For some reason, when a stepmom seeks guidance from her friends, family, colleagues, etc., she’s often met with the same line after expressing her frustrations: “You knew what you were signing up for.”
And frankly, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. My parents divorced when I was 2, I’ve had 3 different stepmoms, a stepdad, and many step- and half-siblings. I was very familiar with stepfamily life when I became a stepmom, but I still had NO IDEA what I was signing up for when I started dating a man with kids.
It felt like a roller coaster. Some days were greater than I ever could have imagined in this little family, but there were trials, tribulations, and hurt that I also never could have imagined.
I was wholly unprepared when I first became a stepmom. These are 16 of the biggest things that surprised me when I became a stepmom.
16 Things that Surprised Me when I Became a Stepmom
The ex-wife would still be involved in my partner’s life.
Looking back, I should have realized his ex would still be involved in his life, but I was surprised when I found out they texted regularly.
I guess I had the idea that they were divorced and wouldn’t need to correspond anymore because custody exchanges happened at school, they had two separate homes, etc.
But in reality, there’s so much more to the communication than those simple logistics. I was truly ignorant about how much it takes to raise a child. They correspond about her illness, her schoolwork and what can be improved, and her birthday parties, just to start…
Being a stepmom is completely different from being a mom.
Similarly, when I first start dating my now-husband, I thought I would become the mom in our home. I would make dinner, help with homework, and give her maternal care and advice.
In those early days, I didn’t realize that the stepmom role was completely different and distinct from the mom role. It surprised me to learn my stepdaughter needed me in a completely different way than she needed her mom.
My stepchild would hold things against me more than my husband or her mom.
Just like she needs her mom in a different way, she’s going to love her mom in a different way. There’s a biological loyalty there I can’t replicate.
This can manifest in a few different ways, but the one that sticks out to me the most is when it includes punishment.
If Dad or Mom punishes her, she can get over it pretty quickly, but if I or her stepdad set a punishment, she holds a little bit of a grudge.
I thought I was becoming one of four parents in her life, and it surprised me to learn that I was a second-tier parent who wasn’t actually on the same level as Mom and Dad, at least in her eyes. She’s always going to be more forgiving with her original parents than she will be with her stepparents.
We wouldn’t be an instant family.
I had set a rule before finding my now-husband that I didn’t want to date single parents. But there was something so special about him that I broke my own rules.
The better I got to know him, the more intriguing the idea of becoming an instant family with him and his daughter became.
I loved kids, and kids loved me. I was organized and responsible. I knew I was up for the task of being a stepmom.
But little did I know, we wouldn’t become an instant family. It wasn’t that simple. There were loyalty binds, confusion, and getting to know each other, that had to come first.
The ex-wife wouldn’t accept me from the get-go.
I repeat: I loved kids, and kids loved me. I was organized and responsible. I knew I was up for the task of being a stepmom.
I was ready to relay those things, along with my respect for her role in my future-stepdaughter’s life and my pledge to never try to replace her or disrespect her, to the ex-wife.
But I was seriously surprised at how this process actually (usually) goes down. You’re not instantly accepted, embraced, and thanked for stepping up and into your stepchild’s life. In fact, there will be some serious skepticism long before the trust and respect are earned.
My partner’s family would be skeptical.
And speaking of skepticism… I was shocked to find my partner’s family was so standoffish, and maybe a little defensive, in the beginning.
After witnessing my partner’s heartbreak and turmoil from his divorce, his family was fiercely protective of him and didn’t want me to hurt him again.
I’ve never met a boyfriend’s mom who didn’t love me from the very start, so this took some major getting used to.
In hindsight, it all makes sense; I just wasn’t anticipating that kind of reaction.
I would be jealous and insecure of his ex-wife.
I also wasn’t expecting to feel so wildly insecure about my now-husband having been married before me. I knew she chose to end their relationship and that his conservative upbringing would have meant he never wanted a divorce, and that knowledge drove me wild.
Would he still choose me if he had the option or would he choose to stay married, even if he was less happy?
I would be jealous of his child.
Along those same lines, I wasn’t expecting to ever feel jealous of his daughter.
Any time it seemed like he chose her over me, it was a complex cocktail of emotions. Jealousy and insecurity topped with shame and embarrassment. What kind of adult is jealous of the attention a child is receiving from her father?
But after reading this blog post, 5 Things Stepmoms Should Stop Feeling Guilty About, by my friend Beth, I realized I wasn’t the only one who had felt that way, and there was so much comfort in that sisterhood.
