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On the Edge: The Problem of Stepmom Burnout

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I dare you not to look away from what I’m about to tell you. According to the US Census Bureau, 72% of second marriages with children don’t last 5 years. That means almost three-quarters of stepfamilies are heading for the gutter.

3 out of 4 stepmoms are in a situation so difficult it can’t be repaired, and that truly breaks my heart.

I feel for the men who thought they could finally get it right the second time around and give their kids a stable loving family. I ache for the women who found the man of their dreams but discovered that he came with baggage too heavy to carry.

Most of all, I’m sad for the kids who have to survive the repeated emotional carnage and who stop believing in love, in family, or in forever.

On the Edge: The Problem of Stepmom Burnout

Our families may not look like everyone else’s, but they count just as much.

We might have to rely on strategies that seem unconventional because they aren’t necessary for traditional nuclear families, but that’s okay—we’re solving problems they don’t have.

One of those problems is the high rate of emotional burnout among stepparents. This can come after years of court battles or from dealing with high-conflict co-parents. It can be the result of feeling stuck between a partner who wants you to be more involved and stepkids who want nothing to do with you. Whatever the cause, emotional exhaustion has real consequences including depression and adrenal fatigue.

Here are a few strategies for avoiding burnout you can consider. I’m a big fan of moving in micro-steps instead of trying to make big changes happen all at once. Think about some tiny ways in which you could embrace even one of these ideas.

Don’t let anyone tell you what your family is “supposed” to look like.

Forget the white picket fence and stop stressing over family photos that either do or don’t include everyone.

Every family is unique. The chances that your stepfamily will resemble anyone’s traditional nuclear family are slim to none. Once you accept that, it can start becoming the special, quirky, inimitable family it’s meant to be.

That means whether they call you “mama” or you choose to leave the house when they come over, it doesn’t need to look like any other family you’ve ever heard of for it to have just the right kind of love in it for all of you.

Examine your expectations and try to see them for what they are—roadblocks to your own fulfillment and happiness.

Let your partner do all the heavy lifting.

There’s no room for a good-cop/bad-cop approach in a stepfamily.

If you spend time with the stepkids when their biological parent isn’t there, your partner needs to make clear that your job is to remind them about the rules, and that’s all you should do. Leave the consequences for when Dad or Mom can deal with it.

If you have your own kids, each of you should parent your own children as you see fit. Don’t wear yourself out trying to push all your offspring through the same cookie-cutter; nobody says they have to come out looking the same!

Learn to nurture without mothering.

The problem with being any kind of “mother” is that it sets up an expectation for the child to respond to you in a certain way.

If you’re ready to “love your stepchild as a mother would,” that’s beautiful, but keep in mind: you might be subconsciously asking this child to help you feel more like a mother.

That’s too much pressure on a little person, and it sets them up to experience a “loyalty conflict” that might only surface several years down the road. It’s so much better to be loved as a caring adult who can be counted on to always have their best interests at heart.

This is easier said than done, but learn the steps of this dance and practice them slowly for as long as it takes.

Make yourself a priority.

If you’re like most stepmoms, at some point you’ll practically martyr yourself in the hope that everyone can see how hard you’re trying. You get an “A for effort” but remember: you’re no good to anyone if you burn out.

It’s easy to get carried away with life and lose yourself in your new family without even noticing. The more you can stay connected to yourself, the better everything will go for all of you.

Don’t feel guilty about taking time to do what’s important for you, to have some private space for yourself in your home, to see friends and pursue creative interests. These are all great ways to help prevent (or work through) stepmom burnout!

And don’t forget why you got into all this in the first place. Your relationship needs to be nurtured. A regular date night should be non-negotiable, even if it’s a walk around the block after supper.

Stamina is the name of the game for a stepmom who hopes to stay out of the statistical gutter. Self-care is not a luxury, it’s the very core of what I call the “Womanly Art of Raising Someone Else’s Kids.” Check out the Essential Stepmom podcast for weekly tips.

P.S. If you need someone to talk to about your stepmom burnout, our Stepmom Coach may be the perfect fit for you!

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