmom stereotype came from somewhere…
In fact, as you might already know, the harder a stepmom pushes, the further away from happiness she’ll likely find herself. Instead of creating stepfamily relationships that are strong and connected, these stepmoms usually start unintentionally pushing everyone away. And where does that leave you? Well, if you’re like most stepmoms I’ve met, it might leave you feeling more and more like an outsider in your own home, until your spouse picks the kids one too many times, and you just can’t take it anymore.
How To Connect With The Kids (Even When You Want To Scream)
So how do you actually create a peaceful, happy home where everyone enjoys — or at the very least, tolerates — being under the same roof? Well, something I’ve learned to be true is that there is a very specific set of STEPS that the happy, connected stepmom follows so that she can really dig into a feeling of inner-peace and calm, even if the kids are swinging from the proverbial rafters. And included in those steps is really an opportunity to ask yourself:
Instead of pushing and pushing to try and get the kids to act a specific way, instead of picking fights with my partner or disappearing every time the kids come for visitation, instead of calling out all the ways the kids behave that I have a problem with, how can I lean into these uncomfortable moments WITH them, instead? How can I turn these tough moments into opportunities for connection instead of more reasons to disconnect?
Think of it this way… Imagine you have a really crappy day at work. Like, the worst ever. Then, on your drive home, you spill your purple smoothie all down the front of your favourite white blouse. You get in your car, a bird pooped on your windshield, and you forgot to fill your washer fluid up. Finally, you slog through traffic, looking through your bird poop windshield until you get home, and kick your shoes off so that you can go check on the supper you threw into the crockpot this morning. When you turn the corner to get into your kitchen, you stub your toe, hard. And even though you’re stinkin’ mad, you realize that your supper doesn’t smell very good. In fact, the crockpot timer? Didn’t work. And now instead of a delicious meal, you have burnt lumps of stinky charcoal glued to the bottom of the pot. Needless to say, we’ve all had bad days like this, right? And if you’re anything like me, then you’re probably feeling pretty overwhelmed, frustrated, angry, maybe you want to cry, maybe you want to scream, maybe you’ll snap at anyone who talks to you.
Now, imagine that not 2 minutes later, your partner walks through the door and comes to the kitchen. And seeing the burnt lumps of crockpot dinner, your spouse folds their arms and squishes their eyebrows together, (much like a disappointed parent would do,) and says
“You mustn’t have been paying attention. I’m taking away your phone.” Or says,
“How many times have I told you to double-check the crockpot timer? Go to your room and think about what you’ve done. You’re so absent minded sometimes!”
If you’re anything like me, then this would probably send you over the edge, right? Maybe you’d feel angry, maybe you’d feel rejected or resentful, and most certainly you wouldn’t feel connected to your spouse in that moment. In fact, it’s moments like these that actually erode relationships over time.
Now, what if instead, your spouse walked in behind you, saw the crockpot, wrapped their arms around you, and said “Life happens. I love you,” Then in the blink of an eye, your partner hollers, “Come on kids! Get your coats! We’re going out for dinner!” How do you feel in that alternative scenario?
Again if you’re anything like me, probably relieved. Supported. Connected. Loved.
Compassion For Connection
Dr. Ross Greene, an expert in difficult childhood behaviours, says that “Kids do well if they can.” And it’s true. Same as you do well if you can, and your spouse does well if they can. So the next time that your stepkids act out, make a mistake, show a big emotion, I’d invite you to start thinking of those moments like their very own burnt-charcoal-crockpot-supper. And ask yourself, “How can I turn this into an opportunity to connect?”
Now let me ask you… do you really want to keep using your energy to try and push your way into fixing your stepkids, laying down the law, or trying to establish dominance and demand respect? Do you want to risk driving them, and maybe even your partner away? Or, would you rather lean into those burnt-supper-crockpot moments with them, and show them that they don’t have to be perfect in order for you to be there for them.
Imagine how your stepfamily relationships could look if everyone allowed each other grace in the messy parts that make them human. Because offering grace and compassion to our messy parts are ultimately what makes love and connection shine through.
Compassion is truly one of my favourite tools to use in stepfamily situations. It’s one of the lenses I guide my clients to look through very, very often. And if you’re like most stepmoms that I’ve met, then sometimes it can be hard to switch that lens, because when all you know are the corners of your own mind, then introducing a new perspective can be challenging. But it pays off, every single time.