Eventually, I’d grow into my role and my marriage, and we’d learn to put our marriage first in the family, but I still remember how taken aback I was in the beginning when I first recognized feelings of jealousy toward my stepdaughter.
I wouldn’t have an equal say.
As I mentioned earlier, I thought I was coming into this blended family as one of the four parents making decisions for our little one. I was eager to express my opinion and help formulate a game plan in the early days.
Call me naive, but it surprised me to learn that I didn’t have an equal say in this family unit. Mom and Dad would be the ultimate decision makers. If my husband and I disagreed in our home, he was the tie breaker.
That’s not to say that my stepdaughter doesn’t respect my authority as much in our home. This is solely in reference to overarching parenting decisions made at a high level (extracurricular activity registration, punishment for bad behavior, etc.).
The odds are completely stacked against us.
This is one thing I’m really thankful I didn’t know about before I became a stepmom. The divorce statistics for second marriages are abysmal.
I was shocked to learn that 67% of second marriages (or more, depending on which study you consult!) end in divorce.
Understanding the blended family statistics truly helped me to keep my priorities in line, my focus sharp, and my love abundant.
There would be a double standard between moms and stepmoms.
Even though I grew up with both a mom and stepmom, I never recognized the double standard that exists in the roles, which is why it took me by complete surprise when I encountered it in my own experience as a stepmom.
Moms can complain they’re ready for the kids to go back to school during winter break, but a stepmom should feel honored she gets to see her stepkids and stop complaining.
Moms can be late to school drop-off, but stepmoms have no excuse for tardiness (I mean, really, what is she teaching those children?!).
Society as a whole discredits stepmoms while simultaneously holding them to a higher standard than a “real mom.”
I would worry about going back to court.
I struggle to openly admit this, but I have often felt as if I’m walking on eggshells. I don’t want to wake the sleeping beast that is the threat of child custody court.
Are we doing everything right? Is my stepdaughter happy and healthy in our care? Has anything substantially changed that would warrant a change to our custody agreement? Is the ex-wife showing any signs of discontent?
I had no idea that anticipating and stressing about child custody proceedings would be a regular part of my life as a stepmom. I’m not sure anyone could have warned me or prepared me for that strange, sad reality.
We wouldn’t be able to move away.
As a single woman with a successful career, it never crossed my mind when I began dating a single father who shares custody, that it meant our roots would be planted in Dallas until his daughter turned 18.
Looking back, I wouldn’t change my decision to date him (and then marry him, swoon!) but I still remember the day that the custody agreement location restriction actually registered in my mind.
I wasn’t looking to move, but the reality that I couldn’t (and because of my new husband’s first marriage, to boot) was enough to make it hard to catch my breath for a few minutes.
I would feel lost and confused & my friends and family wouldn’t be able to help.
I have always sought advice and guidance from my older sister, my mom, and a couple of friends from college, but when it came to blended family, stepmom-specific, and especially second wife concerns, my always encouraging support system couldn’t help.
They had never experienced any of the trials I was facing, and often, the feedback I got was “Honestly, I don’t know how you do it.” or “I could never be a stepmom.”
The lack of support made an already overwhelming role feel even more isolating and confusing.
I would find the world’s greatest support system online.
But little did I know, I would join an online stepmom support group, and everything would change.
The friends I have met who just get it, the advice I have received, and the community I have built, have saved my marriage and my sanity.
I am better equipped to tackle any blended family challenge that comes my way, and even on the hard days, I have the world’s greatest friends there to encourage and guide me.
I could feel SO strongly for a child I didn’t birth.
And last, but certainly not least, after becoming a stepmom, I learned that you can love a child who isn’t biologically yours with an inexplicable, fierce passion.
The admiration, natural inclination to protect, and general sense of pride I feel toward my stepdaughter are far more intense than I ever imagined I could feel for someone else’s child.
Getting to be her stepmom is a true honor and privilege.
If I would have had a crystal ball…
If I could go back and tell a younger me about all of these lessons, I don’t think I would. Every lesson I have learned has taught me, and each surprise I’ve encountered along the way has made me stronger.
Stepmomming is far more complicated, emotional, and challenging than I thought it would be. I definitely had no idea the wild, crazy, beautiful life I was signing up for.
P.S. This all reminds me of the most valuable stepmom lessons I’ve learned.