Friend, we need to talk. I see you running on empty, I hear you voicing your stepmom needs in our stepmom support group, and I think it’s time to let you in on a very simple secret…
We already know that the stepmom expectations are contradictory and exhausting – love his kids like your own but don’t act like their mom, be involved in their lives but don’t overstep the “real” parents, treat them the same as the other kids but don’t make them follow your rules, etc.
We’re expected to perform an impressive balancing act, so it’s not surprising that in our constant, never-good-enough attempts to do so, we sometimes completely lose ourselves.
After prioritizing our marriage, supporting our partners in their co-parenting debacles, and carrying them through their phases of divorced dad (or mom) guilt, we then spend whatever time and energy we have left on balancing those spinning stepparent plates the best we can. We play fair and play it safe, lest we face criticism from the ex, disappointment from the extended family, or meltdowns from the kids.
Hey Stepmom, It’s Okay to Take Up Space.
You came into a “broken” family with instant, invisible pressure on you to dive right in and get to fixing. So you’ve been putting yourself last (if on the list at all) to keep the ship from sinking. I get it.
But it’s time to realize that you’re not a ship captain. You are the ocean. No matter what you do to hold the household ship together, it’s going to sink if your waters are not calm enough for sailing.
Metaphors aside, here’s the secret: It’s okay to take up space.
What I mean is that it’s okay for you to expect to be considered. It is okay to have needs and voice them. It is okay to have boundaries and enforce them. It’s okay for you to take yourself into consideration without feeling selfish, and it’s okay for you to expect the others in your family to consider you, too. Every creature on this earth takes up space and has needs, and you’re no exception.
Too often, it is assumed that “mom will be fine” with whatever is going on. No need to consider the space mom takes up, right? Mom just gives the rides, buys the project supplies, figures out what everyone is going to eat. Be honest – can you remember a single time as a kid that you had the thought, “well I know what I want, but what does mom need?”
Balancing Your Role as a Stepmom
Somehow, as stepmoms we expect ourselves to step up like a mom, and simultaneously take even more of a back burner than “regular” moms do. And if we don’t, we feel guilty and wrong. Why?
When you first became a family with children, step or biological, you may have needed to trade your two-door coupe for a family sedan or an SUV, something that fit the car seats or had a third row. The kids took up space, and you had to accommodate it. Do you hate the kids for taking up space? Of course not. It just made sense to adjust to meet the needs of your family.
So why are you afraid of taking up space? Why do you dread needing a seat and some legroom in the hypothetical car? I don’t know where we got the assumption that our job is to give to everyone and need nothing ourselves, but it’s unrealistic and it’s causing mass stepmom burnout right before my eyes.
Mama, you are just as much a member of your family as any other member. In case no one has ever told you: your vote counts. Stop forgetting that you have a vote or letting your spouse vote for you. You have a vote. Use it.
How to Take Up Space
The kids want to go to the zoo and you’re exhausted from the World’s Worst Work Week? Instead of complying for the sake of balancing those spinning plates, letting the resentment build up as you drive them to the zoo, choose to take up space.
Use your vote. Let their parent take them and stay home for a self-care day. Or voice your “no” vote and help your partner decide what the family is going to do for the day with everyone’s opinion taken into consideration.
Do you feel a wave of anxiety flood over you when your partner invites the kids’ mom to come over for dinner without asking you? Instead of acting like everything is fine and trying not to throw up while telling yourself “well this is what I signed up for,” choose to take up space.
Choose to voice your discomfort to your partner, letting him know that having his ex over for dinner crosses your boundaries, makes you uncomfortable, and isn’t something you’re okay with doing.
The little voice in your head may try to tell you, “You’re being selfish! It would be nice for the kids!” But the little voice in your head is a jerk who lives in the Land of Unrealistic Expectations, and it’s time to stop assuming she knows everything. She doesn’t, and she definitely doesn’t have your best interest at heart.
Listen to your needs instead. Remind yourself as often as you need to that you are allowed to take up just as much space in your home as your stepkids do. The kids don’t need you to say “how high” every time they say “jump.” Your partner doesn’t need to rely on you to be the only one carrying the family’s mental load. You don’t need to feel unappreciated, frustrated, and burned out.
No more disappearing into the background the moment the kids arrive at your house, no more becoming the awkward third (or 7th) wheel, no more playing the silent butler who slips in and out of the scene tending to everyone’s needs.
Stop making yourself a nobody in your own home. Start making yourself some space.
P.S. Remember: You’re here to support them, not save them.