I’m a recovering “overcompensator” when it comes to spending time with my stepdaughter. When she was younger, I used to feel the need to pack in as many activities as I could before she went back to her mom’s home.
Every pickup felt like the start of a stopwatch. The beginning of a race against the clock to make the very most of our limited time together.
Time, support from professionals, and becoming a mother helped lead me to an important realization. By trying to do too much, not only was I pushing away my stepdaughter, but I was also hurting myself in the process.
Guilt was a big factor in my urge to overcompensate.
During the school year, my stepdaughter spends every other weekend with us and one overnight during the weeks in between. Summers are week-on, week-off.
Those summers weeks were when I really felt the pressure. When my husband had busy weeks and late nights at work, I felt guilty that I was the one getting time with my stepdaughter.
I wanted this time with her, but my inner voice told me I didn’t deserve it. That she’d be happier with her “actual” parents.
When she’d cry that she missed Mommy and Daddy, I tried to calm her. “Oh, you don’t need to cry, it’s okay!” I’d say. “Hey, you just had a whole week with Mommy, and you’re going to see Daddy later! Plus, I have a bunch of fun things planned for us to do today!”
(Cue me frantically planning a million things to keep her entertained.)
I overcompensated by obsessively scouring Pinterest for arts and crafts ideas, buying her surprises, planning outings, baking cookies with her from scratch, and centering my whole day around her.
I wanted her to have so much fun with me and feel so loved that she wouldn’t miss anyone. I longed for her to love being with me just as much as I loved being with her!
So I tried to be the perfect, fun stepmom. To take her mind off missing her mom, dad, and sisters. To distract her from the complicated emotions that are inevitable for a young child with two different homes.
I can see now just how backwards that was. She needed her feelings centered, not dismissed. She needed empathy, not distraction.
It was hard to accept how much was out of my control.
I also felt pressure to establish as much structure in our home as I could. This was prior to the birth of my son (now 2 years old), before I even knew what kind of parenting style felt most natural to me.
My friends’ children were all on tight schedules. Thinking that must be the “right” way to parent, I tried to force structure at our house. Nap time, art time, independent play time, TV time.
There was no strict schedule at Mommy’s house, so this simply did not work for my stepdaughter at our house. It wasn’t something any of us were able to get used to, and it only created more stress for all of us.
I decorated a big sticker chart and put it up on the fridge. I gave prizes for things like good manners, using the potty by herself, sleeping in her own bed, and trying new foods.
At the time, it seemed like a great idea! I thought I was doing what good parents are “supposed to do.” But forcing what didn’t come naturally only led to frustration for both of us.
I ultimately realized that none of this was working.
I feel sad remembering how hard I was trying. Putting this type of pressure on myself gradually made me bitter and resentful. And it backfired, pushing my stepdaughter away, rather than bringing us closer.
Here are three things helped me to find my way out of the urge to overcompensate:
1. Therapy and Anxiety Medication
I’m so grateful to my therapist for her continued help in working through the complicated emotions of being a stepmother. She’s helped me learn to catch myself when I feel the urge to try and control something I can’t.
Medication for anxiety has also made a noticeable difference in my tendency to worry, obsess over things I can’t control, and overcompensate.
2. Dr. Becky at Good Inside’s Podcast Episode, “Divorce Doesn’t Mess Kids Up”
Although Dr. Becky’s material is geared towards parents rather than stepparents, I find it useful as a stepmom. Even though my husband was not previously married, this episode really helped me.
Dr. Becky emphasized that the best thing we can do is make sure our kids don’t feel alone with their feelings. That was a lightbulb moment for me!
3. The Birth of My Son
The urge to overcompensate came to a screeching halt when I got pregnant. Pregnancy was rough on me, and I was no longer able to exert the same mental and physical energy.
Once my son was born, I suffered from postpartum anxiety. With no family in town to help, a husband working overtime, and a newborn with RSV, I was in survival mode.
Not only did overcompensating vanish, but I was doing the bare minimum with my stepdaughter, because that was all I could handle. I struggled to navigate simultaneously being a first-time mom and a sometimes-mom of two.
Taking pressure off of myself has paved the way for great joy.
These days, I’m happy to report that we are finding our balance again!
My son squeals with joy when my stepdaughter comes to the house. She lights up when she sees him. My heart swells when I hear them laughing or see them snuggling.
On the other side of that postpartum anxiety and stressful newborn stage has been great joy and connection. I can feel the bond with my stepdaughter naturally strengthening in a genuine, unforced way.
I am learning to lean into the honesty of it all. Validating her feelings when she’s sad that “We can’t all live in the same house.” Reminding myself that I am enough, worthy, and loved when I feel that “perfect stepmom” guilt sneaking up behind me.
Sometimes I wonder how things might have been different if I had just relaxed and not worried about trying to overcompensate. But ultimately, I believe I was meant to learn from this experience so that my relationship with my stepdaughter could grow stronger in these crucial years of her childhood and in this fun new season for our family.
So, fellow stepmom. If you are feeling that urge to be the perfect, fun, cool stepmom, I see you. If resentment and bitterness are creeping in, I feel you!
And I believe you will find the right balance in your own perfectly imperfect way.
P.S. If this resonated, you may also appreciate Kristen’s insight on her favorite part of sharing custody.