For The Skeptics
Now, if you’re a skeptic like me, then you might be reading this and saying to yourself, “Ok, point made, I’ll work on connecting with my stepkids, but I’ve really tried in the past and they want nothing to do with me.” Or, “I’ll work on connecting with my stepkids, but every time I feel like we’re making progress, something happens and we’re back to square one.” Or maybe you’re even saying, “Ok Brittany that’s all well and good, but you don’t know these kids and you don’t know what it’s like to be me.” And you’d be right. I don’t know what it’s like to be you. But I do know this:
Every single thing that you think and believe about your stepfamily will manifest for you. Tony Robbins always says, “Your life goes where your attention flows.” So it only makes sense that if you are looking to prove your point, if you’re looking to prove that you’ve tried everything and therefore you will be unable to connect with your partner’s kids, then you are 100% going to be right. Even if you say that you WANT to connect with them, if you’re focusing on the lack of connection, that’s all you’re going to see.
Lately, I’ve been letting my 3-year-old son watch Leapfrog on Netflix. There’s one particular episode that teaches about numbers and how to count. And one of the lines from one of the cute little cartoon characters says, “Every problem has a solution.”
So let me ask you again, are you going to choose to focus on the problem, on the lack of connection, on how hard it is to connect, and confirm that you will forevermore have a lack of connection with your stepkids, OR, will you choose to be like that peppy little cartoon character on LeapFrog and remind yourself, every problem has a solution? What might life be like for you if you began to look for the opportunities in your struggles?
Find me any stepmom who is genuinely happy and fulfilled in her stepfamily; who has developed thriving, connected, honest, reciprocal relationships with her stepkids and her partner, and tell me if they got to that place because they are counting down the seconds until their stepkids go back with their mom, or keeping a mental diary of every time that their stepchildren chewed with their mouths open or didn’t say please and thank you. You can’t.
Luck Or Skill?
Happy stepmoms have not become happy because they lucked out and got an easy stepfamily. Happy stepmoms have become that way because they’ve developed a new skill set.
Learning to become a happy stepmom, learning to be receptive to moments of connection, learning to choose compassion in difficult times, these are skills. Successful stepparenting involves developing a skill set that none of us were born with. You can read all of the blog posts and magazine articles, and listen to all of the podcasts and scour all of the forums, but until you take what you know out of your head and practice those skills in your own life, then nothing will change.
So what choice will you make today? If you’re serious about wanting to enhance the connection you have with your stepchildren, then I’m going to challenge you to seek out ONE opportunity with the sole intention of connecting with them. Ask your stepson to tell you about his new video game. Watch him play a round. Ask your stepdaughter to tell you about the show she’s watching on YouTube. Validate a big feeling. Practice expressing empathy.
Look for one, small way to connect, in a situation that you would typically remove yourself from. And if finding even one small way to connect seems impossible, remember that there are so many incredible coaches and counsellors out there who would feel honoured to hold your hand through the rollercoaster ride that is stepmothering.
It is 100% possible for every single stepmom to lead a happy, fulfilled, connected life. What becomes possible for you when you decide to choose to see opportunity instead of tragedy? What could your life look like in one year if you started to see your stepfamily through a different lens, where you saw everyone as a person who was ALWAYS doing their best, even when their best didn’t look very good to other people?
You are so, so, so deserving of living in a home that you love being in. You are allowed to feel challenged by your stepchildren. You are allowed to admit that you have no idea how to do this, because the truth is that none of us stepmoms had any idea what we were signing up for. You are allowed to want the division of responsibility inside your home to be fair, and equal, and age appropriate. But until connection happens, it’s unlikely that your rules & responsibilities will be welcomed with open arms.
Switch your lens, stepmom. Choose compassion. And most importantly, choose connection before correction. There is plenty of time to establish structure and order.
Your best is already good enough. And your stepchildren’s best is also already good enough. Routines and responsibility and predictability are important. But so is acceptance, unconditional love, and knowing you belong to a household where you’re safe to be who you are.
Humans are messy. Humanness is complicated. And only the most special women are willing and able to occupy a life with someone else’s humans. You’ve been tasked with being one of those most special women. How will you choose to lean into it?